Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Aw Pair

So here’s another handful o’landfill rescued from the storage-room floor.

If you remember the introduction to an earlier installment, I gave my son a box of hundreds of cards to teach him the value of a dollar and the valuelessness of trading cards. Looking at these cards has made me wonder, WHAT SORT OF FATHER AM I? WHAT DID THE BOY EVER DO TO DESERVE THIS?

While I figure out how I’m going to answer those questions before the grand jury, onward.

Making a card of a poster of a picture of a player reminds me of one of those parlor-trick pictures where Barack Obama is sitting in a rocking-chair by a fireplace reading a magazine with a cover showing Barack Obama sitting in a rocking-chair by a fireplace reading a magazine with a cover showing Barack Obama sitting in a rocking-chair by a fireplace reading a magazine with a cover showing Barack Obama sitting in a rocking-chair by a fireplace reading a magazine with a cover showing Barack Obama sitting in a rocking-chair by a fireplace reading a magazine with a cover showing … you get the idea. It’s a flavor of bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping, but I can’t tell whether it’s butterscotch or sarsaparilla.

The twilight of the draft-pick-card era actually produced some really nice cards. The problem was that the players on the cards continued to be steaming dung piles. Consider stonemason Tim Burroughs. According to his 1992 Star Pics card, Burroughs’ strengths were rebounding and scoring (not shooting) within 15 feet. According to his card, his weaknesses were shooting beyond 15 feet. According to pro-basketball-reference.com, Tim Burroughs had an NBA career of null, so maybe 15 feet was being optimistic, like when they say that the Decemberists create cerebral folk-rock when all they do is rewrite America songs with polysyllabic words. Discovering that Burroughs’ nickname was “T-Rock” was icing on the cake.

Designing trading cards has got to get old. I mean, you’ve got a box, and it’s small, and it’s got to hold a picture, a team name, a player name, a brand name, and a position. If it doesn’t contain all those elements in the right amounts suddenly you're the Ayn Rand of trading-card designers. And you need eight different designs for every set. I can totally understand why some of these frustrated artistes throw up their hands and say, “You want a name? Fine; there’s a name. Oh, you want a first name? Tough tinkles. You want a team logo? There. Nice big team logo for you, ya capitalist pig. A product logo? There’s your flippin’ product logo.” I absolutely get it. But you know, every card that uses a massive first name or a huge last name as a design element has looked stupid – even when it halfway makes sense, like it does with this Bruce Armstrong card from the 1992 SkyBox Impact football set. Check out the guns … Arm-strong … get it? Ha ha. I look at cards like this and whisper a prayer of thanks that they peaked too soon for LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Still, making a good-looking trading card is not hard. Even David Lipscomb College, the college with “tiny” permanently grafted in front of its name, could pull it off, for crissakes. The nicest thing about these cards is that they have the player's parents' names on the back, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Morey Joseph." All player cards should have this information. And how often they have meat loaf for supper.

I saw two-thirds of Ben Coleman’s games with the Bucks, and I can tell you for certain that the rock (as opposed to T-Rock) never, ever behaved like that when it was in his hands.

Repeat after me: Nothing good can come of a card showing a hockey player in a tuxedo holding a vase.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I really like the Canadian Football League. Actually, I just plain like Canada. It’s logical and doesn’t make me choose between a candidate named “Mitt” and a candidate named “Barack[1],” and it’s like that for everything except Canadian football, which plays like it sprung fully realized from the cleaved forehead of the Ways and Means Committee.

Canadian football is bizarre in ways that a sixer of Old Vienna can’t begin to explain. For instance, there’s a 50-yard line on either side of midfield. A 110-yard field? Why not make the Canadian yard 40 inches and put 50 of those yards on either side of the field? Also, the field is wider and the end zone is the size of a Walmart Supercenter. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the end zones are open in most CFL stadia -- more opportunities to get the breezes -- but it also means the goalposts are on the goal line. That gives all the kickers Tom Dempsey range, and I suppose justifies the rule where a team gets one point if they miss a field goal, even though teams don’t want those points. They’d rather kick a ball out-of-bounds at the five than get a point for booting a ball out of the end zone.

Twelve men on a side makes sense; you can drink a beer per player with no leftovers. The everyone-in-motion thing also has more internal logic than the current American-football rules. Why not let two guys move at the same time? It’s not like the coaches and talent can’t adjust. And who wouldn’t love to see what Randy Moss could have done with a running start? Three downs instead of four means more kicking, and as you’ve already seen, the CFL loves kicking like Beyonce loves chain mail.

All this nonconformist stuff makes the CFL eminently entertaining but totally Canadian, so there’s no reason to export it to the United States. We’re not talking Crown Royal or the Barenaked Ladies here. However, because it is a sport that remotely resembles football, the CFL is the continual subject of one or another boneheaded export schemes.

There were the American cable-TV broadcasts in the 1970s, noteworthy for the halftime entertainment: Alex Karras roaming the stands talking to women. Then there was the American expansion of the 1990s. It made more sense than the Professional Spring Football League, but only in an abstract sense. The CFL plays better when you know that a williwaw is going to come screaming through the Canadian-Tire-parking-lot-sized end zone at 10:21 of the third quarter and decapitate Ken-Yon Rambo. There were also no toques in Shreveport in August.

The Handful O’Landfill era contained CFL-related boneheadedness, though let it be said that through most of those years a Canadian company called Jogo made CFL cards, and did fine. Nothing that grabbed you by the tonsils, but no football-card-and-candy-cane combos, either.

However, in 1991 L.A. Raiders draftee Raghib “Rocket” Ismail didn’t like the numbers the NFL was throwing his way and signed with the CFL’s Toronto (Countless Screaming) Argonauts[2]. This made sense for Ismail, since he was the least NFL-ready Heisman winner since Gerhard Schwedes. But Ismail was the Lower-48 hook marketers were looking for to open the floodgates and let the CFL crud come screaming down.

The lead screamer was AW (as in "All World") Sports. Hailing from the CFL hotbed of Brea, Calif., AW dropped $87.50 and a side of poutine[3] for a CFL license, quickly signed Ismail to an endorsement deal, and built a set around him.

When I say AW Sports built a set around him, that’s exactly what I mean. The 110-card set contained five cards of Ismail, plus a half-dozen cards of people peripherally associated with Ismail, like Toronto owner Bruce MacNeill and semi-recognizable name Pinball Clemons, in addition to a “Legends” subset that was strictly for south-of-the-border consumption, in that every player pictured (except for Toronto Argonaut and former Notre Damer Tom Clements) made his name with American fans in the National Football League. Otherwise the set was well-balanced if a botch aesthetically; if Amy Winehouse ever designed a CFL football set exclusively for Pamida, this is what they'd look like.

The AW set hit the U.S. market the way the Red River hits Grand Forks in April. Only the devastation was restricted to collectors.

After a Facebook-IPO-like flurry of interest the set plummeted like an Alouette.[4] The market reaffirmed the all-American virtue of projectile-vomiting anything threateningly foreign – like American-made cards of mostly American American-football players who play a few hundred miles north of here.

AW got a second year out of its Ismail deal before riding off into the sunset, too soon for the Las Vegas Outlaws and Shreveport Pirates. And Ismail eventually evolved into a decent if minute NFL wide receiver.

If timing is everything AW Sports had nothing. And if star power is everything, AW had Pete Giftopoulis. The times were brutal that way.


On the other hand, I feel eminently reassured and fortunate to be living in a world where someone named "Joey Knuckles" is spinning a wrench at the absolute highest levels of wrench-spinning.

Watch for another handful in a couple of weeks.

[1] It's not really a name thing. In Wisconsin we have a recall race between a candidate named “Scott Walker” and a candidate named “Tom Barrett,” and they’re a couple of dingleberries.
[2] Don’t you love teams with names derived from They Might Be Giants songs? When the NFL expands and creates the L.A. Blue Canaries in the Window By The Lightswitch, that’s the day I die with a smile on my face.

[3] I don’t understand why central Wisconsin isn’t all over poutine – brown gravy over French fries and cheese curds. The curds are 13 miles down the road, the potatoes five. The gravy we can figure out. I could see poutine crushing it at Riverfront Rendezvous. Especially when you chase it with a funnel cake.
[4] Per Red Smith’s obit of football coach Peahead Walker: “On his first evening in [Montreal] he dined with the football team’s owner and his wife. ‘By the way,’ he asked between the escargots and boeuf fondue bourguingnon, ‘what’s an alouette?’ “A bird, the owner’s wife told him. ‘The most ferocious of birds, king of the skies. It attacks and drives off hawks, shrikes, the eagle, anything that flies.’ It was two years, Peahead confessed later, before he learned the truth. When he did, he thought back to his dressing-room orations when he wanted to stir his warriors to a peak of savage ferocity. ‘Remember,’ he would cry, appealing to their pride, ‘remember – you’re alouettes!’”

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