Monday, January 30, 2012

A Little Sun In A Little Sky

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).

Because of that maybe we owe Little Sun a debt of gratitude for its two years of high-school baseball prospects sets. Without them, how would we know that major-league malcontent Tyler Houston, instead of sporting a Pal Smurch autograph-model sneer, once sported … well, a high-school-level sneer? Or that the most famous denizen of the Little Sun high-school-prospects sets, Manny Ramirez, once wore clothes that fit and did not have hair that could double as an abacus?

Ramirez is the biggest name in these sets, but there are others. Ryan Klesko was a free-swinging free spirit who got old overnight and wound down his career in San Diego, in a park worse than Yosemite for his left-handed power stroke. Cliff Floyd had a long, decent career and a well-earned rep as a nice guy, but injuries turned him into John Mayberry Lite instead of Manny minus his 150-car freight train of baggage. Mike Sweeney hit almost .300 over a 15-year career as a DH and pinch-hitter, but had the misfortune to spend most of that career with teams worse than a Mitt Romney attack ad. Benji Gil took the good-field/no-hit shortstop paradigm in a whole ‘nother direction with a swing borrowed from Billy Ashley. Jimmy Haynes and Shawn Estes sported great arms and less feel for pitching than Newt Gingrich has for nuance. Andy Fox hung around the majors for 15 years, and I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because his name was so short that GMs glanced right over it on cutdown day, never realizing until June that their 25-man roster actually contained 26 players. Not that it mattered.

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.

In Little Sun’s defense, 1989 was a crapshoot year for major-league talent. Tyler Houston went second overall in ’89, right after Ben McDonald; Frank Thomas went seventh. Mo Vaughn went 23rd, in between Tom Goodwin and Alan Zinter. The first round was conspicuously short on all-around players; it favored the freaks, the guys with one preternaturally immense foot of a skill, whether it was throwing a fastball (Jeff Juden, Kiki Jones), hitting with power (Cunningham, Thomas and Vaughn), running the bases (Goodwin), or catching the ball (Charles Johnson, Brent Mayne). It was a decent year for setup guys and backup catchers. By contrast, the 1990 draft was about the all-arounders, led by Chipper Jones. These things go in cycles, but the 1989-90 cycles were more violent than Tie Domi on Five-Hour Energy. With both legs covered in poison ivy.

Players aside, there’s not much to say about these cards. They were sold only as complete sets, so you’re either in on the concept or not. Save for a psychotropic cover card, designs are Walmart assemble-your-own minimalist as opposed to Scandinavian design, contact paper instead of woodgrain. Backs are blah-on-blah, even by the forgiving standards of late-‘80s sub-major-league sets – but, hey, design is overhead. At least the snap-latch plastic case, sealed with the classic Little Sun “LS,” is nice.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Too bad they didn't have these when I was in high school.