Thursday, December 20, 2012

Splits and Strikes and Spares -- and Hair!

It struck me yesterday that I have not written nearly enough about bowling cards.

I apologize. I apologize to the world’s bowling-card collectors, all 18 of you. I apologize to the world’s bowlers, who have had to stand idly by, their feet together, their hands over the dryer, while Woo Daves and Brad Lohaus and Steve Emtman and Clyde Booth and Olden Manynice hogged the spotlight, and whose bowling hands have been reduced to slabs of Jack Link’s as a result. I apologize to the myriad sponsors of these bowlers, and their suppliers of hair-care products, and their wives and children, and Chris Schenkel, even if he is dead, and golly, I hope I didn’t drive him to it.

In this season of redemption, I hope to make it up to you, starting now.

Ahem. Cards showing bowlers had been made sporadically before 1990, but were never given the full mani-pedi until that year, when Collect-A-Card issued its 100-card Kingpins set.

To say that Collect-A-Card spared no expense with its Kingpins set is wrong. One of the reasons Collect-A-Card was fairly successful over its decade-long lifespan was that it knew when and where to spare the expense. However, Collect-A-Card left no bowler uncommemorated, not even the AAAA bowlers, the C.J. Nitkowskis and Al Shirleys of the bowling world, who in the early 1990s were barely a toestep down that yellow-brick road that would take them to full athlete status – meaning intercollegiate feeder programs, Finding Bigfoot-level drama, and a primetime gig on ESPN.

This set was actually a revelation for many of us in the business at that time, whose knowledge of bowlers started with Earl Anthony and passed through Earl Anthony before returning to Earl Anthony, with perhaps a pitstop at Dick Weber. Even tennis, whose pool of recognizable talent is shallower than the lyrics on a Rhianna album, provided more star power than bowling.

That shows what you know about Collect-A-Card. The company’s greatest successes came with its Coca-Cola and Campbell’s Soup cards, properties whose talent pool went one (Santa Claus) and two (the Campbell’s Twins) characters deep, respectively. Its only misstep came with a property with zero recognizable characters – Dinotopia, a series of mildly interesting young-adult books (think Maxfield Parrish or Winsor MacCay collaborating with Michael Crichton on Jurassic Park) that spawned a truly misbegotten made-for-TV movie.

Collect-A-Card’s knack for making something out of nothing was sorely tested in the making of Kingpins, because as we all know, there are different grades of nothing. There is the total absence of matter, the total absence of matter except for several thousand leftover copies of Tubthumping, and then there is the nothing represented by Teata Semiz, Guppy Troup, Les Schissler, Jimmy Certain, Jon O’Drobniak, and 95 of their closest friends.

Upon further review, and after thinking harder than I’ve ever had to think about bowling cards, it’s amazing how much they resemble baseball cards. Both sports concentrate their action into rather small, explosive packages. The interminable wrapping and rewrapping of the batting gloves, the flex of the fingers on the bat, the demi-stretch, the quasi-yawn, the digging of the back foot into the batter’s box, the bat action prior to delivery of the pitch, and the stepping out to repeat the process all over again is awfully similar to what a bowler goes through prior to delivery. If Ryan Braun had a hot-air footswitch at home plate it would be virtually identical.

In both cases, the ball is delivered, something more or less dynamic occurs, and the process repeats. In neither case is sustained athleticism required, nor is there a target baseline metabolic rate. Male pattern baldness, aviator glasses, and pornstar mustaches are condoned, if not outright encouraged.

This leads to a score of déjà-vu moments in the Kingpins set. The three-images-in-one Andy Marzich card is straight out of ’89 Topps Baseball. If Don Zimmer had a recurring role on Cheers he’d be Billy Walden. Tommy Hanson is Rick Camp, but so is Ron Bell. Harry Sullins is Billy Stein. Dave Soutar is Dale Murphy. Mike Aulby is Matt Stairs. Bob Benoit is Rick Sutcliffe. Guppy Troup is Billy Loes with Lowell Palmer’s glasses and Gorman Thomas’ hair. Pete Couture is Kent Tekulve, with Tekulve’s glasses and hair. And Dennis Horan Jr. is Mario Mendoza, poor soul.

You may have noticed that with the exception of Stairs[1] all the bowlers are from the ‘90s and all the baseball players they resemble are from the ‘70s and ‘80s. This is no accident. Bowlers have never been the most fashion-forward sportspeople, so looking like the baseball players of 15 years previous is about right for them. This creates the very real possibility that in 2027 Parker Bohn V will be sporting cornrows and full-body tats.

Still, this only hints at the overwhelming otherworldliness of the Kingpins set. There has never been a sports-card set with so many pictures of people in striped polo shirts. Three people out of 100 are not in polo shirts, and that’s because they’re announcers in suits and ties (including the aforementioned Mr. Schenkel). The mustache count is at 34. This is also a constituency to whom flowing hair – from side to side, in ripples cascading across either temple, or sent straight back, like a killer wave from the Banzai Pipeline – is important. There is no hair on these cards that is not either falling out or being sent in purposeful swells across the head. This is taken to frightening extremes on the card of Pete Weber, whose noggin appears to be sporting either a forehead extension or a muskrat.

There are other frightening cards in the set, to be sure. Who would not be terrified by the sight of “Skee” Foremsky going off Gundam style, or Don McCune poking himself in the eye, or Mike McGrath adjusting his prosthetic forearm, or Dave Davis sitting astride the ball return in a pose both suggestive and frightening, or Curtis Odom, playing to the hilt the role of token-black comic relief?

If you want a genuine time capsule, a document of how far we have come as a society in 22 years, as well as the most comprehensive professional-bowling set ever made, you cannot do better than the Collect-A-Card Kingpins set.

But I wonder: Who would want that?

[1] Who, as a sawed-off, beer-bellied, power-hitting occasional right fielder was nothing if not an anachronism most of his career.