Consider the athlete frozen in time, his likeness laminated onto the face of a faded cardboard trading card--forever vital, always winning, the stuff of prepubescent dreams and fond recollections. O.J. Simpson slicing past his pursuers. Pete Rose stealing home. Wilt Chamberlain taking it to the hole. These are images designed for the masses to covet and stockpile--collectors' cards worth, back in the day, a week's supply of chewing gum, a half-pack of Luckys, and a fold-out from Dad's Playboy stash.
Over the years, though, this once-dignified pastime has been cheapened by the vagaries of pop culture. In the '80s, trading cards featuring blow-dried rock stars and airbrushed supermodels stole counter space from big-game sluggers like Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew. Soon enough, shots of soap-opera idols and B-movie monsters trumped portraits of Michael, Magic, and Larry. Man against man, against the elements, against himself, proved too real and too raw to stack up against the fantasy life. For a moment it seemed as though fathers would have nothing but pitifully depleted treasure troves to hand down to their sons, and another wholesome ritual had been ruined.
Then, quick as a 911 response in Brentwood, our boys in blue stepped up to the plate. All odds stacked against them, they set about bringing honor back to the entrepreneurial enterprise of trading cards. In 1991 a police chief from the Sunshine State figured the best bet for ingratiating his rank and file to poor Hispanic kids was to bestow on them a handout: not money (which might skew their already crooked sense of entitlement), not candy (which might rot their uninsured teeth), but a round of collector cards championing the best and brightest players on his team--clear-eyed, steely-jawed cops spiffed, shined, and armed to the teeth. The cards were a hit.
When a chief in Waterloo, Iowa, got wind of this triumph, he instructed his troops to press their best blues and get looking smart for the camera. Then he approached Pioneer Graphics, a hometown firm, and, as fast as you can say "freeze," what once was a whim turned into a craze. Calls from other forces lit up the lines. Orders poured in. Pioneer branched off into ProImage, an inexhaustible division that churned out product on demand. By the close of fiscal year 1997, according to one sales rep, ProImage had supplied cards to more than 400 police and fire departments nationwide.
Here in Minnesota, the company first produced cards for divisions in Mankato, Maplewood, Roseville, and Woodbury. "It's a good way to get kids to approach you, to come and talk to you," the rep said when we reached her by phone. "It makes the officer look good. It shows that he's a good guy. And it makes sense that this would be popular with this generation of officer. When they were kids, trading cards were really big. Now they're grown-ups and they think, 'Yeah, I want my own trading card!'"
In our fair city, where a kiss-'em-where-it-hurts mayor and her loyal city council have recently been forced to siphon off millions from the city budget to settle up with folks whining about being beaten, choked, raped, locked in trunks, and shot by local cops, trading cards until last week have been hard to come by. No more. Thanks to Sgt. Jim Wilson, supervisor for the downtown command, cards featuring officers of the mounted patrol and a K-9 officer along with his shep, Blitz, are now available to the public. Wilson says they're easy enough to come by: Just flag down a mountie and ask for one of your own. They're free--and yours to keep, or trade with pals!
Bankrolled by an anonymous downtown grocer, the first print run of this edition cost $2,000. But keep in mind, Wilson stresses, that they're sure to become collectors' items in the future, and provide many happy returns. ProImage's rep says this is a small order for a big metro cop force, but hopes police chief Robert Olson will follow the suit of his pony-friendly officers and outfit the rest of his men with their own cards. We agree. In a town where guys like Mike Sauro are benched just for playing hard, we can't help but think some good, ol'-fashioned Americana will go a long way toward easing tensions between the public and its protectors.
Ideas for future cards, we hear, are already flying around the precincts. Just as some officers have been snapped atop their trusty mounts, vice cops could strike a pose with their favorite stripper administering a lap dance in the back of a squad car behind the Déjà Vu club. Beat cops in South Minneapolis could stage a shooting to teach youngsters not to play with toy guns--adding an element of community education to the deck. Officer Alicia Clemons could seat herself beside a bag stuffed with hate mail, holding her $400,000 settlement check signed by the city. Ex-narcotics officer Stanley Capistrant could be snapped in his prison cell with a few embezzled hundreds and casino chips as props. Mike Sauro, back on the force after an extended vacation, could be captured flashing his badge and weapon of choice. Even the mayor could get in on the act, photographed with personnel from the MPD's fraud division helping her husband to balance his checkbook.