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.

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