Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Refuse To Join Any Club That Would Have Anthony Dilweg As A Member

First, let me dispatch a nasty bit of business. The NFL Quarterback Club was not formed to address a looming shortage of Bubby Brister cards. It was formed because Bernie Kosar’s wife, Babette, threatened Bernie with divorce if he didn’t get the damn thing put together (and then she went and divorced him anyway, because all he got from Nevin Shapiro was a photo op with Donna Shalala).

Actually, it’s pretty obvious why the QB Club burst into existence like a dwarf star (which, yes, could refer to Will.I.Am). It burst because the trading-card and memorabilia biz was blowing up like Alderaan, and the guys who ostensibly made it all possible weren’t getting nearly enough of the proceeds. And yes, we’re talking about you, Ken O’Brien, Jim Harbaugh, Boomer Esiason, Chris Miller, and the aforementioned Bubby.

Okay, better QBs than that traipsed through the QB Club. I have record of John Elway, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Jim Everett, Randall Cunningham, Troy Aikman, and Warren Moon doing hard time in the club, but unsurprisingly not Joe Montana, if my definitive source on the topic, my QB Club T-shirt, can be trusted.

(This makes total sense, as Joe Montana was renowned even during his playing days as a money-hungry free-ranger who would take a check from anything, even a soul-sucking one-eyed alien vampire zombie – or, more outrageously, Upper Deck's Richard McWilliam.)

The QB Club was a self-contained marketing force, neither league-born nor players’-association-spawned, meant to glorify, and in the process make money for, pro football’s most elite marquee players: its quarterbacks.

That was how the QBs saw it, anyway. The rest of the world looked at the club’s roster and said, “Hmmm … Dan McGwire. Nascent Storage Wars guest star. Twice voted most likely to be named golf pro at the Snoqualmie Country Club before the age of 30.” The word “pass” has double meaning for many members of the Quarterback Club.

Part of the reason for the disconnect was the QB Club’s membership requirements. Initially at least you had to be a National Football League quarterback. It never said anything about being good, or mobile, or articulate, or having a clean driving record, or not being pulled in the second half in favor of Stan Gelbaugh.

Oh, and one more thing: You had to look good in zebra-striped shorts. I had forgotten about this until I saw an old clip of Ken O’Brien at the QB Challenge, the club’s skills competition that served as its Battle of the Network Stars. The club had a uniform consisting of black-and-white-striped cutoff Zubaz (and if you don’t remember Zubaz, God bless you), I guess because they go with any jersey and make your legs look like they’re being tapped for rubber. And nothing helps you nail bull’s-eyes on moving golf carts like having zebra torsos attached to your feet.

As scripted reality TV goes it was no Cupcake Wars, and it was even less impressive in person. I went to one in Hawaii and lasted about 15 minutes before walking out. Stacey O’Brien was wearing a T-shirt, for crying out loud, and Bubby Brister was overthrowing 20-foot-tall targets 10 yards downfield. As a lovely parting gift I got a pair of tentlike Zubaz and, not finding Gilbert Brown in the vicinity, regifted them to a sanitation receptacle. Several years later the resort was destroyed in a hurricane. I’m pretty sure it was retribution.

The first time the QB Club showed up in football cards was in 1991, when they appeared in an Upper Deck-produced set distributed by Domino’s Pizza.

There was some serious want on this set at the time. Dealers were buying stacks of Domino’s cheese pizzas, snabbing the cards and then ditching the pizzas – never a bad idea – and delivery drivers were being offered $20 or more for the cards that came in the pizza boxes, even though ultimately the pepperoncini were more collectible.

The Domino’s set opened the door for a storm surge of special sets and subsets featuring the QB Club, and once that door was opened even Aaron Gibson didn’t have enough avoirdupois to hold it shut. The 1994 battle between the NFL and the players’ association over licensing money turned the surge into a tsunami. The QB Club even began to admit non-QBs who smelled the money: Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith. Basically any non-quarterback who could dance the fox trot and audition for a Just For Men ad was in.

Trading-card companies that had contracted with the QB Club had to find unique ways to fulfill their obligations. Third-party sets like the inimitable King-B Jerky Stuff discs were custom-made for the QB Club, as were precious-metal medallions and metal cards. (That’s why God made the airbrush.) Even so, most of the QB Club’s on-card appearances were in chase sets. The cries of, “Wow -- David Klingler!” still resonate in the space between my ears.

The battle over licensing and the rapid decline of the card business hastened the development of the one semi-legitimate spawn of the Quarterback Club: video games. I’m not going to say much about the long-running series of GameBoy and N64 games featuring the QB Club because they’re not funny, other than to comment how much a young Brett Favre resembles Squirtle.

The QB Club still lives in a much-diminished capacity, like Chad Ochocinco, and every now and then they dust off the Quarterback Challenge and the bull’s-eyes on golf carts. Personally I think it’s time for another revival. Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Jason Campbell slinging fastballs at 10-foot-square targets 20 yards downfield? Now that’s entertainment.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

... And A Hint Of Mint

Now the secret can be told.

You want to know why Pinnacle Brands put cards in cans, and inside other cards, and made giant cards and puffy cards and image-changing cards and a multitude of other wacky-ass projects long after the market for these products, such as it was, had evaporated like lighter fluid on a tweed jacket?
The company was trying to go public.
Big surprise, I know, but Pinnacle was underwritten by the Bass Brothers. Now, the Bass Brothers have to be differentiated from the Koch Brothers, who made their money improving state forests by adding oil-and-gas pipelines, and the Blues Brothers, who drove a 1974 Dodge Monaco off the Bridge to Nowhere.
The Bass Brothers are mega-rich brothers from Texas who spend money to make money to spend more money to make more money.
It's like Monty Python’s Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things, only the pillows are fluffier.
The Bass Brothers started pumping money into Pinnacle when it was still headquartered in suburban New York and the CEO was a prototypical suburban New York CEO named Dan Shedrick.
My enduring image of Dan Shedrick is him screaming into his cell phone (a rarity at that time) from a broken-down bus in the South Bronx in an attempt to get another bus to ferry a brace of trading-card writers to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
“Don’t you know who I am?” he screamed into the phone. “I’m Dan Shedrick!”
The person on the other end didn’t know and apparently wasn’t impressed. The relief bus came after a brief five-muggings wait, in time for the writers to have lunch with Martha Stewart (before she was Martha Stewart) in the heavily fortified federal courthouse catty-corner from Yankee Stadium, and proceed under armed guard to the stadium, where Jack McDowell pitched and several small riots broke out, to the delight of all.
During the game, I sat with a thinly veiled equity-capitalist representing the Bass Brothers and tried to open his mind to the secrets of the trading-card industry. The one he was having the most trouble with is that if you have a successful trading-card product, the next year you have to make less of it.
That was evidently a concept foreign to equity-capital-land. Or maybe it was the veil.
Fast forward several years, and Pinnacle has relocated to Dallas, Dan Shedrick has been given a golden parachute and booted out of the cargo bay of an airborne C-130, and the Bass Brothers figure the way to get this particular goose to lay more golden eggs is to sell goose stock. However, it’s a way of life on the Bass Brothers’ goose farm to fatten the goose, fois gras style, before the parceling out of goose pieces. And the way they decided to fatten the goose was to make more trading cards.
Remember the conversation I had with the equity capitalist? Pinnacle didn’t. It rushed 50-some products to market, cut back the chase, saw numerous sets die ugly deaths (as god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly), and took back the carcasses. Within 18 months the Bass Brothers pulled out and the company was liquidated.
The reason I tell this little Brothers Grimm economic tale is because there’s a commonality between this tale and the current economic mélange. That commonality would be gold.
We’re not talking gaudy gold foil here (though Pinnacle loved gold foil like Ford owners love static-cling decals of Calvin peeing on Chevy logos). We’re talking the real thing, baby, that $3,000-an-ounce hard currency that has tattooed love children from Tallahassee to Tonopah melting down their navel rings.
Pinnacle Mint Collection (could there be any other name?) was one more effort on Pinnacle’s part to push the collectiblity thing to its illogical limits.
Baseball cards, as anyone with a sense of perspective knows, have no intrinsic value unless you are lost on a desert in the middle of the ocean, it’s dark, you’re cold and starving and have only a raw fish, some matches, and a couple of packs of Pinnacle Prime for subsistence.
 Not to belabor the economic thing, but baseball cards are a lot like paper money in that regard. If U.S. Grant looked more like Brian Wilson we might be even closer to the precipice than we are now.
The clear and present danger with baseball cards (but not so much with paper money, curiously) was that someday collectors would wake up and say, “My God, they’re just pictures on cardboard,” and would arise as one and storm from their parents’ basements, only to find they couldn’t fit through the door. EMTs everywhere were dreading that one.
Pinnacle tried to leapfrog that concern by creating sets with more intrinsic value (or at the very least, artificially enhanced extrinsic value) than is normally found in a Bubby Brister photograph. It addressed scarcity sledgehammer fashion with its “Dare to Tear” Zenith sets, and it addressed value roughly the same way with Pinnacle Mint Collection.
The idea with Pinnacle Mint Collection was to offer levels of cards in conjunction with levels of coins. I know because it was partly my idea.
Looking at the confidential configuration for 1996-97 Pinnacle Mint Collection Hockey (it wasn't just a hockey thing; Pinnacle ran this across all the sports for which it had licenses – football, baseball, hockey, and --- oooh, yeah -- NASCAR), the base set consisted of 30 regular cards and 30 die-cut cards, both printed on extra-thick 24-point stock, and 30 brass coins. Cards and coins were packed two coins and three cards to a pack for $3.99, with a $2.49 pre-price pack consisting of one coin and two cards.
Chase cards were included once every 11 packs, with chase coins appearing once every 14 packs. Chase cards consisted of a silver parallel that appeared one every 15 packs, and a gold parallel that appeared one every 48 packs – once every three boxes.
Nickel-silver coins appeared less than once per box, gold-plated coins appeared every three boxes, and the real value in the product, the solid-silver and solid-gold coins, appeared at a rate of never.
Okay, it wasn't never. First it was TBD, then it was one in 2,300 packs for the silver coins (inserted as redemption cards, to avoid the scourge of pack-weighing) and one in 25,000 hobby packs for the gold coins. Either way it turned out to be almost never, because Pinnacle Mint Collection released in mid-May, smack in the middle of Hockey Apathy Days and hot on the heels of  Zenith Hockey and Leaf Preferred Hockey and Leaf Limited Hockey and the squillion other hockey releases from Upper Deck, Topps and Fleer, and promptly sunk to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
Okay, Mint Collection didn't sink to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But it's a thought. It's actually a quite pleasant thought to imagine a superfreighter carrying Pinnacle Mint Collection Hockey coins, just the silver and gold ones sil vous plait, being shanghaied by pirates in the doldrums west of Manila and never reaching its destination in the Far East, where the coins were to be exchanged for spices, rare silks, and consumer electronics. In the struggle for control of the ship its precious cargo, scores of precious-metal coins of Ed Belfour and Jaromir Jagr, is dumped overboard, and the coins drift to the deep, deep bottom, where they slumber awaiting their rediscovery by some intrepid future treasure-hunter.
It's quite the reverie, but c'est vrai. The silver and gold coins show up on eBay occasionally, priced from the couple hundreds to the low thousands – more these days.
There's not much more to say about the set than that. The cards were placeholders, the images on the coins resembled the players in the same way that vodka approximates gin or Mitt Romney approximates a presidential candidate (President Mitt – really?), and the whole product came off more contrived than Season Two of Bachelor Pad, though it undoubtedly has appeal to hard-money hoarders still steamed at FDR for taking us off the gold standard. William Jennings Bryan would have hated this set.

Even so, in a very real way Mint Collection coins were the most valuable thing produced by Pinnacle – except for the memories. A Mint Collection coin versus the sight of a pre-pen Martha Stewart in a baseball-seamed minidress causing a riot in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium on opening day?
No contest. Gimme the ching, toots.