Friday, June 29, 2012

Ansgar, Sydner, Brickowski, and Mokeski: The Four Dorksmen of the Apocalypse

Still going through that box of random cards and finding things to write about. If Tom Robbins can write Still Life With Woodpecker while staring at a pack of Camels, surely a box of cards has to be worth a couple thousand more words.

One of the best back-to-the-future developments of the handful o’landfill era was the re-addition of middle names to the backs of trading cards. It seems so old-hat now, so 20th century that you couldn’t have Thabo Sefolosha’s middle name[1] within a couple of clicks, but even with the lens of retrospection affixed firmly to our unibrow it’s hard to imagine the thrill of a ‘90s child to learn Christian Welp’s middle name, and upon learning, to reflect that it’s so much more powerful than the middle names of all the other clumsy white seven-foot centers. Paul Mokeski cowered before the awesome name of Ansgar. Somewhere Richard Wagner is nodding his blond-pigtailed head in approval.[2]

“University of Hawaii slotback Jeff Sydner offers all the versatility of Keith Byars in a smaller package,” the back of this 1990 Upper Deck football card reads. The problem with that is that no one wanted all the versatility of Keith Byars in a smaller package in 1990. They wanted all the versatility of Keith Byars in a Keith Byars-sized package, minimum. In fact, the main attraction of Keith Byars was the, ahem, size of the package.

The Upper Deck folks never took this statement to its logical conclusion[3]. Imagine if someone offered all the versatility of B.J. Raji in a smaller package. If B.J. Raji was 5-11 and 170, the fact that he had could play inside and outside on the defensive line would be far overshadowed by the fact that he was the size of Pinball Clemons yet slower than Ted Washington.

Now, if Jeff Sydner had been a car, things might have been different. He could have been the Mini Cooper to Byars’ Dodge Challenger. But there’s no upside in smaller football players being able to do things bigger football players can do. It eventually gets them crushed.

Horses for courses, they say, and it is absolutely true that the No. 1 thing collectors of bowling cards wanted on a bowling card was a picture of a bowler staring at an End of the Trail statue while standing next to his wife, who is holding his young child while looking remarkably like Tracy Austin, and waiting to be interviewed by Chris Schenkel. Considering the alternatives – armpit follow-through, pre-roll pondering, over-the-hand-dryer hovering – they’re probably right. The fact that this is the antithesis of what would make a great Topps WCW Nitro card[4] or a Yo! MTV Raps card is one of the things that makes this era of trading cards so reminiscent of a cluster migraine.

Darrell Sherman is so obviously hiding something under his hat … but what? My guess is Jose Altuve.

Every team has a player or player that so obviously embodies that team that it makes you wonder whether a negatively transmogrified version of the player somehow begat the team, and not the other way around.

You can prove this to yourself. Close your eyes. Imagine a team, and then picture an archetypal player in the uniform of that team.

The first team I think of is the Boston Celtics and the first player I think of is Kevin McHale. The absurd way he stuck out his chest says “Celtics” to me more than a million floppy Rajon Rondo drives or Bill Russell hook shots. Then it’s Red Sox: Ted Williams edges out Dustin Pedroia. Twins: Rod Carew over Kirby Puckett. 49ers: Joe Montana over Steve Young. Packers: Forrest Gregg, in the mud. Astros: Jeff Bagwell, wearing the terminal section of the Keystone XL pipeline on his elbow. Oilers: Tie between Warren Moon and Earl Campbell. I could do this all day.

The unfortunate thing for the Bucks is that when I work my way down to the Cream City I see the embodiment of Milwaukee basketball in Brad Lohaus, the whitest of all the pale pivots ever to wear the home green-and-various-unattractive-shades[5]. These large white shadows shared several essential qualities: They had a Big Ten (or at least a Midwestern) upbringing, their Nike Air Assaults had soles of lead, they were blond or buzz-cut, they had a European surname, and given the choice between hip-checking Moses Malone and jump-shooting, they planted themselves behind the arc every damn time.

The line started with Dick Cunningham and included Kent Benson, Randy Breuer, Jack Sikma, Paul Mokeski, Frank Brickowski, Joe Wolf, Joel Pryzbilla, Jamie Feick, Jon Leuer, Jared Reiner, and Lohaus[6]. But Lohaus was the most blond, corn-fed, and contact-shy of the bunch.[7]

Other teams have this problem. The archetypal Tampa Bay Buccaneer is Vinny Testaverde -- and not just Vinny Testaverde, but Vinny Testaverde trying to escape a collapsing pocket while wearing a uni the color of Sunny D. It's just that I have this feeling that Brad Lohaus is not only the Bucks' past but its future. Miles Plumlee and Tyler Zeller may not have been drafted by the green-and-various-unattractive-shades last night, but that doesn't mean they won't eventually be wearing Milwaukee colors.

Instead of blaming Bud Selig for his problems, Pete Rose needs to put the pile-driver on Swede Risberg. The Black Sox really scotched it for gambling in baseball.

I’m not saying that baseball players ought to gamble on games, nor am I saying it’s all right for Michael Jordan to run a sports book the size of Harrah’s Tahoe. The fact that more than any other game baseball is about individual performances aggregated into a team score means there are more ways for a player to influence a baseball game, especially if that player happens to be a pitcher. A starting pitcher looking to dump a game can be counted on for six runs minimum before the hook comes. A cleanup-hitting first baseman can let in a couple for the other team and strand a couple for his own team without breaking a sweat. A manager can pinch-hit the .180 hitter and leave the .280 guy on the bench. But I really don’t think that’s what motivates baseball’s raging anti-gambling attitude. I think it’s the fact that gambling queered a World Series at least once … and here is where I’m supposed to say, “and it took baseball years to recover fans’ trust,” only it didn’t happen that way, because Babe Ruth started hitting home runs and the fans were back, bringing friends, within three years.

It’s like John Edwards, who slept and swaggered his way through the New South and now feels he has to spend the rest of his life trying to convince people that he really is an uptight dude. Because gamblers got to some baseball players 100 years ago baseball is by-god determined it should never happen again, so it keeps moles on both sides of the dollar while putting its players through drug testing less rigorous than what they give the parcel-tossers at the South Philadelphia post office.

Baseball was burned on gambling so it’s draconian on gambling[8]. Football was never traumatized as a child, so it suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for a year for doing essentially what Pete Rose did, then elected Hornung to the Hall of Fame right on time, though Karras was arguably the more qualified candidate.[9]

The unfortunate thing for Pete Rose is that the will-they-ever-let-a-gambler-in question has been supplanted by the will-they-ever-let-a-juicer-in question, though last I checked, Rose is still cranking out autographed baseballs for $75 a pop in Vegas.

All this time I thought Super Laguna was an obscure-yet-influential proto-ska-punk band. Shows you how wrong a guy can be.

[1] Patrick, silly.
[2] I also find it fascinating that Welp was traded for Uwe Blab. I had always wondered where the inspiration for the Nazr Mohammed-for-Primoz Brezsec trade came from.
[3] And why should they? It was just a Jeff Sydnar card.
[4] Of Lex Luger, preferably.
[5] Including red, which made Toby Kimball look like a Christmas tree topped with a cantaloupe, and purple, which made Larry Krystkowiak look like Sheena Easton, minus the leg-warmers.
[6] The 1988 Milwaukee Bucks roster included Breuer, Sikma, Mokeski, and Dave Hoppen, and finished 19th in the league in rebounding, though they were 11th in three-pointers made. Ah, but they remedied this situation in 1989: They got Fred Roberts.
[7] Near-qualifiers: Roberts, Keith Van Horn, David Meyers, Zaza Pachulia, Richard Washington, Swen Nater, Jake Voskuhl, and Dan Gadzuric. Curiously, four of the eight are from UCLA. If only Li Jianlian had gone to Northwestern!
[8] It kicked Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle out of baseball for a year – a punishment that’s always perplexed me, since they were retired Hall of Famers at the time – for being greeters at a casino, a job no less illegal – or degrading – than being a greeter at Walmart.
[9] If there was any fallout from the Karras-Hornung gambling scandal, it was the effective end of Karras as a Hall of Fame candidate. Karras was a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All-Pro (and he went into the stands and talked to girls at the halftime of Canadian Football League games); Hornung was all-pro twice and a Pro Bowler twice. I’ve often wondered how Hornung could have been one of the least productive offensive Hall of Famers of the postwar era and be voted in on the first ballot. My guess is that he had something on Pete Rozelle.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Brien's Song

I was reading Chuck Klosterman writing on the essential weirdness of nostalgia, and what exactly we remember when we look at something from our past that we have no immediate personal connection to, like a song or a movie, and then I looked at this card of Brien Taylor and was struck with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia – not nostalgia precisely, but a memory of how people viewed baseball's No. 1 draft pick at the time that that was the only way people identified Brien Taylor. Thousands of collectors knew nothing about Brien Taylor other than he was baseball's No. 1 draft pick (by the Yankees): knew nothing about his high-school career or the speed of his fastball or even which hand he threw with. They knew he was baseball's No. 1 draft pick and if they were able to acquire something of him, most commonly a trading card – maybe this card -- Brien Taylor would return 200 percent minimum. He was more than an instant celebrity; he was an instant investment -- in Google stock, not Facebook.

I remember editing an interview with Ken Griffey Jr. where his greatest astonishment was saved for the notion that people were making hundreds or thousands off of his image without any involvement from him. Someone took his picture and made it available at random, and the people who found it sold it again for 50 times what they paid for it. And it was completely legal, and sanctioned by everyone involved. And just like M&M Enterprises in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, everyone had a piece.

It didn't happen that way with Taylor – didn't really happen with any of the No. 1 picks beyond Griffey, just a little with Darryl Strawberry and Alex Rodriguez – but there was always the thought that it could happen with this one, even if this one was Matt Anderson or Phil Nevin.

The thought process reminds me of boy bands. There's a new one of those every year or so, and the thought is always that this one is so different. One Direction is different from Take That because Take That won the Eurovision contest as a group while One Direction was made up of individual singers who appeared on X Factor. Big Time Rush was different from Justin Bieber because their song "Boyfriend" was nothing like his song "Boyfriend."

This is totally untrue, of course, because everyone who's grown up in the rock-'n'-roll age has had a moment when a boy band makes all the sense in the world. The moment happens at a different time for everyone, so they think it's a different moment, but it's actually the same semi-sweet moment, on a tape loop.

So I took all the No. 1 draft picks from 1980 to 2000 – from Strawberry to Adrian Gonzalez, pre-Bryan Bullington and post-Al Chambers – and came up with an equivalent boy band. Here's how it looks:

I never realized the connection between Darryl Strawberry and the Jackson 5. One-fifth of the Jackson 5 – Michael – was transcendent. One of Strawberry's five tools – hitting for power, generated by that incredibly fast, whippy swing – was the Michael Jackson of hitting tools, simultaneously locked into a moment in time and transcendent, and utterly irreplaceable.

(One of the reasons I don't enjoy baseball as much as I used to is that everyone has been coached into near-sameness. The best swing in the game belongs to Josh Hamilton, and it's James Loney's swing, only the middle of the bat finds the middle of the ball more often. There's one knuckleball pitcher in the big leagues, and while every team seems to have a submariner, no one has a pitcher who slings it like Dennis Eckersley, no one whips the bat like Straw, and no one hits from the Walt Hriniak stance that allowed Cecil Cooper to post a .352-25-122 line with the '80 Brewers. Were Hriniak and Charley Lau wrong because no one employs their theories anymore, or were they right because many of the hitters who used their theories put up great numbers ... or were the hitters who followed Hriniak and Lau just great hitters who would have hit .300 standing on one toe? I have a hard time believing that Cecil Cooper would have been a better hitter if he swung like Josh Hamilton, but I also have a hard time believing Josh Hamilton would be a better hitter if he swung like Cecil Cooper. For all the attention giving to batting stances -- there's even a "Batting Stance Guy," who presumably makes a living imitating famous batting stances -- how you stand is just preparatory to setting the bat in motion. Better hitters move the bat faster to the ball, and strike the ball more squarely more often. Judging a hitter on his batting stance is like judging Stevie Ray Vaughn by the way he tuned up.)

I do know this: Ted Williams loved watching Strawberry hit, and it wasn't because Strawberry swung just like Williams. Williams loved the excitement in Strawberry's swing, and I get that. It's why I would still pay to watch Ichiro hit. It's something like nothing else. It's Graceland.

It’s easy to take this too far – was Strawberry’s speed Jermaine or Tito? – but when Michael Jackson released Bad Strawberry was in the midst of a .284-39-114 season. Their careers were frontloaded, and their career arcs were not without parallels.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Other Other Hot Hot Cards

You'd think I'd be about done with handfuls from the landfill that is a box of '80s and '90s cards that spilled on the floor of my storage room. You would be wrong. We're just getting started.

The back of A.G. Dillard's Traks Racing card reads as follows:
183 A.G. Dillard
Gwaltney Big 8 Hot Dogs[1]
Dillard Motorsports Buick

1987 Began Busch Grand National, helped son-in-law Rick Mast win first two (Dover, Martinsville)

1988-89 4 more wins, 26 top-10s, 2 poles, $243,585; finished 8th, 7th in Busch Grand National points

1990 Mast to Winston Cup. Elton Sawyer driver. 31 races, 10 top-10. Sawyer married driver Patty Moise following season; will become the first couple to compete against each other in a major series in 1991.

Outside of the high-level items like the Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, Dover, Martinsville, and Buick, there is nothing on this car that I recall or even believe. Gwaltney Big 8 Hot Dogs? Dillard Motorsports? Married NASCAR drivers racing against each other? Patty Moise?

This card is the most tangible proof I've found of the existence of an alternate reality[2].

Barry Colla was a portrait photographer of baseball players who did some trading-card shooting, a little magazine work, and sold some 8x10s to be autographed, and as the Handful O'Landfill era progressed grew increasingly frustrated with the fact that most of the money that was flying around baseball in those days was not flying his way. Being an industrious self-starter, like a lot of the photographers I met in those days, he dropped the big change on an MLB license, which lifted him out of Broder territory and let him sell cards anywhere he wanted.

Actually, it was anywhere they wanted, and they turned out not to want. Colla had the license and the skills and a player (Ken Griffey Jr., who probably doubled his salary on individual trading-card deals), but didn't have design, motivation or distribution. Mostly distribution for a small single-player set.

The result was like running the Gwaltney Big 8 Hot Dogs Buick against the Millers and U.S. Armys of the sponsored-ride world. Colla turned some 8x10s of Ken Griffey Jr. into cards, and figured that would be enough. It wasn't. Not even close.

I'm going to try to describe the origin of chase sets, but it's probably not going to make much sense. It's like trying to explain how disco logically evolved from Creedence Clearwater Revival without getting into polyester, granny glasses, bowl haircuts, or the switchover from heroin to cocaine.

Postwar baseball cards were originally issued in series, which was an incredibly sensible way to market the product. Fresh product (including fresh-ish bubble gum) could be kept on shelves throughout the summer. Kids would buy early series until 80 percent of the packs contained 99 percent doubles and shove the extras in their bicycle spokes or flip them or just rubber-band them and toss them in the attic for their mother to throw out in another dozen years[3], and even though sales of subsequent series dwindled through the summer, that eventually drove collectiblity. I realize Topps probably lost its shirt on fifth-series 1952 Baseball, but the American collectibles economy is forever in its debt.[4]

The other thing Topps did in those days was print cards in different quantities. Cards were printed on sheets of 100; trading-card series weren’t always created in the same multiples. Sixty was a good number for a later series in an early Topps set, allowing for three and three-quarters cards per team – a utility infielder, a backup catcher, and a pitcher recently optioned to Keokuk of the Three-I League. That unbalanced dynamic resulted in 40 double-printed cards and 20 single-prints. Single-prints were twice as hard to get as double-prints, creating a series of scarce cards within series that were increasingly less desired as the summer wore on.

(This wasn’t new. A lot of prewar cardmakers promised kids a new baseball glove or a similar object of desire if they assembled a complete set and sent it to the manufacturer. To limit the damage, the cardmakers would drastically short-print one or two cards in the set, leaving thousands of gloveless American kids tantalizingly close to their dream, but destined never to get there. And then when World War II came, Goudey and U.S. Caramel blamed it on the Japs. No wonder American kids fought like devil dogs.)

As time went on, short-prints became less frequent and the allure of having Bird Belters available for a limited four-week engagement was not enough by itself to sell baseball cards. In response, Topps began including a bonus card in every pack – a scratch-off or a poster or a coin or a gold-foil card. These added indescribable luster to a series whose only other highlight was a Boyhood Photos of the Stars Wilbur Wood card.

Modern chase cards combined elements of the one-per-pack inserts with the scarcity factor of short-prints and began appearing in 1985 – in football cards first, strangely enough. However, in their first incarnation they were like The Operation from the old Monty Python sketch, where the notorious Piranha Brothers would select a victim and then threaten to beat him up if he paid the so-called protection money. In this case, Topps made the chase cards (named “The Star Set” without a smidgen of irony) easier to get than the set’s regular cards, effectively devaluing Ronnie Lott, Eric Dickerson et al. and making every pack less valuable than if it had just contained the usual assortment of Hoby Brenner and Uwe von Schamann cards.

In a couple of years, and with some help from Fleer Basketball, cardmakers progressed to the Other Other Operation and got the whole chase-cards thing straightened out – and by “straightened out,” I mean straightened out the way George W. Bush straightened out the tax code. They started making chase cards harder to get to drive sales, and then added a layer of chase above the chase cards that were harder to get to drive sales, and then another layer above that, and then another, until the base set was a conveyance valued less highly than a Geo Metro.

All of which is a long way around to the point that calling a chase set “Hot Cards” is a lot like naming your baby “Human” and then having it grow up to be a dog – or Christian Okoye, in this case.

I’m done now.

I’ve been scouring trying to figure out what made Lorenzo White and Ken Tippins such bitter arch-rivals that they merited their own (poorly designed) card from the 1991 Upper Deck Football set. Were they a couple of brush-cut junkyard dogs, like Dick Butkus and Jim Taylor? Was there a debilitating injury, like Jack Tatum and Darryl Stingley? Were there bounties involved, like Jonathan Vilma and Brett Favre?

I dunno. I’m guessing the split occurred because White liked milk on his strawberry shortcake and Tippins preferred Cool Whip.

Tippins was a fulltime starter for one year in his seven-year career, White a fulltime starter a sconch more, meaning that Upper Deck expended a card on a couple of part-timers banging ineffectually at each other with less violence and rancor than is seen on a Catholic-high-school kickoff return.

It's possible I'm missing the point with this Arch Rivals card. Tippins might be representing corbel arches and White pointed arches, and this card might be a subtle treatise on the underlying tension between the gothic and Romanesque schools of architecture, especially during the expansive and emotionally charged architectural environment of post-Civil War America.

If that's the case, Upper Deck is more erudite than I'd imagined, and it's still a major waste of cardboard.

Okay, now that you won it, what are you going to do with it?

The futility of hockey draft-pick cards has been mentioned before, and somewhere I have the Ultimate hockey-players-in-tuxedos set that merits its own column, but suffice it to say the only thing that beats hockey draft-pick cards as a waste of cardboard are Roundy’s scratch-and-win game tickets.[5]

Being a No. 1 overall draft pick is usually a path to a modest level of stardom, unless you were chosen by Al Davis or are fond of recreational drugs of abuse. But too often hockey teams dip into the vast pool of international talent and select with the first pick in the NHL Draft … Alexandre Daigle. Bryan Berard. Rick DiPietro.

Part of the problem is hockey’s unique player-promotion system, relying as it does on multiple spins through myriad junior and minor leagues. So it should come as a shock to no one that Alex Stojanov’s NHL career is a big ol’ goose egg – especially when you read the back of his card and see that his heroes are Cam Neely and Bob Probert and his scouting report reads, “Not a naturally skilled offensive player” – not the best attribute for a winger.

I have a new favorite Mark Twain quote that goes, “The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right.” I can think of a couple of places that could have stood a dose of lightning back in 1991.

I was going to give The Vette Set the title of "Card Set With The Smallest Potential Audience," but I look at Star Pics hockey draft picks and am tempted to reconsider. The Vette Set does slice the market thin enough to read a newspaper through. It’s not just a set of car cards, which have a limited track record of success (Odd Rods excepted), or a set devoted to a marque, which have no record of success, but a set devoted to a specific model of a car carrying a marque made by a manufacturer of many marques and cars.[6] It would be like devoting an entire set of cards to Sam Horn. Oh, wait …

[1] What people with their black belts in Lean Six Sigma are absolutely not allowed to eat.
[2] But not a bad alternate reality. It has hot dogs.
[3] So how come I never hear of the cleaning frenzies of the mid-‘60s -- and how come baseball cards are the only thing I ever hear of being thrown out? I haven't even heard of a Wagner card being accidentally decoupaged.
[4] If Topps had issued its 1950s cards in one series and Gibson made all its 1959 Les Pauls with plain tops, thousands more American dentists would be driving around in McLarens and Maseratis. The guitar dealer's windfall is the luxo-auto dealer's downfall.
[5] Where the odds of winning anything were like one-in-40, and the prize won by 95 percent of prize-winners was more game tickets.
[6] Though as such it has more curb appeal than The Plymouth Volarè Set.