In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m Pro-Life; I love the cereal and the board game. But I’m a purist; I have no truck with Maple Life or Cinnamon Life or the multiple bloated spinoffs of The Game of Life, with their flashing lights and electronic spinners and debit cards and snowboarders (really, snowboarders? In The Game of Life? Is nothing sacred?). Give me the white-box Life that Mikey likes and the original version of The Game of Life, the Wonder Bread of board games, with its hand-powered carousel spinner in the middle and its soft plastic convertibles filled with soft-plastic-pushpin families.
There were two basic tracks you could take in The Game of Life. The short route took you straight from high school to a tricked-out plastic convertible. It was the Milton Bradley* approximation of drug dealing, with as many pitfalls along the way. The long route required more spins of the wheel to get you to the American Dream – a frothy concoction of spouse, children, college, home in the suburbs, career, and all the play money you can stuff in a suitcase – but it was worth it, because hard work, grinding your way down the Road of Life without ever dreaming of skipping ahead three spaces, is the way to get what you want in America. And not drug dealing. And certainly not spending your rainy Saturday afternoons playing a silly board game when you could be inventing The Twitter or something.
I bring this up in the context of trading cards because just like in The Game Of Life, in the Life of Game are two tracks pro athletes can take to get to the soft plastic convertible of their dreams. The fast track is the football-basketball track, where players spend several months between high school and the pros in a licensed-apparel-merchandising operation called “college.” The roundabout path is the hockey-baseball track, where smooth-faced boys are sent on a hobbit-like quest that routes them through Visalia and Wilkes-Barre and spits them out at the other end pot-bellied and scarred and looking like a degenerate Bob Probert (who you probably always thought of as the degenerate model).
Otherwise, the best these sets have to offer is one semi-cup-of-coffee guy (Mike Busby), a mess of busts like Al Shirley, Earl Cunningham, Greg Blosser, and Tyrone Hill who had success written all over them until they were discovered by the curveball or the rotator cuff, and then an ever larger mess of never-weres. And given that there are 55 player cards spread over two years, and we’ve only named 14 names, there’s lots of never-weres in these sets.
That’s the point – actually, two points. The points are that in the overheated atmosphere of the trading-card universe circa 1989 people went gaga over the first Bo Dodson card, and that learned baseball people didn’t immediately peg Bo Dodson as just another slow-swinging, heavy-legged first baseman who actually played Bat, and played it no better than scores of others who could play other positions besides.
People who bought the Little Sun high-school-prospects sets were the ultimate betters-on-the-come of their day. They were laying a smallish sum of money on the possibility that one player out of 25 or so would hit the big time, and create a collectible worth far more than the price of entry.
They almost got it right. One of the players in one of the two sets posted Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, pharmaceuticals notwithstanding. At last glance, the Little Sun Ramirez was going for around $10, and the rest of the set was fetching a couple of bucks. The combined value of all the cards about equals the set’s issue price, meaning that 20 years of investing and hoarding and waiting and hoping and leafing through college brochures has generated a net return of nil.
That’s not bad for the card business, but remember: Your results may vary. That’s life. And life is not a game. Or a breakfast cereal.
*Milton Bradley the game manufacturer, not Milton Bradley the malcontent. They’re easy to tell apart: One is all about games, and the other wants nothing to do with games. Neither has had anything to do with drug dealing, as far as we can tell. And we’ll leave it at that.