Editor's note: Once I heard this story from my pal D. Frank Smith about America's Team, the Atlanta Braves, and the worst console of a generation, I knew I had to share it with you guys. Enjoy!
It took a moment to adjust my eyes to reality, because Nixon was wearing a suit, not his traditional Atlanta Braves uniform, likely because he was doing an endorsement. But as we got closer, his name tag dispelled any confusion.
There he was, the wiry center-fielder for the Braves, standing modestly in the doorway of a Sharper Image store, slinging promotional talk of the newly launched Philips CD-i, a system that left a brown streak down the annals of ‘90s home technology history. But in that moment, it was a fresh glimpse into the future of the CD.
My dad took advantage of the rare opportunity and said I should introduce myself. I was, after all, wearing a gold Braves necklace (oof). I shyly told him I was a big Braves fan, which wasn’t an embellishment. He smiled and reached out his hand. It was a proud moment.
“Come inside, you guys have got to see this thing,” I recall him saying with enthusiasm. We followed, not even caring about what he was paid to sell. We were in the presence of a member of the ’92 Braves.
Those who know me well would probably be surprised that I could pick out Otis Nixon, a lesser known member of the Braves, even before spotting his nametag. But at 10 years old, I lived and breathed baseball. The Braves were on a huge comeback streak after a decade of failure. The phrase used often for the team was “worst-to-first.” I knew all the players. I knew the batting lineup. I had Topps baseball cards in a binder. If I combined my two passions, baseball and G.I. Joes, I could gin up a solution to the common question: Who would win in a fight, Ron Gant or David Justice? (Justice, duh).
Sharper Image hadn’t landed Gant or Justice, of course. And though Nixon wasn’t exactly one of the team’s shining stars, he had secured a place in my heart for pulling off this amazing catch, in which he spryly scaled the outfield wall to deny a homerun-bound ball. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had to sit out the 1991 World Series because he had failed a drug test, which must have been devastating for him, not to mention the team.
Still, today he was off the field, decidedly not on cocaine, and doing his damnedest to convince whomever would listen of the marvels that CD technology could bring to the modern living room. From behind a glass case in a darkened room, the CD-i looked like a VCR from 2099, but there was also something noticeably wonky about the graphics. It was the fidelity. Things didn’t look bad per se, particularly when they weren’t moving. It looked like a relatively high-resolution video that you could—technically—interact with. But what the technology was boldly trying to achieve was perhaps 2-3 tech generations shy of feasible, maybe even a bad idea altogether.
Likely curving his sales pitch to suit my tastes, Nixon boasted about the games on the CD-i, walking us over to one of the systems that had a golf game already running. I had initially thought it was a video of a golf game on pause (I mean, technically I wasn’t wrong).
“There are video games?” I asked, interested but cautious about what I had seen so far.
“Oh yeah, it’s got games,” said the center-fielder, deadpan. On screen, a frozen golfer waited for input. Nixon clicked the remote three times, and the pre-recorded footage of the man swung, then cut to b-roll of a ball landing somewhere else entirely. This was the essence of the CD-i—canned video clips waiting for you to bring them together with a herky-jerky semblance of real life.
“Hmmm,” replied my dad, his arms folded across his chest.
In retrospect, there were a few things afoot in this circumstance. First, my dad was a programmer and knew about current technologies and their capabilities. Second, he knew that I loved video games, with a nascent enthusiasm for technology in general. Third, he wasn’t a big spender. Conclusion: He could recognize the bullshit at play, but didn’t want to ruin my fun in seeing a new piece of “gaming” technology. So he let Nixon put his pitch on the machine through its paces.
Frugal or not, this home entertainment foray into the future was selling for one taco short of $800. I’ve seen reports online that the system’s launch price was $1,000, but what I recall is $799. This is burned into my memory because when the Sega CD came out a year later, I remember thinking it was less than half the price of a CD-i (“consider the value, dad!” I would regretfully say later.)
“Is that really the controller?” I asked, trying to hold one of the TV-style remotes sideways. “How do you...”
“Well, it also plays movies,” Nixon recovered, gesturing to the robust library of a dozen or so boxes on the wall. Perhaps sensing that he was starting to lose us, he handed my dad a brochure, which doubled as a pull-out poster of upcoming titles. “And here are just a few of them.” Around this point Nixon handed us off to a sales associate and resumed his duties at the doorway as the CD-i honeypot for other passersby.
My dad smiled, thanked the salesman, and said we should probably catch up with our family. A few feet away, I was still trying to get the feel for the controls on one of the games. It was an action game, and supremely painful to try to control. It seemed to want to play on its own, regardless of any attempts at navigation. I remember thinking that it couldn’t truly be this bad. It was $799. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough at it yet? No, that was just what it feels like to try and control hot garbage.
Unfortunately for Philips, while the promise of the CD medium was real, the manifestation of that promise vis à vis the CD-i was not. Ironically, the CD-i’s first-generation hardware stigma ended up paving the way for my perception of the Sega CD when it launched for $350, despite the overall poor quality of the system. Perhaps due to that fateful meeting with Otis Nixon, I successfully navigated my dad around around the sticker shock to see the “power of the CD.” But hey, while that wasn’t a stellar system either, it did let us play Lethal Enforcers together (yes, it came with powder blue and pink “Justifier” revolvers), which we still remember fondly.
As we walked to our family van, energized by the encounter, I bragged to my sister about how Otis Nixon had tried to sell us a CD-i at the mall.
“Who’s Otis Nixon?” she asked.