Wednesday, June 5, 2013

No. 365 – Trail of Tears / Bristol Shore

Performer: Eric Johnson
Songwriters: Eric Johnson, Carla Olson, Stephen Barber
Original Release: Tones
Year: 1986
Definitive Version: None

A couple days ago, I got an email from Dave at work noting the latest funky product from Topps—cartoonish three-dimensional figurines of baseball players. We traded observations and jabs at Topps’ expense in a few rapid-fire emails.

That’s pretty much how we wrote Card Corner, our card column, when we started it at The Journal in February 1992, back when it seemed I had Eric Johnson on in an endless loop in my CD player. We’d come up with the idea and then just go back and forth, and the column would reflect a conversation we were having—complete with asides and inside references and all sorts of stuff. (Dave and I used to say we wrote with two readers in mind—us.)

Now, considering that this was pre-Internet and pre-shared documents and files, there was only one way to do this. We had to meet up at The Journal, log on to a computer and pass the keyboard back and forth.

The column ran in Sports in Page 2 on Friday, next to the agate, so we met at the paper after dinner on Thursday. Sometimes we’d work in the Features office, and sometimes we hid in an open office for the Features columnist on the third floor down the hall from Sports. Every office had its own ATEX computer, so no problem. Dave or I would introduce the topic, and off we’d go.

Back then, because we had a general audience, we couldn’t just write about baseball cards. We had to cover everything, and some of the non-baseball-card columns were my favorites, because we could just flick spitballs.

Regardless of the topic, we usually brought in a few packs of cards or even a box to open while we wrote—to stimulate the juices. It didn’t matter whose box it was. We’d both open packs. When we did this, we played the Stiffs Game, which we had invented prior to beginning our column.

The Stiffs Game is simple: Whoever got the worst card in a pack was the winner. Usually we didn’t play for anything other than the sheer joy of opening a pack that had Rob Deer hidden inside.

One time, I brought in a box of Score baseball cards (a long-gone but much-beloved brand—at least beloved by me and Dave). Dave opened one of the packs before he gasped and closed it back up. “Here, man. YOU have to open this one since it’s your box.”

It didn’t take long for me to learn why: The first card in the pack was a Stan Musial card … autographed in gold ink by The Man himself. It was a $250 card and still the biggest find I’ve ever had of a special card in a pack. (From a value standpoint, the biggest card I ever got in a pack was the 1973 Mike Schmidt rookie, which I got when collectors HATED rookie cards.)

When Dave and I restarted Card Corner on in 2000, we wrote it the same way, except now we just wrote about baseball cards. And now, through the power of email, we didn’t have to share the keyboard, unless we got together for an outing of some sort. And, yes, on those occasions, we still played the Stiffs Game.

It was soon after this that Dave did a story for the Grand Rapids Press about a controversy involving one of those memorabilia cards that’s supposed to be, say, someone’s cut-up game-used bat and not just a wood chip from a piece of lumber bought at an Ace Hardware. Dave quoted me as a baseball-card expert. In all humility, it wasn’t an exaggeration but still was a bit … well, disingenuous. And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those darn meddling former bosses …

Dave, the sports editor in Flint, who agreed to give us our card column, read Dave’s story and called Dave out the next time he saw him: “What are you doing, quoting Will? You guys are in cahoots!” Maybe, but he couldn’t deny that I wasn’t a baseball-card expert.

I still am, and I’m still befuddled by Topps’ actions. Their baseline set is almost a public trust, and they treat it with the reverence of newspaper that wraps fish the next day. Instead they seem to be paying more attention to the same extraneous crap, like cartoonish three-dimensional figurines, that we called them—and others—on when Dave and I started our published card musings 21 years ago.

Some things never change. The only difference is Dave and my written screeds go unpublished save for our blogs.

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