Monthly Archives: March 2012

The 30 Patch Project

Taking back the hobby on my own terms

It is purely a coincidence that the topic of the hobby’s evolution and its future has come to the forefront just as I’m getting to this reveal.  I started the buildup to this at the beginning of the month, mainly because I knew I wouldn’t have much time to develop much new content and updating a picture once a day for 30 days seemed like a good way to keep the site active.  Now that we’ve reached the anticlimactic finale, my previous “Hobby in crisis” pieces make a perfect lead-in to a story of how I’ve learned to adapt to the changing landscape of baseball card collecting.

Card collecting has become increasingly difficult as the number and variety of cards have increased (and as the print runs have decreased).  eBay has also changed the game by making common items more available at lower prices and opening the market for rarer items to the entire world.  This drives the demand for rarer and rarer items in new products, which raises prices and turns the original draw, the base set, into unwanted overhead.  The whole thing ends up being lose-lose for case/box/packbusting; if you want a set, you can get one cheaper and easier on eBay than you can by opening packs, and if you want high-end inserts, the long odds of getting what you want at random, the premium added to the case/box/pack price for at best a miniscule chance of a big hit, and the ever-decreasing prices on the secondary market make those prospects dismal at best.  I’ve built sets, I’ve collected players, and I’ve chased rookies, but it seems like the rules keep getting changed out of my favor.  It got to the point where I had no choice but to call it quits.  This hobby just wasn’t fun anymore.

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March Mystery Montage: Day 30

After 30 daily updates, this is what we have:

Day 30

So what is it?  The full story goes up tomorrow, but for now here are the basics:

  • 30 game-used patch cards
  • One for each MLB franchise
  • All from Mets players
  • All patches match the team that the player is shown in
  • As many stars and Hall of Famers as I could manage
  • Enough players at each position to make a workable roster


Baseball card collecting: Hobby in crisis, Part 2

Baseball cards and traditional media, pot and kettle?

In Part 1, I looked at the factors that I saw playing a part in the success or failure of the baseball card industry. I wrote this without having seen the CBS News piece that has stirred up this discussion over at Beckett, Panini, Upper Deck, and Cardboard Connection. To me, the health of the hobby comes down to interest in the sport, innovation in the industry, and cost. Cost is the tricky one.

Today’s baseball card market looks nothing like it did 25 years ago. There are far more choices, a higher barrier to entry, a much wider spread between low-end and high-end, and a lot more baggage from years past. As I’ve lamented here, the small local card shows are largely a thing of the past. Even the regular mall shows are slowing down with eBay providing a much better option for buying and selling the kind of merchandise that pays the bills. Way back in 2000, I was at a mall show and saw a 2000 UD Legends Gary Carter Gold Autograph that would have been perfect for my then-fledgling Mets autograph collection. When I asked if the price was flexible, the dealer just asked if I was on eBay. Since I was, he said that we wouldn’t be able to make a deal. He just couldn’t compete with a global marketplace and wasn’t even going to try, instead opting to put his effort into selling to people who hadn’t yet gotten with the times. His market was dwindling and he knew it; it was just a matter of time before the old ways would no longer be viable.

The dealers I met during my third life as a card collector (2000-2003) were a much different breed from the ones back in the ’80s and ’90s. As with my local shop owner from the ’80s, these dealers had largely abandoned the storefront and now dealt in cards as a side business out of their homes, loading up their cars one weekend a month to set up a few tables in a mall and make deals with the ranks of the nostalgic and the faithful. They could cut you a deal on a complete 1978 Topps set or the Lenny Dykstra rookie that was inexplicably missing from your 1986 Topps set. They would gladly take any cards of local interest for trade or credit and would talk sports or cards with you when things slowed down. It was a support group for people trying to figure out how to cope with the changes in the hobby.

And that brings us to the CBS piece. The hobby is dying. A weekly local card show filled with ’70s Topps cards isn’t drawing in the kids. Cards are too expensive. Kids are only interested in video games and computers and girls. Times are tough for a celebrity card dealer who used to be rolling in cash. Give me a freaking break.

You know, we had video games, computers, and even girls (well, that one’s a bit of a stretch, for me at least) back in the ’80s. We didn’t have global networks and smartphones, but things haven’t changed that much on the “how kids spend their free time” front. The biggest change has been the social aspect – the Internet-connected game consoles and smartphones are bringing kids together like never before. Even the anime-inspired trading card games of the ’90s (and still going strong today) emphasize the social aspect of cards. What about baseball cards?

The appeal of baseball cards has been constantly changing since the mid ’80s. First popular for pictures of players and listings of stats, cards became seen as a viable investment as prices of older (and much scarcer) cards went through the roof. Baseball cards had gone from a novelty to a collectible, which can be a dangerous shift. When collectibles become self-aware, greed can bring about self-inflicted ruin. Overproduction made just about everything from this boom period worthless and created the unrealistic expectations that served as the point of comparison in the CBS report.

But who cares about what the market did ages ago? The rise of inserts and premium sets shifted the focus from sheer numbers to diversity. Upper Deck was premium from its start in 1989. Leaf went premium in 1990. Fleer and Topps launched premium lines in 1991. Bowman and Donruss went premium in 1992. Fleer, Topps, and Upper Deck launched super premium lines in 1993. Upper Deck went premium again in 1994. It was a never-ending escalation. Kids were priced out of the market.

The reality was that pack prices were always rising. The premium craze sped things up and undoubtedly pushed out the indifferent collector, but experiments in low-price alternatives like Triple Play and Collector’s Choice proved an important point – the market wanted a quality product. It wasn’t a market that catered exclusively to kids, and certainly the proportion of kids to adults had changed, but what could be done? Can you force a market to reduce profits just to match your nostalgic view of how things should be?

Maybe I just don’t get it because my nostalgia doesn’t fit the narrative. I knew very few card collectors when I was a kid and most of them were into higher-end products than I could afford. I was priced out of the market. And yet I still bought lots of cards until other obligations took over my time and attention, sampling most of the premium and super premium lines along the way (and now wishing that I had focused on quality over quantity). Have the demographics really changed all that much in 20 years?

And this is where I’m as lost as you are reading it. I’ve tried to touch on all of the factors that play into the success and failure of baseball cards. CBS showed how things are different now compared to an unrealistic bubble economy. I’ve painted a complex picture of an industry with many facets. CBS showed two very limited data points. I see uncertainty with signs pointing to at least modest success. CBS showed certain doom. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised though, CBS produced a 5 minute fluff piece while I tried to capture the history of an industry and my connection to it. Reality often fails to fit into a convenient narrative.

Why even bother running a piece on an industry just to say “it’s doomed” and not even bother to back it up? Why not look at the tragic end of Upper Deck as a fixture in the hobby or Panini’s clumsy revival of the Playoff/Donruss brand? Why not point out the inherent irony in MLB Properties granting Topps a monopoly to encourage innovation? Of all the signs of the hobby’s impending demise they could have chosen, CBS went to the local interest well for a bunch of guys who are about as out of touch with the hobby as the reporters themselves. That’s the sign of an industry on the brink of failure.

I really don’t know what the future holds for the baseball card industry. And I don’t know if that future even matters to collectors, whatever it might hold. Collectors will continue no matter what happens in the industry, changing their focus to keep the hobby interesting, taking a break when they need to, and eventually coming back if and when they see a future in the hobby. I’ve been in and out of this hobby so many times that I barely recognize what I was in my previous incarnations. I look at cards that have no place in my collection now but were centerpieces once upon a time; I see others that mean far more to me now than they did years ago. Most of all though, I see this hobby’s past as being something that is rich for mining, with every new set adding to the diversity of a mosaic that is too great to be seen in whole. The totality of the hobby is not in the current month’s or year’s offering, it is in all of the products and collectors that have come before. The hobby is bigger than any one product, manufacturer, collector, or card show. The hobby is bigger than eBay, Beckett, or even the entire Internet. The hobby will live on long after cards stop being produced or games stop being played.

Now about that stack of 1975 Topps in the CBS piece, could someone check it against my wantlist? I really need to get working on that set…

Baseball card collecting: Hobby in crisis, Part 1

The hobby is dead; long live the hobby!

A recent CBS News report about the decline of baseball cards has, predictably, received a bit of criticism from the sports card industry. Beckett and Panini have weighed in, please start there to see where this controversy is coming from. Are the days of baseball cards numbered? Is this hobby dying a slow but certain death? Can the hobby survive without massive popularity among kids? Was this piece produced 15 years ago? The answers to all of these are a bit murky and require digging deep into the history of the hobby (well, the last one is a definite “it might as well have been”). In Part 1, I’ll take a stab at why the hobby could be in trouble. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at what CBS thinks and see where we can go from there.

There are two distinct points in time when I would have emphatically agreed that baseball cards could be headed for oblivion. The first was in late 2005, when Fleer went under and Donruss let the door hit its ass on its way out of the licensed baseball card business. Fleer’s demise was really not all that surprising (its reign as the longest-running non-Topps licensed baseball card manufacturer is the surprising part). The loss of Donruss, after five years of driving the industry to deliver more variety to collectors, was like the MLB Players Association giving fans the finger.

More than anything else, the move was made to ensure that cards were all about advertising the on-field product; the simplification of the product line, reduced emphasis on retired players, and MLBPA-mandated definition of Rookie Card (which now is the most meaningless designation in the sport, several rungs below Game Winning RBIs and ceremonial first-pitch throwers) all showed that the MLBPA was not happy with the baseball card industry catering to collectors and not impressionable children who could be counted on to buy lots of MLB-licensed merchandise if only baseball cards could be made simpler.

The second major blow was delivered by MLB Properties when they reinstated the Topps monopoly in 2009. While Topps wasn’t the only player in the baseball card market from 1956 to 1980, it did everything it could to keep competitors out of the market. In this time, about the only thing Topps didn’t try was innovation; the product in 1980 differed from the product of 20 years earlier mainly in photography. Card quality, design, and subject matter remained virtually unchanged for decades.

Things changed in 1981 when Fleer and Donruss finally entered the market with the intention of sticking around. For the rest of the decade, the three fought to get cards of the hottest new rookies into their products, making update sets standard (and creating the XRC confusion). Fleer and Donruss, forced to abandon gum after the court ruling that let them into the market was overturned, moved to slightly better card stock, with Score and then Upper Deck taking things further in 1988 and 1989, respectively. By the time Topps countered with a largely irrelevant late-season Bowman set, it was clear that change was necessary to keep up in the booming card market.

That’s what happens when you have competition. Sure, people complain about how it’s not like it was in the “old days,” but chances are that the real old days weren’t what they think they were. Things are always changing, whether it’s the price of a pack of cards, the number of cards in the pack, or the mix of cards from month-to-month (well, that stopped changing in 1974); the quality of the gum is the only true constant (kudos to Topps for getting the 2001 Heritage gum formulation so perfectly putrid). Monopolies slow the pace of change and put the industry at risk of irrelevance.

This is what makes the 2009 exclusive trading card deal between MLB Properties and Topps so troubling. Worse, when Upper Deck snubbed its nose at MLBP and produced a 2010 baseball card product with visible team names and logos, the resulting court battle ended in a settlement that all but guaranteed that Upper Deck would not be returning to the baseball card market; in addition to agreeing not to use MLB team names and logos, Upper Deck agreed not to use photos that had been altered to remove offending logos, leaving only artwork and non-baseball imagery as fair game should UD wish to produce an unlicensed set.

Things took a turn for the better in 2011 when Panini, the current owner of Donruss and Playoff (but not Leaf), secured a license from the MLB Players Association. While this is certainly a positive development, Panini has a long way to go to bring its cards up to the current industry standard (the lack of team logos and names and the continued release of 2011 products well into 2012 aren’t helping matters any either). Even Leaf (formerly Razor, not to be confused with the Donruss incarnation of Leaf) has managed to produce high-quality cards with no official licenses, so Panini’s initial efforts under their MLBPA license are disappointing to say the least.

So what does this say about the health of the hobby? Not a heck of a lot. You can talk financials (Upper Deck was near-ruin in the mid-90s and Topps was in the middle of several takeover/merger attempts in 2007), but that’s too far removed from the average collector to be relatable. The booms of the mid-to-late-80s and early-to-mid-00s can teach us a few lessons. Mainly, interest in the sport is a big factor in the success of baseball cards; unlike what the MLBPA would like to believe, the sport is an advertisement for the hobby, not the other way around. The strikes in 1981 and 1994 corresponded to down years for the baseball card industry, while renewed interest in the sport in the following years corresponds to the previously mentioned booms. Today, we’re coming off another downturn caused by the revelation of the Steroid Era and should be looking at an upswing in the near future (particularly if perennial losers Royals and Pirates and big-market busts Mets and Dodgers can get competitive again). This should result in a stronger baseball card market, all things being equal, but are they?

Check back tomorrow for Part 2: Baseball cards and traditional media, pot and kettle?

These aren’t the stats you’re looking for

A post about Star Wars and baseball that does not mention R.A. Dickey.  Except for right there.  Oops.

We’re knee-deep in the ides of March, which, for all of you who are not Roman emperors, means lengthy discussions of the rites of spring training.  It’s the time of year when every injury, every car-flipping DUI, every sub-par outing, every billion dollar lawsuit, and every sky-high batting average is completely blown out of proportion by sportswriters with too much time on their hands and too little actual news.  What a way to make a living.

As for me, I’m stuck in fast-moving bumper-to-bumper traffic thinking about a Twitter discussion about the significance of spring training stats, of which I probably only saw less than half before throwing out a comment and losing interest.  My remark about considering all stats to be meaningless probably went unnoticed but would otherwise have been dismissed as a satirical take on the whole sorry state of affairs.  Which, in some part, it was, but it was also touching on a deeper truth.  I just don’t believe in baseball stats.

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Upper Deck: A Love Story (Part 1)

How four packs of cards changed my world

What follows is the first part in an overly long missive documenting my 20+ year on-again/off-again relationship as a customer of a corporate entity that produces precisely-cut pieces of cardboard.  As with any love story, there are ups and downs, blind devotion, shattered dreams, renewed passion, false hope, and a tragic ending that Dickens would have to rewrite to appeal to his simple-minded readers.  I am no Dickens and I have no readers, so this story will be told as it happened, with no punches pulled.

Looking back, it’s hard to remember those feelings from so long ago.  Back in those days, the idea of a world without them was beyond my imagination.  The sheer joy of finding something new and exciting, the realization that this was something to be cherished…  It’s been about two years now.  Two years since we lost Upper Deck as a licensed baseball card manufacturer.

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