Nostalgia

Cooperstown's always entertaining Jeff Katz wrote a terrific blog post this week on the new Topps Heritage cards. Jeff doesn't like them at all, for reasons he articulates well.

But there's something extra about the post that struck me -- something about nostalgia.

Jeff shows two different slides of nine cards. The first is of today's Topps Heritage set. The second is of the actual 1970 cards that they're meant to honor.

The new cards:

And the old ones:

The Heritage cards do a good impression of the 1970 cards. It's about as good as Bill Hader's Alan Alda. They look basically the same. The players did their best to reenact the poses. The typeface, the colors, the backgrounds, all of those are pretty much the same. It's a good impression.

But fundamentally the cards don't feel the same. There's something missing from the new cards. But what is it? There's something just a little bit cornier, just a little bit more careless, just a little bit less polished about the 1970 cards. They're inferior in ways that would matter to, say, an art director or a photographer or a baseball fan too young to remember.

And here's where we get to nostalgia.

I've often wondered -- and I've written a few words about this through the years -- why I feel deeply nostalgic for demonstrably inferior things.

For instance, Progressive Field in Cleveland is at least 10,000 times nicer than old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. And yet, as much as I love it, I do feel nostalgic for the old ballpark, those steel beams that blocked your view, that concrete that clung to your shoes because, well, you don't want to think about it, the preposterous wind off Lake Erie that turned summer into winter. I'm nostalgic for the smell of cheap beer and paper straws that would disintegrate on the first sip and polyester uniforms and impossibly long bathroom lines leading to troughs of yuck, for an infield where the grass was browner than the dirt.

It's like that in so many areas of my life -- I'm nostalgic for those Mattel handheld games where you had to imagine yourself as a red blip of light. I'm nostalgic for three-channel television when absolutely nothing was ever on. I'm totally nostalgic for the old Portabubble word processor that I used when I first became a sportswriter. I've written this before, but hey, this an essay on nostalgia: The Portabubble was a computer of sorts, roughly the shape and weight of a Mazda 3. The screen was barely large enough to get a full Tweet on it.

The Portabubble.

The three best features of the Portabubble were undoubtedly:

  1. Power. What a workhorse. You would type a couple of paragraphs, then you could go and get a drink and a cookie while waiting for the letters to actually appear on the screen. It's like there was an old guy inside the Portabubble typing your words with two fingers on a manual typewriter. ("Hold on! Hold on! J-A-G, oh wait, I hit H, hold on a second!")

  2. Connectivity. You transmitted stories through a magical device called "couplers." I cannot explain couplers to the uninitiated, because first I would have to explain "phone booths," and "dial tones." But I will say that in order to successfully transmit a story, everyone within a 12-mile radius needed to be perfectly still. This hardly guaranteed success, but it was your best shot. Nine out of 10 times, your paragraphs would look like so: "CHARL%%% %%$%#%%%^&#&&@#&^@^#&$( #&@ Hornet#*@)(@)$&$*$(\$) #*3#)@oint@&@(&$&@*(@&$&#@(@(@)*$*#&* #*&Q@*Q."*

  3. Support. The way to fix a Portabubble was to hurt it. When we called tech support, they would say things like, "Hit it on the side," or "Drop it from approximately 18 inches off the table."

*Once when I asked an editor if my story had come in ungarbled, he said, "With your stuff, I can't tell the difference."

Why do I feel such a deep nostalgia for patently terrible things? I even feel nostalgia for that mixture of dread and horror and fear that consumed my entire body when hearing football announcers from the 4 p.m. games say, "Our executive producer was Michael Weisman." This meant that the game was almost over, and that meant the weekend was almost over (there was no Sunday night game in those days), and that meant there was another week to survive, and surely I would not survive.


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Why? I think it's obvious why. The nostalgia isn't for THINGS. It's for youth. You hear that song, you catch that television show, you see a photo and, for an instant, it all feels close enough to touch.

But you find too quickly that it isn't.

The 1970 cards feel different than the new ones because they weren't nostalgic then. Now, sure. But then? They were real baseball cards with real players for real kid. Yes, the players did all the corny poses, but not for sentimental reasons. They did the poses because THAT'S WHAT BASEBALL PLAYERS DID ON BASEBALL CARDS. There was no irony in those cards. They didn't pose ironically. They didn't take the photos in front of terrible backgrounds ironically. They didn't come up with the 1970s design ironically. It was real. Sometimes, the players were a little bit out of focus. Often they were a touch off-center. That was the deal. It was the best they could do.

You can't recreate that. You can imitate it, yes, but that's not the same thing. The new Topps Heritage cards are made by a lot of people who are in on the joke. That's OK. It's fun. But it isn't nostalgic. It's like watching your kids have 1980s parties. You laugh. But you're not transported. And it always ends up being disappointing.

A few months ago, I got a device called a Freewrite. It's basically a sleeker and infinitely better version of the Portabubble. It weighs roughly one-fiftieth the pounds of a Portabubble, and it has a fantastic mechanical keyboard, and it has a small screen that's still way bigger than the PB. And, like the Portabubble, it's entirely used for typing in stories and then sending them -- there's no Internet on it, no games, no nothing. It's just for writing. And when you send your stories, they're always garble-free.

I use my Freewrite sometimes. when I'm feeling nostalgic, and it's fine. But it never quite takes me all the way back to the Portabubble days. I suppose it can't do that. Nostalgia is a fleeting feeling, a brush against a stranger in a train station, a dream you barely remember and then lose in the morning glow. You cannot go back.