Sunday, February 9, 2014

Top of the Order … Bottom of the Barrel

So I was watching X Games Aspen the other day and it struck me how impertinent it is to have a made-for-TV competition featuring largely made-up sports so close to the Winter Olympics. It’s like running a “Mythbusters: David Blaine” episode right before Blaine vanishes Wichita. After four score and seven years' worth of coverage of obviously made-up X Games events, people might think there’s no purpose to biathlon and team handball and yachting and short-track speed-skating and rhythmic gymnastics and all the other, older made-up events that comprise an Olympics. I realize there was a time when shot-putting got soldiers ready for war, but those were the days when warfare consisted of lobbing pots of boiling oil onto hordes of Gauls trying to scale the walls of a dung-daubed castle. Now, of course, drones do it.
It also marginalizes snowmobile-flipping. Call me revisionist, but I maintain that cranking a Ski-Doo up to 90 miles an hour, propelling it off a ramp and spinning it three complete revolutions before landing is every bit as much of an athletic feat as sliding on your belly down a glorified toboggan run. The only difference is the motor and the three complete revolutions, and those are way cooler than anything the luge track has to offer unless A) you really like the sound the word “luge” makes in the back of your throat or B) you like plastic-coated Austrians.
(I sent this to Jim McLauchlin because I was kinda proud of what I had written, and as always he had a retort. It goes like this: “My favorite sport is always biathlon, which should be retitled, ‘What The Finns Have To Do Every 40 Years When The Russians Invade.’ In fact, I'd be willing to bet that EVERY biathlon medal ever has been won by a Finn, with the exception of like, maybe one by a Russian who was a particularly good shot and was kinda hungry. Here's an idea: Loose three Ivans and three Finns in the woods with rifles and skis. The three who make it out get medals.” So naturally I went back and checked. A Finn has never won gold in the biathlon, but a lot of Russians have – and the Russians have dominated the pursuit competition. McLauchlin might want to double-check the over-under on the Ivans.)
I don’t know where exactly I’m going with this, other than back to sport. The Olympics and the X Games remind us what the Super Bowl doesn’t: all sports are made-up. No sport serves a purpose other than to institutionalize play. Nothing wrong with play, by the way; I’m a huge play fan. My life has been spent making everything seem like play and so far, so good.
Taken from that standpoint, though, sports cards are sort of ridiculous. Why would you take a picture and put it on a piece of cardboard to heroify someone playing a game? My kids built an igloo over the weekend, and I didn’t feel like I had to put them on a card for that, even though igloo-building shares its chassis and other important bits with playing in the Super Bowl.
(I’m allowed to say “Super Bowl,” right? Super Bowl Super Bowl Super Bowl Super Bowl. I guess I can.)
I never knew a single person in the trading-card industry who wrestled with this ethical dilemma any more than they wrestled with Hacksaw Jim Duggan. They would have let Larry Zybysko put them in a figure-four deadfall in return for a baseball license, but alas, Zybysko was all tied up with Gorilla Monsoon, and the licenses were all tied up with Upper Deck.
However, a few enlightened trading-card folks did realize that as the price and sophistication of sports cards increased their play value decreased. They also saw their lunch being eaten by Starmies and Hitmonchans and all the variegated witches and wizards of Magic: The Gathering. These were cards you could play with; they were cards you had to play with, because taken at face value they were as engaging as a subway pass.
And they sold. God they sold, and they cost next to nothing to make. Some cardmakers got mad at their success; others tried to get even. If they can sell the excrement out of made-up-cards of made-up things used to play a made-up game, they reasoned, we should be able to sell quadruple the excrement out of made-up cards of real players used to play a made-up game. And so it came to pass that Topps, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck, in addition to longtime baseball-game maker APBA, came out with sports cards that were gamified to one degree or another.
Of course, these days everything from your colonoscopy to your taxes are gamified, and we expect it. Figurative millions are buried casketless each year because online casket sites don’t give out extra lives. Well, 20 years ago sports cards were being gamified, and no one found it novel. Or compelling or entertaining, either, but we’re getting to that.
Upper Deck affixed sort of a game border to the Special Edition chase in its 1995 baseball. The game was of the one-action-per-card variety, meaning it would take a whopping pile of cards to play and the desire to crease and dog-ear to death what ostensibly were added-value cards. It was a half-hearted nod in the direction of games, and it couldn’t have been less of an empty gesture if it had been endorsed by Joe Montana and Martha Stewart.
(Conceptually the Upper Deck game was identical to the winner-and-still-champeen of baseball-game trading cards, the 1968 Topps Baseball game set, albeit at 400 times the per-pack price. The ’68 game cards were awesome. The art was spectacular, the player roster couldn’t be beat, and the game played like butter. I played the World Series over and over with those cards for years afterwards, almost always pitting the Phillies against the Brewers. The Brewers usually won, in spite of the heroic efforts of Phillies pitcher Ron Diorio. I had a Ron Diorio thing going on for years, and I have no idea why a Alaskan kid transplanted to Wisconsin would get so far behind a Philadelphia pitcher with a whopping 25 major-league games and no decisions.)
Donruss’ contribution to playtime was a full-blown game called Top of the Order. It was one of two sports games the cardmaker produced in 1994, the other being Red Zone football. The game cards shared the same basic layout and structure – 80-card base set, booster packs, similar-looking quasi-design -- but game play between the two games was like the difference between reading this column and my master’s thesis. One is light and fast-paced; the other is formulaic, plodding, and sort of pedantic. (Yeah, my master’s thesis was that good.)
I guess you could say Top of the Order was realistic in that regard, but I’m not looking for realism when I sit down to play a baseball card (or board) game. I’m looking to have fun playing a game. Any resemblance it bears to real baseball is a bonus.
That may be why the ’68 Topps baseball game is so much fun. It follows the basic rules of baseball – three outs, nine innings, team with the most runs wins – but doesn’t go much deeper than that and doesn’t care to. It’s made for nine-year-olds. You just flip cards and let wang chung. Sometimes it chungs your way and sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t mind that lack of control; it makes me feel like I’m nine years old again, and any sort of caloric intake I can dream up is A-OK.
Back to Top of the Order. The cards were color-coded with actions that came into play when you spun a play wheel. Dice were involved, too, and I believe a specially licensed magic 8-ball. In the end, taking a turn involved implementing an action, spinning a wheel, drawing a card, implementing another action, consulting the magic 8-ball, doing a couple of battements, and pinching yourself hard to wake up.
Realistic, right? The only thing missing that would make this just like real baseball is the hot dogs. And the baseball.
Top of the Order plays only slightly less ponderously than Pursue the Pennant, the sports-simulation game most popular with tree sloths and woolly mammoths, though PtP rewards the extremely patient and clinically dead with some highly realistic outcomes.
We’re going to be spending some time with these sports-cough-simulation games over the next several weeks, and we’ll come back to this point many times, but just to get this out there, the reason why something like Pokémon got the popularity and sports-simulation card games didn’t is because there are no preconceived notions in Pokémon and baseball is nothing if not preconceived. There was no way Kevin Stocker could be the big hero in Top of the Order because we already knew Kevin Stocker the human being from his performance in Major League Baseball: Human Being Edition, and he was no hero. And if he perchance was exposed to a special Top of the Order chemical cocktail (including gummies) that transformed him into the TOTO version of Elastic Man and he took Eric Gagne deep downtown and became the hero of heroes, we’d say the game’s wacked. On the other hand, your Venusaur can play Vine Whip for 25 straight turns and no one thinks it’s a flaw. It’s what Venusaur does – and even though it’s just freaking Vine Whip, it’s still more compelling in the artificial realm of the game table than a 100-mile-an-hour Randy Johnson fastball.
That’s the long, master’s-thesis way of saying that baseball simulation games that try to simulate too much are a bad idea, though so are baseball games that don’t simulate enough. We’ll look at another failure to learn that lesson next time.

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