Friday, November 30, 2012

Canadian Railroad Thrillogy

I’m on one of my periodic “I Love Canada” jags. I just picked out my Christmas present: a Saskatchewan Roughriders toque. I’m making plans to visit my wife’s aunt in Kingston, Ontario, despite the fact that she lives in a convent and I wouldn’t actually be able to see her, though I will definitely wear my Saskatchewan Roughriders toque when I go[1]. I read the Canadian news first in my Google News feed, ahead of even the latest Lindsay Lohan news borrowed from TMZ.[2]

I think one of the reasons for my latest I Love Canada jag is that I watched the Grey Cup last weekend. Everyone who sees this column on a regular basis – shout-out to Sparky, the reader who puts the “one” in “everyone” – knows I have an unhealthy love for the Canadian Football League. It’s Division I-AA pro football, stripped of the artifice and hype and pretention and inflated everything, from egos to biceps to nosebleed-section ticket prices to the stentorian tones of Kevin Harlan.

Players are getting paid relative peanuts in the CFL but it’s not the burlesque football of the arena league, and there are enough fun rule differences to make it something other than just minor-league NFL product.[3] I don’t know who decided to let just about everyone go in motion before the snap, but I’m guessing Angelo “King Kong” Mosca left the rulebook with Groucho Marx for a couple of minutes, and when he came back from pounding on Joe Kapp the section outlawing motion before the snap was gone, three timeouts a half were whittled down to one, and someone had crossed out the two-minute warning and written in “three-minute warning.”

The combination of these rules changes and the lack of eight-minute TV timeouts is exhilarating. Games move at an Oregonian pace driven by short (but dynamic) quarterbacks airing it out to shorter (but dynamic) wide receivers, everyone goes home entertained, and no one cares that the team you played this week was the team you played two weeks ago because it’s an eight-team league, a 16-game season, and the Labatt’s is relatively cheap, by Canadian standards.

The Grey Cup is especially fun. It has some of the traditions of the Stanley Cup with some of the trappings of the Super Bowl, all for the price of a bleacher seat at Petco Park, and it’s even money that three-quarters of the Grey Cup games will be played or extreme cold and/or snow.[4] 

This year’s game was the 100th Grey Cup. I shudder to think of what the United States will do when the 100th Super Bowl rolls around. Fold over itself, drool at the mouth and babble incoherently is my guess, and that's just ESPN. I'm also thinking Gussie Busch XII's head is going to explode and the remnants of Joe Buck are going to pop out.

Not so much Canada. They put out a coin and put the trophy on a train (more on that later), but basically the 100th Grey Cup meant more Mounties and more bilingual announcements – two of the necessary evils that go along with being a CFL fan.[5]

I loved the game, though. It was like Brett Favre leading the Vikings to a Super Bowl win in 2009, only without a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty in the conference final. Toronto nose tackle Adriano Belli (who looks exactly like John L. Sullivan) was ejected for putting an arm-bar on Calgary center (centre) John Gott.[6] A Don Nottingham clone named Chad Kackert had almost 200 yards in total offense[7]. Ahmad Carroll was whistled for defensive holding at a crucial point in the game. The halftime show consisted of a nearly dead Gordon Lightfoot, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber, and they booed Bieber with a sincere lustiness that American football fans would never have turned on Madonna. And the home team won.

I mention this because today’s Handful O’Landfill takes us to the exotic country of Belize, where we pay a visit to the reclusive zillionaire John MacAfee, his weapons and blue pacifier. No, we’re in Canada, looking at trains.

I love trains and I love Canada, so naturally I love Canadian trains. I spent a week on Canadian trains in my younger years, watching the Canadian Rockies pass by my bedroom window, dining on the prairie semi-al-fresco, subsisting on dried fruit and sausage, running sprints on the depot platform in Medicine Hat, steering clear of the native drunks in Prince George, B.C., hanging out of the vestibule watching the salmon run orange on the Fraser River alongside the Pacific Great Eastern tracks south of Quesnel, and coming face-to-face with an elk on a mountain trail outside of Banff.

So you can imagine how I felt in 1992 when I received a set of 76 Railfan Canada ’92 cards. Trading cards of trains? In a box? Yeah, that’s woodpulp heaven to me.

Well, no. The cards came up short of heaven – Peyton Manning short instead of Snoop Lion short, but short. They’re not a bad product taken at their face, though they do a number on the whole power-beauty-and-majesty-of-trains thing. These are the non-action photos – the head shots, if you will, only with no airbrushing. 1967 Topps Garry Roggenburk, anyone?[8]

The backs bristle with statistics: model number, horsepower, number built, number remaining, special features. That’s not a bad thing; if you’re moved enough by Canadian trains to buy 76 Railfan Canada cards, this is just the information you’re looking for. Railfan Canada resisted the urge to go all holofoil and die-cut, and the result is a better, more honest product.

A more honest product without any real market, unfortunately. Looking at the demographic requisites, the ideal buyer of Railfan Canada ’92 cards would have to love A) Canada, B) trains, and C) head shots, in that order. He would have to get off on the squiggly-lined logo of the Ontario Northland, the diamond of the Northern Alberta, and the whatzit of the Greater Winnipeg Water District.[9] He would also have to afford the $28 ($CDN) for the set.

He would have to be me, in other words. And while Railfan Canada hit the target from a marketing standpoint – I wound up with the set – selling to an audience of one isn’t exactly the pathway to the Hamptons.

As often happens, Railfan Canada ’92 cards promised the moon and delivered a Moon Pie. That’s not bad; it’s just less. But as the CFL proves, less can be quite wonderful indeed.

I mentioned this earlier, but as part of the Grey Cup's 100th anniversary the CFL put the trophy on a special train and sent it barnstorming across the country, so fans in remote locales like Kelowna and Kenora and Moose Jaw could get up-close with one of their national treasures.

I love Canada.

[1] And will consequently get beaten up by the tough old nun who bounces at the door and happens to be a Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan.
[2] And I’m constantly amazed at how little Canadian news Google has on a daily basis. Canada is the third-largest country in the world, and less news comes out of there weekly than comes out of North Korea on the half-hour -- and they're working on a 60-year news embargo. Canada's national obsession goes on strike, and the only thing Google talks about is the price of mining stocks. Maybe the entire country is under a gag order, or maybe they really are that phlegmatic.
[3] For instance, I would a thousand times rather watch the CFL than the short-lived World League of American Football. You’ve read about my experiences in getting to Wembley Stadium to see the inaugural World Bowl, but you’ve never heard my impressions of the game. Here you go: It was like a peewee hockey game after the Stanley Cup playoffs. Stan Gelbaugh moved like he was encased in gelatin and being eaten by a wasp.
[4] Which is why the league’s two most temperate cities, Vancouver and Toronto, play in domes.
[5] Among the others: Extra points are “converts,” touchdowns are “major scores,” defense is “defence,” and Ahmad Carroll is still allowed to play despite grabbing heaping handfuls of CFL jersey on every freaking pass.
[6] Hey, John L. would have arm-barred the dude, too.
[7] Or “offence,” as they put it up there.
[8] I can totally relate to the whole head-shot train-shot thing. My brother takes pictures of trains obsessively, and has for 40 years, and because he’s an engineer and not an artist, the less motion the better. He has dragged me through countless shabby quasi-industrial neighborhoods, past the unmarked warehouses of the Russian Mafia, down innumerable oily roads paved with the ground-up bones of Teamsters, and past scores of “We Shoot Trespassers” signs so he could take pictures of grimy, stationary diesel-powered boxes, knowing full well he could have hung out in some better (or at least more scenic) environ and seen it roll past 15 minutes hence. His (pre-digital) slide library exceeds 20,000, so that’s a whole lot of talking to railroad detectives that smell like creosote. I always thought shooting trains when they weren’t moving was cheating, like tackling the quarterback while he’s standing on the sidelines.

[9] Did I mention I wrote to all these railroads when I was about 14, asking for whatever free stuff they wanted to send me – and they all ponied up? In case I haven’t said this before, thank you, Greater Winnipeg Water District. May all your pipes forever run free.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Unremarkably Remarkable Moments

You may have suspected this, but I have the entire history of the trading-card business from about 1985-2005 in filing cabinets and storage boxes in my basement.

You may have suspected this because I look the part – i.e., old. Also because I’m not always lying. And also because there is no other reason why I would have the press kit for America’s Most Wanted trading cards somewhere other than under the refrigerator, soaking up a leak.
We cleaned out the basement the other day and I threw nothing away. I have almost the entire run of Sports Collectors Digest’s Trade Fax printed on slinky paper, and I keep hanging onto it even though I have never referred to it for anything, not even the correct spelling of Tony Loiacono’s name.[1]
I have the packout and insertion ratios for hundreds of Pinnacle products, including winners like 1998 Pinnacle Performers Football. You want to know how often Pursuit of Paydirt Point Cards show up in a box of Performers Football? I can tell you, though if you’re the sort of person who asks for information like this I’m not sure I want to talk to you.
We got sent everything from everyone in those days, and our erstwhile secretary Sue dutifully filed it all away, in neatly labeled folders. When the business went blooey I got the filing cabinets. I hung onto them at first because I was clinging to the hope that the band would get back together. Then I hung onto them because I thought I might write the definitive book on the trading-card business from about 1985-2005 for the seven people who might be interested. And now I’m holding onto them because I’m waiting for reality-TV producers to work their way down to me. I’m thinking of a mashup of Hoarders and American Pickers, with a dash of Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids.
Anyway, I thought it might be fun to reach into one of the file boxes, pull out a file folder and write about its contents. And I struck gold.
The first line of the first document in the folder, a press release, reads, “Don Nomura, Hideo Nomo’s agent, calls the Japanese pitcher, ‘the Michael Jordan of our country.’ That pretty much says it all.”
It does. Yes indeed, that pretty much says it all. Hideo Nomo throws fastballs with his tongue hanging out, lays 50 on the Nippon Ham Fighters while running a 105-degree fever, jab-steps Yutaka Enatsu out of his Mizunos, smokes cigars the size of smoked hams, has his commercials produced by the Japanese Spike Lee[2], and bets on anything that moves, including freight trains and scarab beetles.
Okay, maybe he didn’t mean that. Maybe he meant that Nomo was really, really popular in Japan at the time of the press release – Sept. 21, 1995. That I can buy.
But do you know the name of the product responsible for this epochal statement? I’m guessing your answer is not “Remarkable Moments.” Yet that’s what it is.
There is definitely something oriental going on here. The press release does not suggest a product name, and the product name does not suggest a product. In the collectibles field alone, Remarkable Moments could be a series of commemorative coins, greeting cards, lithographs, stuffed animals, paintings on velvet, or sculptures. Or condoms.
Of course, I know the answer, because I have the entire history of the trading-card business from about 1985-2005 in my basement. Remarkable Moments is a series of talking picture frames.
If you’re thinking of talking picture frames in the context of Billy the Big-Mouth Bass, you’re about 20 years ahead of the curve. This talking frame does not sense your presence, does not flop back and forth, and doesn’t play cleverly repurposed quasi-popular songs. Instead, you press a button and listen to a sound chip play squawky, scratchy, nearly inaudible audio over the 30-second life of the battery.
This talking picture frame also requires a dedicated picture. You couldn’t slip a photo of Aunt Edna into Hideo Nomo’s space without having an answer prepared for Aunt Edna when she asks, “Why is that man with the funny voice calling me ‘The Japanese Tornado?’”
So if you’re keeping score, the entire Remarkable Moments package consists of:

1) A semi-removable picture of Hideo Nomo;
2) A high-quality stone-like base with a sound chip and a one-nanowatt (RMS) speaker; and
3) A battery with a 30-second lifespan that requires a fist-sized piece of gelignite to change.

And what would you charge for this bundle of goodness? Not $29.95. Not $19.95. Not even $9.95. But $79.95.
It is serially numbered and strictly limited to 1,995 pieces[3], so that makes it better. So too does the knowledge that other Remarkable Moments pieces can be yours for the incredibly low price of $129.95.
If that doesn’t sell you on the spot, remember that, “In the past, this type of time-capsule memento has only been available in museums and halls of fame.” Never you mind that in another 10 years the list would expand to include hunting shacks and doublewides.
Lest you think he was trading in hyperbole, Remarkable Moments chief Jeff Schwartz hastened to remind us that, “This new multi-media memorabilia certainly qualifies as a collectible, but Remarkable Moments are not just for collectors … They’re also for anyone who simply treasures a remarkable historical moment. They’re time machines which can transport us back to experience those inspirational moments, again and again.”
Okay. Make that, “trading in succinct hyperbole.”
After paragraphs and paragraphs of such unexpected delight comes the all-too-predictable denouement: “In addition to Schwartz, the Remarkable Moments team also includes former Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres great Steve Garvey and U.S. Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner.”
Well, of course it does. Joe Montana was a northern-California rhymes-with-bore.

In the end, Remarkable Moments were true to their description. They were pictures of moments that to someone were in some way remarkable.
I’m not sure that’s enough to hang a business on, though. After all, I have a picture of me where I’m wearing a Cub Scout uniform and I'm made up like Mae West. That’s a moment for sure, and pretty remarkable, but I’m not sure it merits a sound chip.
And I definitely want it kept the hell away from Steve Garvey.

[1] Not that Trade Fax would have that.
[2] I don’t know – Spike Ree, maybe?
[3] All of which most assuredly found nice, new homes.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Franco. American.

Because professionally I’m a marketing guy, I think marketing thoughts from time to time. Like today, after writing some print ads[1], I started thinking about spokesmen[2]. When was the last time you bought anything because a spokesanything asked you to? Did you buy OxiClean because of Billy Mays or in spite of him? Does the endless splicing of Subway B-roll featuring Blake Griffin, Apolo Ohno, Justin Tuck et al. give you the hankering for a Spicy Italian, or does it make you think, “This is cheesier than a Meatball Marinara”? What’s that you say? Victor Cruz gives you the urge to buy Chunky Soup? Really? Who’s next on the list of shark-jumping NFLers to queue up for Campbell’s? Jabar Gaffney?

I ask because in the course of cleaning out our storage room over the weekend I remembered the rush to spokesmen that took place once Upper Deck hit the card market in 1989. Prior to that there were no trading-card spokesmen. Topps was fine standing on proverbial streetcorners and yelling, “Hey kids! Get a free baseball coin in every pack!” Fleer was full-speed ahead with its innovative distribution system involving horse-drawn wagons and out-of-work icemen. And Donruss – at that time part of General Mills – was just trying to stay out of Cheerios’ way.

Upper Deck was all about spokespeople at athlete involvement from the getgo. One of its founding partners was superstar Angels pitcher DuWayne Buice. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the contract Reggie Jackson was UD’s first celebrity shill. Then it was Ken Griffey Jr., and the spokesman thing was full-on.

Magic Johnson became the NBA Hoops guy. Wayne Gretzky did the dirty for UD Hockey. Michael Jordan took the cash for Upper Deck Basketball. Joe Montana became the advocate of choice of every would-be Upper Deck with a solvent checkbook. We had receptions with David Robinson, walkabouts with Brett Favre, Q-and-As with Health Shuler and Rick Mirer, meet-and-greets with Shawn Respert, and even a tennis match with Franco Harris, which brings me to this little corner of heaven.

Ever since its Westport, Conn., days Pinnacle had a thing for Franco Harris. I’m not precisely sure why, though this smaller voice in the back of my head says in a grating East Coast accent that Pinnacle’s boss at the time, Dan Shedrick, had some mystic connection with Harris that reached back as far as the brawling hills of western Pennsylvania.

When Pinnacle got a football license, its first spokesman was Franco Harris. Bart Oates was his backup, and that same yawping voice in the back of my head says it was because Oates and Shedrick were neighbors. Gee, what if Shedrick had lived next door to Neal Guggemos? The world might be a different place.

Harris was the front man for Pinnacle football and I was a card journalist in lush Iola, Wis., so when the Super Bowl and its attendant Pekingese-and-Percheron show came to the Metrodome in 1991, Shedrick invited myself and my tennis-playing colleague, Don Butler, to meet them in Minneapolis for a doubles match.

You need to know that Don Butler is about five-foot-four and an absolutely insidious tennis player. He’s the sort of opponent you hate because he takes all your powerhouse drives and 100-mph smashes and turns them into lollipop cuts or well-angled side-spinners that force you to start the process over again, and then he makes you repeat that until you skull one or collapse from exhaustion. With me the skulling always comes first.

So it was the loose cannon and the sniper versus Shedrick and Harris, in a sort of mini-Metrodome tennis court at an athletic club somewhere in downtown Minneapolis. Shedrick played country-club doubles sans the white cable-knit sweater around his neck, and Harris played the ball like it was Charles Romes, meaning he saw it coming and promptly angled for the sidelines. He also had a surprisingly meek serve for such a big guy, a little cutter that was no trouble to return.

In fact, the more we played against Shedrick and Harris the more disappointing it became. Here was a genuine legend who for so many years on so many NFL fields had run out of bounds at the first hint of contact, playing junior-high-school tennis alongside the third runner-up, D Flight, in the Westport Country Club’s Spring Tennis Fling.

And we stunk, too. It was about the worst match Don and I ever played together, so the scores were – we’ll call them even. Both sides demanded a rematch but it never happened.

Harris soldiered on as the face of Pinnacle football for several more years, and when Pinnacle landed an NHL license, he was joined by two of the sport’s youngest guns – first Eric Lindros, he of the cleft chin, unrealistic expectations and recurring head injuries[3], and then Alexandre Daigle, of the 129 career goals and toothpick-diametered extremities. That unusual and unholy trinity were commemorated on this exhibit-sized Pinnacle Power card given away – in its own velvet-lined pouch, no less – by Pinnacle to showcase its holofoilish technology and celebrate one thing or another.

The fact that this piece is serially numbered is comforting. It’s reassuring to know there are at most 200 other cards like this in the universe, presuming none of them have swapped DNA or had their gene patterns replicated.

Spokesmen still swarm over the card business, sorry to say. Panini prominently features Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Kobe Bryant on its website; Topps bandies about Yu Darvish, trying to land that multicultural vote; and Upper Deck has its usual stable of big names. There’s still no proof that any of them by themselves, exclusive of autographs and special subsets, have sold a single extra card, but that’s marketing for you. Never simply sell the product when you can spend lots more money to oversell it to no one in particular.

Maybe it’s time to dust off the wagons and thaw the icemen. Whaddya say, guys?

[1] My forge not being sufficiently hot to hammer out some greaves and cuirasses.
[2] The shortened version of “spokesmen, spokeswomen, spokescats, spokesdoughballs, and spokesovenmitts.”
[3] Which are definitely no laughing matter.