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Japanime holding all the cards in buildup to All-Star Game

by Ed Odeven

Glenn Kardy calls himself a “crazy baseball fan.” His earliest sports memory is a wild one. He can still remember the heated seventh inning of Game 2 of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the Tigers and A’s.

Ed Odeven

It was snapshot of potential all-out chaos: Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris threw his bat at Detroit reliever Lerrin LaGrow after he was hit by a pitch. A brawl was avoided but both combatants, er, players were ejected.

Those images, and numerous other memories as an avid A’s fan, helped shape the young Kardy’s mind as a sports fan growing up in Napa Valley, Calif.

Now fast forward to the 1990s. It’s a time when Kardy, now in his 30s and living in Japan, runs a toy store with his wife, Mari. A former print journalist, Kardy admitted to himself that he wanted to get back into an occupation that utilized his artistic and creative skills.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a toy dealer for my career,” Kardy said during a recent interview at his Japanime Co. Ltd. office. “I wanted to get back with the printed word in some way.”

Credit a fellow journalist for helping transform this wish into a reality.

During a conversation with a former colleague, Kardy learned that comic books were a popular medium in Japan.

“She asked me if I read comic books,” Kardy recalls.

News photoGlenn Kardy, president of Japanime Co. Ltd., proudly displays an uncut set of collectable cards for bj-league’s inaugural All-Ster Game in his office in Kawaguchi City, Saitama Prefecture. Japanime made a second set of 20 cards, one for each selected player, for the 2007-08 All-Ster Game, which will be held on Saturday in Niigata.
YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

He told her he didn’t.

“She told me she read comic books every day on the train,” he still remembers her saying.

This sparked his interest in Japan’s manga culture and led to his starting Japanime, a company that’s focused on making learning Japanese an enjoyable experience (including its popular “Kanji de Manga” series) — and one that’s more interesting than reading textbooks.

Kardy compared the educational process to building a house.

“This makes laying that foundation fun,” he says. “If it starts out fun, it’ll be fun for the rest of your life.”

Japanime unceremoniously entered the sports memorabilia market after Kardy heard Toshimitsu Kawachi, the commissioner of the bj-league, speak at a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting in the fall of 2005 in Tokyo.

At that gathering, Kawachi spoke about how “above all, he wanted to make basketball popular with children,” Kardy recalls.

This gave him a favorable impression of the new league, which began play in 2005.

Living and working in Saitama Prefecture, Kardy decided to approach his adopted prefecture’s hometown team, the Saitama Broncos, and see if he could work with them.

“We are a small business,” he says, repeating his message from two years ago. We’d like to help your business in a way that also will bring interest to our company.”

Game-day giveaways made this happen. And it was a pleasant reminder of Kardy’s youth, a time when he would regularly attend Single-A baseball games in Sonoma Valley, Calif., where season tickets for the Redwood Pioneers cost $15 apiece and Granny Goose, a local potato chip manufacturer, had a well-known giveaway in those days: a baseball card stuffed into the bottom of the bag.

These cards had a distinct trademark, too. They were “all stained from potato chip grease,” Kardy says with a laugh.

Japanime teamed up with the Broncos to create shitajiki (Japanese-style drawing boards). For eight games during the 2005-06 season, the team gave away 100 of these. Four players — Kosuke Shimizu, Ryuzo Anzai, Ryuichi Horikawa and David Benoit — had their faces proudly plastered on these drawing boards.

But before scores of kids and adults carried them home there was a true collaborative project between athlete and artist.

A Japanese illustrator met each of the four players, took their photographs, interviewed them and then used those visual and mental images to create the shitajiki with the aid of Adobe Illustrator.

At about the same time, Kardy also met with members of the Broncos front of-fice about beginning Japanime’s “first attempt at actual merchandising.”

He proposed selling kazoos, a unique alternative to the widely available cheer sticks, at Saitama’s games.

Kardy demonstrated to the team’s owner how to use the tiny musical instrument (“You have to hum.”) by playing the “Charge” song, which is a staple at countless North American sporting venues.

The idea caught on.

“Lots of regular Saitama fans started bringing them to games,” Kardy says.

Seeing that the kazoo had become a steady-selling item in Saitama, Kardy decided he wanted to partner with the bj-league for a league-wide merchandising project.

The grand ol’ game of baseball triggered the next ambitious project.

In a meeting with bj-league staff, he was asked if Japanime would be interested in doing some type of trading cards.

The timing was perfect. The league’s first All-Star Game was slated for Jan. 27, 2007, in Okinawa, and it was a chance for Japanime to concoct one permanent, iconic item for each of the 20 All-Stars.

Simply put, Kardy calls trading cards “the most important collecting item for pro leagues.”

Trading cards are “a staple” of a fan’s collection, he adds.

Why’s that?

“With trading cards, you can have every player; bobbleheads, you can’t have all of them because it’s out of the budget for most collectors,” Kardy says.

Japanime enthusiastically worked on creating these 20 trading cards last winter, using a Tim Duncan bobblehead doll as a prototype for the cards centerpiece image.

It was a win-win situation for Japanime and the bj-league.

“It gets me involved in sports,” Kardy says, “and I love sports. And it allows me to exercise some design muscle, and I think it’s something my company does well.”

The cards, which Kardy describes as “whimsical,” were ready just in time for the inaugural All-Star Game, so Kardy carried them on the plane with him to Okinawa in January.

Japanime is set to release its 2007-08 bj-league All-Star Game card set on Saturday.

Working closely with the bj-league office again, Kardy and his staff opted for a classic card design this season: a black border that reminds him of the 1971 Topps MLB set. The cards highlight each team’s colors as well, with a classic star providing an appropriate symbol in the top right corner.

AFLO, the bj-league’s official photographic agency, provided a working archive of about 500 action photographs for the 20 All-Stars. Then it was time for the fun, yet tedious task of selecting one picture per player, while getting the OK from each individual team for the use of that player’s photo.

Dale Rubin, a 22-year-old designer in Kawaguchi, worked with Kardy on this project. Rubin, who’s not an avid sports fan, did the “heavy lifting,” Kardy says.

The 20-card set will be sold for ¥1,000 at the All-Star Game in Niigata and throughout the season at teams home games, as well as on the league’s official online shop. In addition, Japanime will hand out uncut strips of five of the cards to the first 1,000 fans who walk through the Toki Messe doors on Saturday.

These cards, unlike last year’s, will include player statistics (from the 2006-07 season) on the back.

“I think it’s a good starter set for kids and guys my age who never stop collecting,” Kardy says, adding that he’s interested in creating a league-wide set of trading cards in the future.