Friday, July 27, 2012

Stuck Inside Of Aikman With The Edgemar Blues Again

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again? I'm guessing it's like being a trading card and going through the washer and the dryer. Oh, well. I just made the surviving examples that much more valuable.

There was a time when traded cards made sense, when Topps was making a 900-card baseball set and issuing it in seven series and it had burned its Aurelio Monteagudo card in Series Two before he was dealt from the A's to the Tigers, and Topps really wanted to put another Aurelio Monteagudo card in their set. Under that set of conditions – space to fill, a trade after the editorial deadline, Aurelio Monteagudo – a traded card was Topps' only recourse. But over time the necessity for a traded card faded away. Trading-card manufacturers began making a new set basically every month, so if regular Topps didn't catch the trade Stadium Club would, and if Stadium Club didn't Finest would, and if Finest didn't Bowman would, and so on. Even under those circumstances manufacturers persisted in issuing traded sets, or rookie-and-traded sets, at the end of the baseball year as another means of wringing blood out of the collecting turnip.

Still, as photo-retouching techniques became more sophisticated the old ways of airbrushing a new cap[1]  over the prior one or resorting to the file photo showing a hatless Jack Baldschun became unnecessary, since even Photoshop 1.0 could do better in a couple of minutes what Topps artists could barely accomplish in a day.[2]

Finally, competitive pressure cut deadlines, so a set that used to go into production in December to be issued in March was being cranked out in late January. A lot of Casey Candaeles can trade addresses in that amount of time.

The upshot is that by the time this card of Olden Manynice was issued NBA Hoops had a half-dozen options at its disposal that would have been more appropriate than slapping a police-tape-ish "Traded To Detroit" along its bottom. Hoops could have cobbled together a Detroit jersey, or Photoshopped the picture or simply cropped it differently, or it could have flipped the generic back photo to the front. Instead, it went the lazy route and hoped that collectors would say, "Oooh, it's just like the old days," which they didn't, because basketball cards never did it that way and it was just Olden Manynice.

This card is like the remake of Footloose. There was no need to make it the way it was made because there were so many other better ways it could have been made. If it needed to be made at all.

I return to the Parkhurst Missing Link set because it's like the Dodge Challenger: It's an unapologetically retro muscle car only better because it has and antilock brakes and steel that won't crumble in your hands and seats that actually hold your butt in one place and a shift knob you can hang onto and steering that steers and a hole for my MP3 player and a zillion other creature comforts we've come to expect from motor vehicles.[3]

All things considered, neo-retro is probably the best of all worlds. Does it matter if it's derivative? Every piece of popular music made over the last 40 years is derivative of Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," the Beatles’ Revolver, the Ink Spots’ “My Prayer,” or James Brown's "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud." Does it matter? Is "Good Vibrations" less of a song because Brian Wilson had just heard Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Is Paul Simon's Graceland diminished as an accomplishment because Simon appropriated riffs from The Indestructible Beat of Soweto? Do we think less of Straight Outta Compton because it sampled Funkadelic's "You'll Like It Too"?[4]

Everything a society produces is somehow influenced by what went before. Some productions are simply more obvious than others. Drawing a line and calling certain things neo-retro while failing to acknowledge the deep debts to history owed by Facebook or an iPod is revisionist. And I hate revisionism.

With the Missing Link set, Pro Set constructed an intentionally deceitful world. It reincarnated a zombie Parkhurst and built a set Parkhurst never made, considering it simultaneously from the outside – acknowledging Parkhurst's historical reputation among collectors for look and feel and readability – and the inside – making a set that was consistent from the first card to the last. It had to be stupid and careless and intentional and shrewd all at once. And it had to find something interesting to say about Marcel Bonin.

At least the last part was easy. "No other NHL player can lay claim to have wrestled bears as a sideline nor that he eats glass but that is part of Bonin's unorthodox portfolio," his Parkhurst back reads. And, look – it's in French: " Aucun autre joueur de la LNH peut se targeur prétendent avoir lutté comme un à-côté, ni qu'il mange de verre, mais qui fait partie du portefeuille orthodoxe Bonin."

The front is bitchin', too.

You know, it's probably not a good idea to devote a card to Roger Ailes addressing the National Press Club after head-butting Hoda Kotb[5]. I'm not buying that "Dr. Edgemar" stuff for a second.

I talk a lot about draft-pick sets in these excursions and I’m not sure why, other than a whole bunch of draft-pick cards made it into the box of indescribable delights I handed down to my son as his legacy. No stock portfolio of blue chips like Enron and Bank of America; no sir. No stash of bonds, no real estate, no annuities, no cash equity something-or-others, no precious metals, no jewelry, no money-purchase pension plans – none of that stuff. You get draft-pick cards.

But, hey, wasn’t that the way it was supposed to work? Weren’t we all going to cash in our stashes of trading cards right around now, the pristine sealed boxes of ’88 Donruss and the ’87 Fleer tin sets, sell them to the next generation of collectors hungry for Johnny Ray rookie cards and then pass on those profits of patience to our children, who would stare at the check with and then look up at you with gleaming, grateful eyes and murmur, “TWELVE-FIFTY? You kept an entire wall of trading cards in our basement for 25 years and all you got out of it was a lousy twelve dollars and fifty cents? You could have bought cauliflower 25 years ago and sold it for more than $12.50! I hate you! I never want to see you again as long as I live!” And so on, in filial affection.

Looking at back at from this direction, from the other end of the telescope, the numbers seem all distorted. Of course there was going to be no demand for largely vast quantities of trading cards showing players of no interest to anyone currently looking to pay money for trading cards. Even the sure things, the lock Hall of Famers, guys like Ken Griffey Jr., or the recent Hall of Famers like Barry Larkin are of little interest to a collector. You want an ’88 Topps card of Barry Larkin? Maybe if someone gave it to you, but you wouldn’t buy it as an investment nor would you validate someone else’s investment projection by buying from them.

The thing everyone missed about the trading-card boom that precipitated the Handful O’Landfill era was that it was as long-term as Carly Rae Jepsen’s popularity. The gains were all transitory. The only smart folks were the ones who flipped a few cards and got out. All of which has very little to do with this Star Pics card of Troy Aikman. Star Pics, after a few times around making draft-pick cards for various sports and enjoying a tantalizingly small amount of early success, found itself surrounded by competitors in a business where the margins were thinner than Manute Bol’s ankles. Its path to differentiation was to sprinkle in amidst its draft-pick cards cards of players who were draft picks a decade ago. Amazing commonality, yes, and the player wasn’t too terrible – Troy Aikman, practicing for his Rent-A-Center gig. But the card itself was something Salvador Dali might have whipped up for Topps if he was in a variant of Chopped featuring great artists moonlighting as trading-card designers. Picasso did a blue-period Bombo Rivera, Da Vinci went all classic with Mickey Mantle, and Dali did this little piece of business.

And this was Andy Warhol’s contribution to the competition.

It’s hard to know what to make of these as trading cards. They’re phenomenally unattractive worthless cards of a couple of Hall of Famers and some miscellaneous players, and there was never a time they were anything else. They’re tangible examples of the previous step in the collectibility process, the one where someone thought something might be a pretty neat collectible without having any evidence to prove his belief. These are the ideas that sound like good ideas until you actually see them, at which point you go, “Oh, yeah …”

These cards are a couple of those pieces of detritus a society produces and no one wants to claim. And now I have them. And here you go.

Speaking of pieces of detritus a society produces and no one wants to claim, Todd Marinovich. Once upon a time this card was valuable. Now it’s not. It’s better that it’s not, by a long shot.

I'm digging through pants pockets and dryer filters for more. I'll write when I find some.

[1] Which looked suspiciously like the faux batting helmets that used to house ice-cream sundaes.
[2] Though I wonder if Dr. Timothy Leary wasn't doing Topps' color-matching in the late '60s and early '70s. Some of those cards sport some suspiciously far-out, day-glo shades, like you'd expect to see from artists who would rather be painting Beatles guitars or marking buried power lines for backhoe operators.
[3] I drove a mid-1950s Nash for a New York Times story, and the experience was as revelatory as it was frightening. You had to plan to make a turn about 15 seconds before you actually made it. Braking took a weightlifter's touch, and the brakes grabbed about as firmly as Kevin Youkilis' top hand. The turning radius was larger than the parking lot at Sam's Club. On the other hand, you could fix anything on it with a flathead screwdriver and a roll of electrical tape.
[4] Or consider movies: The Artist is the cinematic Dodge Challenger. The greatest movie musical ever, Singin' In The Rain, recycled old Arthur Freed songs and put them in a comfortable setting of 30 years previous. It was more of a Mustang convertible.
[5] If it was Hoda Kotb head-butting Roger Ailes we might be on to something. Also, I am gobsmacked that this movie is being remade. Had they not seen this card?