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I Was A Baseball Card Writer Once … And Young

David Roth is a freelance writer living in New York.

My affiliation with Topps--first as an editor of the cards' "back content" and now as a sometime-freelancer writing that content--hasn't been without its regrets. (I related a few in a 2006 piece for Slate.) But I enjoyed a great deal about my Topps tenure, too. Right up there on my list of high points, alongside the bottomless supply of Bazooka gum and the thrill of trying to sneak Thomas Pynchon references onto the back of Renaldo Balkman's rookie card (it almost worked), was telling people, "I work in the baseball card business."

Even the iciest hipsters retain dorky traces of their ten-year old card-collecting selves, and come alive at the mention of the subject. Oddly often, they want to talk not about Topps, but Sportflics, a short-lived line of holograph-enhanced cards from the 1980s. Tilted just so, Sportflics displayed a flipbook-style progression of, say, Dale Sveum in action; more often, kids just ran their fingernails over the ribbed plastic surface for a satisfying "wicky-wicky" effect. Sportflics were the last real attempt I can think of to challenge the idea of the baseball card. After they failed, it was business as usual: picture on the front, stats and text on the back, forever and ever, amen.

But earlier this week The New York Times' Eric Taub reported that my former employers are attempting to mess with cards' analog essence. Hold a Ryan Howard Topps 3D Live card up to your webcam and you'll see "a three-dimensional avatar" of the Phillies slugger on your screen; rotate the card and Ryan rotates with it.

It may well be that the trading card business needs this new technology more than my over-alliterative, hyper-punny back-of-the-card text. Professionally, I can take that. But as someone who still loves cards, there's something sad about seeing this last, goofy stronghold of my childhood under siege. Economic pressures and attendant cuts in photo budgets--as well as humorless editors at the licensing leagues--mean that the front of cards are often less interesting than in years past, but since Topps stopped pulling copy directly from team media guides in the 1990s, the card backs have actually gotten better.

I can't say I admired the prose of those old Topps rip-jobs; they were usually something along the lines of "John's hobbies are hunting and napping." I devoured it all the same, though, and did so with more eagerness once the cards got more literate and interesting. I was usually able to fit at least a little bit of fun trivia or color into my card backs. This isn't novelistic detail, exactly--it's just mentioning the former Colorado Rockies prospect whose father performed "You're the Best" on the Karate Kid soundtrack, or Kevin Garnett's ultra-competitive golf games with former Janet Jackson producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Will childhood change dramatically now that kids can wave Robinson Cano 3D Live cards under their webcams or whatever? Probably not. But it's still painful to see the  kind of goofy, transcendentally useless information I hoarded and cherished as a kid being designated for assignment in favor of some lumpy avatar.

--David Roth

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times