Category Archives: News

Comprehensive Baseball Ink Test: Overview

Now we’re getting serious

Like anyone with a big stack of autographed baseballs, the last thing I want to see happen to them is for the autograph to fade away to nothing over time.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much literature out there on this problem, just collections of anecdotes.  Over the past year, I’ve conducted a couple of tests to help make sense of the mechanisms involved and give me an idea of where to go next.  With the preliminary research out of the way, it’s time to go full-scale and test the key variables to finally answer the question of what a baseball should be signed with.  To get up to speed, start with these posts:

Faded Memories in Ink on Leather

Synthetic Leather Baseball Ink Test Phase 2

Baseball Ink Test Preliminary Results

Disclaimers

But first, let’s go over what I’m not accounting for.  One concern that this test will not resolve is about the effect of different pen pressures and stroke styles on the longevity of a signature.  Theoretically, an autopen setup could be used to carefully control these aspects of the test, but I don’t have one.  Also, these factors are out of the control of the receivers of an autograph, so I’m not sure what could be gained.  This is an area where this test will fall short of full technical rigor and I would be negligent if I failed to point that out.

Also beyond the scope of this experiment is the effect on temperature and humidity on the different aspects of this process.  These factors could significantly affect the flow of ink from the pen, the application of the ink to the ball, and the durability of the ink over time.  Environmental conditions will be the same for the initial application of all ink and will be the same within each test location, though these locations will not be maintained to guarantee identical conditions between locations.  Some variation is accepted as a limitation of this test.

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The Topps Spring Fever Promotion Leaves Collectors Cold

An April Fools’ joke two months early

I’m not trying to turn this blog completely negative. Really, I’m not. But when these stories present themselves, they get little attention from the big names in collecting news. That leaves it up to the little guys to capture these moments for posterity and make sure that they become part of the historical record. In this case, Topps has set a precedent that could completely undermine the entire hobby. It almost certainly won’t go that far, but the lack of any notable backlash seems to have demonstrated that there is no obligation to deliver what is promised in a pack of cards.

Last year, Topps introduced the Spring Fever promotion with 2013 Topps Series 1. This was the first of many promotions designed to get people to spend more time at their local hobby shops. Spring Fever redemption cards were inserted into packs at a rate of one per hobby box (regular or jumbo). If you had a participating hobby shop near you, you could redeem the card for a special 5-card pack of Spring Fever cards, which contained an assortment of cards from the 50-card set plus 32 different autograph cards randomly inserted. For those without local hobby shops, they could sell the redemption cards for about $2 each, a nice little bonus out of each box (something usually referred to as “added value”).

The Spring Fever cards themselves were quite nice. Even though the photographs were mostly just the same photographs used in the base Topps set, the metallic foil and new background design made them really stand out in a sea of colored border parallels. The cards look even better scanned, just like the 2012 Topps Archives gold parallels. For a Mets collector, having David Wright and Jeurys Familia in the base set wasn’t all that bad. The set itself was a mix of rookies, stars, and retired greats, making it a fun set to put together. On top of that, the autographs, while on stickers, were a nice bonus for the price. I bought 10 extra redemption cards and pulled the Markakis auto shown above, which sold for almost as much as I paid for the redemption cards (I probably could have gotten more if I had sold the unopened packs though…). It was hard not to like this new promotion.

2013 Topps Series 1 delivered considerable value beyond the cards in the packs. In addition to the Spring Fever redemptions, Topps also continued its tradition of wrapper redemptions in 2013 Series 1. Wrappers from a box of cards would get you a 5-card Silver Slate pack, which contained a mix of blue sparkle parallels, framed silver parallels numbered to 10, and autographs. Luck was on my side in these, delivering three of the cards above in the four packs I sent in for (I had to buy the Familia). The Machado and Kipnis each sold for about $30, not bad for a few bonus packs.

And that brings us to 2014 Topps Series 1. Like last year, Spring Fever redemption cards were back at the same insertion rate. No announcements were made about wrapper redemptions, which Topps seemed to be phasing out anyway. Then something strange happened when people started opening packs – they couldn’t find the Spring Fever redemption cards. Box after box, case after case, thousands of packs were opened on launch day without a single Spring Fever redemption card being pulled. Usually, this would be a sign of something being a retail exclusive, but that wouldn’t make sense for a hobby store promotion. Something was wrong. Then Topps confirmed it: Spring Fever redemption cards weren’t in packs of 2014 Topps Series 1.

With no wrapper redemption planned, switching the Spring Fever to a wrapper redemption would at least ensure that the people who were shorted the redemption cards could still get the packs (or get some money for the wrappers). Topps however also confirmed that there would be no wrapper redemption for 2014 Topps Series 1. No redemption cards, no wrapper redemption, how was Topps going to make things right? As it turned out, all would be made right for a price.

Spring Fever promotional flyer sent to hobby shops in early March of 2014

Topps would later reduce the cost of a Spring Fever promo pack from 18 packs to 16 packs. What a bargain! For only the cost of 16 hobby packs, or about $32, collectors could get something that was supposed to be in a box they already spent $70-100 on two months ago. I suppose you also get the cards in the packs for that price, but the value of a two month old product just isn’t what it used to be. And of course there’s the little bit about how collectors already bought a ton of this stuff two months ago with the promise of Spring Fever packs. But was it really a promise? Let’s take a look at the wrapper.

Odds from the wrapper of a 2014 Topps Series 1 hobby jumbo pack

If you read the fine print, near the end of the fourth line you’ll see the odds of a Spring Fever Redemption card in a hobby jumbo pack at 1:10, or one per hobby jumbo box on average (odds for regular hobby packs are 1:36 with 36 packs per box). That’s not a guarantee that one will be in any particular pack or even a sealed box. It could be argued that it isn’t any sort of guarantee at all. But if that is the case, what about all of the other cards with listed odds? Can Topps get away with leaving all of those out too and charging more later for the chance to get them? Either Topps is obligated to meet the insertion rates printed on their product or they are free to ignore them, there’s no middle ground. Since nothing has happened to Topps for their failure to deliver Spring Fever redemption cards, we are left to assume that pack odds are not in any way binding and can freely be ignored by manufacturers. That is a disturbing concept.

Luckily, while it seems that Topps is under no obligation to deliver what their product promises, hobby shops are under no obligation to follow the specific rules regarding the distribution of promo packs (well, they may technically have an obligation, but Topps has no way to enforce it unless the shops do something stupid like listing promotional items on eBay). Many shops are doing the right thing and are giving the packs to customers who they know deserve them or are at least making them available for more than just purchases of the now outdated 2014 Topps Series 1.

This may be the last we see of this problem. Or it could only be the beginning. In any case, it should not be ignored and forgotten. Major League Baseball may have sold out to Topps, but that doesn’t mean that we have to stand by silently and watch Topps disrespect collectors and the hobby. Topps is not and will never be the hobby, no matter what their arrogance leads them to believe.

Unintended Consequences of the Panini Rewards Program

Turning redemptions into digital currency

Last week at the Las Vegas Industry Summit, Panini boldly announced an end to dreaded redemptions and the beginning of the industry’s first rewards program.  The Panini Rewards Program consists of Panini Rewards points cards inserted in place of redemption cards and a catalog of available cards that those points can be exchanged for.  Sounds simple enough, right?  No more redemption cards, choice in the hands of the collector, what could go wrong?  Few details are known right now (and some may not be revealed directly from Panini), but it seems clear that nobody really knows how this new system will work out.

I always like to think of ways to exploit systems, partly to be able to get the most out of opportunities and partly to identify problem areas that may require corrective action.  Any time money is involved, you can be sure that there will be people looking for a way to turn a profit.  Let’s break down the components so we can figure out where things could go wrong.

The Source

Where the rewards cards come from is straightforward.  Whenever a card that is planned for a product isn’t available in time for packout, a rewards card will be inserted in its place.  The number of points on each card will depend on the relative value of the card being replaced.  A key point here is that this system will do nothing to prevent redemption cards, it merely changes their form.  Anyone who pulls one of these still faces the same choice: keep it and redeem it for something or sell it.  This choice is now complicated by the range of possible redemption options and new types of risk.

The Sellers

The easy option, as with current redemptions, is to simply sell a rewards points card after pulling it.  This gets around the choice of what to redeem it for, whether to get more points to get a better card, or whether to wait for different cards to become available.  Unlike current redemption cards, the value of these points shouldn’t change much over time.  This makes it less attractive to hold the card and wait for a better time to sell.

The Buyers

This new points system will drastically change the buying landscape.  It is not uncommon to see redemption cards languishing on the market because of unrealistic asking prices or a complete lack of demand for a particular player.  With no specific players tied to any points card, those should no longer be an issue.  The flexibility in redemption options means that there should be demand for every card but no variation in demand between cards.  Buyers may be looking for one card at the specified point level, a card at a higher point value, or bulk points to load up an account with to be able to grab cards quickly as soon as they become available.  It’s this last class of speculators that could drive the market for points cards and could cause the most problems.

The Redemption

For people who choose to redeem a points card they pulled from a pack, they will have to choose between a card they specifically want, something else that is available and looks interesting, or whatever looks like it will be the most valuable.  That last part will also come into play if someone buys a points card with the intention of redeeming it for a specific card.  If the card you want is worth less than $5 but you can get a card worth $10 or more at the same points tier, what do you do?  If you only spent $5 on the points, you could turn a profit if the right card is available.  Conversely, if the availability of more valuable cards pushes the price of the required points to $10, is it even worth going through the process for the $5 card?  Already, we’re seeing the possibility of problems arising from pricing within a single point tier.

The big factor driving prices will probably be speculators who will seek to buy up points and redeem them for whatever provides the largest profits.  In addition to the likelihood of a range of values within a single point tier, there are differences in value between point tiers to consider.  If a $100 card can be redeemed for points equivalent to 10 $5 cards, the higher point tier becomes a better value and the price of points on the secondary market will likely rise as a result to make obtaining the $5 cards less economically viable.  The reverse is less likely to be a problem but could make high-dollar cards even more expensive on the secondary market (and less likely to sell).

Speculators will also have a competitive advantage when it comes to timing.  For the pack opener or the specific card collector, there is likely to be some amount of disconnect between when cards become available and when they are selected for redemption.  The speculator on the other hand will have points loaded in their account and will be ready to take action as soon as they get an alert about a valuable card becoming available.  In addition to the value differential arising from how Panini chooses to value cards that can be redeemed, we now see a problem with which types of users will be able to get the most value out of the inequities in the system.

The Secondary Market

For some, the best option may be to stay out of the rewards point system entirely and wait for cards to hit the secondary market.  And this is where it gets messy.  As noted above, cards that fall on the low end of the value spectrum may be less attractive for redemption and may only be redeemed by people who want those specific cards.  This means that few, if any, of these cards may ever hit the secondary market.  Those that do may be plagued by unrealistic asking prices that reflect the cost of redemption more than the value of the card.  Panini has added an artificial exchange rate into the middle of the redemption process in their attempt to improve it.

Valuation

At the heart of this system is the assignment of points to specific cards.  Until we see some examples, there is no way to know how this process will work.  But even without examples, it isn’t hard to envision problems.  We know that each card will have a point value assigned for packout, but will this point value be kept unchanged when the card is made available?  Will it remain the same for as long as the card is available?  The card’s dollar value will fluctuate over time, shouldn’t that be reflected in its rewards point value?  There are a lot of questions to answer and few answers that will satisfy all of them.  The point-to-dollar exchange rate is the key here and it is unrealistic to expect Panini to be able to keep this rate constant across all available redemption cards.

99 cents or 91 dollars? What’s that in points?

The biggest problem area is going to be the extreme low end.  Many of Panini’s autograph cards routinely sell for less than $5 shipped, including many of their low-numbered parallels.  If the cost to redeem is too high, these cards will go unclaimed.  And if parallels automatically get a higher point value because of their numbering, they become even less attractive.  As an example, last year I sold two 2013 Panini Prizm Perennial Draft Picks red prizm autographs numbered to 100.  One sold for $91 and the other sold for 99 cents.  When it comes to parallels, most people assume that the value can be determined from a linear multiplier relative to the base version.  In reality, the relationship is exponential; valuable cards have exceptionally valuable parallels while cards with minimal value see no increase in value for more limited versions.  In many cases, a more common base version may be more valuable than rarer parallels.  This poses a major problem with the valuation process.

#d/744: $10.51 #d/100: $8.50 #d/50: $7.88 How many points should these be worth?

Solutions

There are no easy answers here.  Ultimately, collectors of specific players at the lower end of the value spectrum are likely to be the losers in this sort of system.  Should Panini discount the points value of cards when they spend too long in the system?  Offer them as free bonuses?  Bundle multiple parallel levels of the same card at a discount?  Should there be a limit on the number of points that can be redeemed in a given time period?  A lottery system that removes the timing advantage of speculators?  The ability to reserve cards before they are available?  We’ll probably have to wait and see exactly how the system breaks before coming up with fixes.

If it had been up to me, this is not the sort of system I would have deployed.  The problem areas with redemptions are the need for redemptions in the first place, which the Panini Rewards system does not address, and the long wait for fulfillment, which the Panini Rewards system addresses with possible complications due to speculators.  If the goal is to fix the fulfillment process, creating a profit-based incentive for more people to enter the redemption system in competition with the existing collector base is counterproductive.  A more reasonable alternative would be to keep specific card redemptions as they are and offer an exchange for rewards points if a card goes unfulfilled for a certain period of time, say two months, after being entered into the system.  This gives long-waiting collectors the option to select an alternate card while discouraging speculators with the risk of getting the listed card instead of points (and having to wait a set amount of time to learn which they will be getting).  Additionally, priority should be given for people who have been waiting the longest instead of the quickest to make a request once a card becomes available.  These minor changes could drastically change how collectors would benefit from the system.

With the Panini Rewards system as it has been described so far (which, admittedly, is incomplete), I’m not seeing a whole lot of practical benefit for collectors.  Having an alternative to waiting for a redemption is nice (and should always be an option), but is it worth the likely complications?  In making it easier to get something for a redemption, Panini may have made getting specific redemptions much more difficult.  The best way to solve this problem would be to reduce the number of redemption cards that are necessary in the first place (Panini’s live autograph rate in their 2013 baseball products was 88%, the worst of any of their sports).  Short of that, any other solution is little more than a distraction that will lead to profit for some and loss for others.

Stranger Things Than Baseball Have Happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Part 3

An international cast of characters

We’re only hours away from the start of the 2014 baseball season (and another week or so away from the first game stateside…).  I’ve done my best to give you some context for the event by taking a look around with the cricket configuration in place and showing you some Americans on and around the field.  That just leaves the entire rest of the world to cover, with the part of “entire rest of the world” to be played by Russia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Scotland.

The Band of the Moscow Military Conservatoire

Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force Steel Orchestra

It is inevitable I suppose that whenever you put people from different countries together, fighting will be the result.  Luckily, with musicians this takes the form of a battle of the bands.  After a week and a half of camaraderie and shared hardships (one rehearsal featured a massive deluge of rain that couldn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, as you can see here), the mood was relaxed and friendly as the final show approached.  The Sydney Cricket Ground then became the site of an epic battle of bands from opposite hemispheres, the band of the Moscow Military Conservatoire and the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force Steel Orchestra.

Back and forth the performances went with no judges, nobody keeping score, and no end in sight.  Cast members from around the globe gathered to take in the scene, knowing that they were witnessing something special and unique.  Eventually though, it was time to get ready for one last performance before everyone would go their separate ways.

The mood was much darker the day before.  Rain had been falling all day and showed no signs of letting up.  If the rain held, it was almost certain that the night’s performance would be cancelled.  On top of that, this was also the night that the show would be broadcast live on television.  The previous night’s performance had been recorded as a precaution, but it wouldn’t be the same.  Cast members anxiously awaited the final decision as showtime drew near.

Warning: clicking on the above photo may be NSFW

And then this happened.  Leave it to the Scots to figure out how to lift everyone’s spirits and make the most of the dismal scene on the field below.  Down to just sporrans and footwear, two Scots stormed the field intent upon using the tarp at the center as a slip ‘n slide.  That didn’t work out as well as they had hoped, but they returned triumphant to great applause.  Miraculously, the rain slowed and the show went off without a hitch, television broadcast and all.

Four years later, baseball games at the Sydney Cricket Ground seem almost ordinary by comparison.  Still, it is great to see the reach of the sport spreading, even if it is happening at 5am EDT.

Stranger Things Than Baseball Have Happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Part 2

A different American tradition takes the field down under

Americans watching cricket: a visual approximation of Australians watching baseball

The outfield wall is up, the infield is set down, and the Sydney Cricket Ground has seen its first game of baseball as MLB builds up to Saturday’s start of the 2014 season.  Four years ago though, a different group of Americans brought a slightly different American tradition to this field, though few were there to witness it.

Like baseball, fife and drum music traces its origins back to Europe.  Initially developed in Switzerland as a means of communicating through the Alps, fifes and drums became key elements of military forces throughout Europe and, through colonization of the new world, the Americas.  Military use of fifes and drums was at its height during the American Revolution and the American Civil War, firmly connecting this style of music with the times that defined this nation.

Advances in communications technology relegated martial music to a ceremonial role in the 20th century.  As the times changed, fife and drum music largely fell out of style except in certain areas where it continued with community groups.  Fife and drum saw a resurgence as a traditional martial music style in preparation for the American Revolution Bicentennial celebration.  Many of these groups and others they inspired remain to this day.  In fact, American fife and drum would go on to inspire the creation of American-style fife and drum corps throughout the world and even in Switzerland where the art form originated.

And that brings us to Australia by way of Scotland.  In 2007, the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums became the first American-style fife and drum ensemble to perform at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the world’s premier martial music event.  In 2010, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo took the show (and a convincing mock-up of Edinburgh Castle) on the road to Sydney, Australia.  MCV was among the groups that came from around the world to give Australia a taste of one of Scotland’s biggest events (next to the World Pipe Band Championship, of course).  Next door to the Sydney Cricket Ground in the more modern and spacious Sydney Football Stadium.  You can watch the show here on YouTube.

Beer, beer, everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Where does the Sydney Cricket Ground fit in with all of this?  Well, since it wasn’t being used to host any ticketed events at the time, the Sydney Cricket Ground was used as the backstage area for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, providing space to get changed, warm up, rehearse, and relax between sets.  And on February 4, 2010, just before opening night, the Americans took to the field for one last rehearsal.

There was no audience.  No modifications needed to be made to the field.  And they weren’t even wearing full uniforms.  But if you thought this weekend’s baseball games were the first time the Sydney Cricket Ground hosted a group of Americans doing distinctly American things with origins in Europe, you would be slightly incorrect.  And if you thought any of this is as strange as it gets here, you would be way off the mark.  Because we have yet to see the Scots take the field.

Part 3: An international cast of characters

Stranger Things Than Baseball Have Happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Part 1

A slow and sober look around the field

Some sort of cricket-type activity

This weekend, Major League Baseball opens the 2014 season half a world away in Sydney, Australia.  The venue will be the Sydney Cricket Ground, a place that, as the name implies, is commonly used to host cricket matches.  If you thought this was the first time an American tradition made an appearance here though, you would be wrong.  In fact, nothing that could happen this weekend would have a chance of being the strangest thing a foreigner had done on this field.  But before we get to that, let’s take a look around.

The Sydney Cricket Ground has been around in one form or another since the late 19th century.  Instead of a single stadium structure around the field, the Sydney Cricket Ground has a set of separate stands.  The oldest of these stands date to the late 19th century.  The Members’ Pavilion, shown above, was originally built in 1878 and then rebuilt in 1886.  The Ladies’ Stand (not shown), is located just to the left of the Members’ Pavilion and opened in 1896.

The rest of the stands, despite being separate structures, essentially form a modern stadium.  Continuing around counterclockwise are, from right to left above, Brewongle Stand (1980), Clive Churchill Stand (1986), and Victor Trumper Stand (2008).

Next up is the Bill O’Reilly Stand (1984), which, despite having the Fox Studios Australia tower looming overhead, is not named for that Bill O’Reilly.

And that brings us around to the M.A. Noble, Bradman, and Messenger stands, which are behind what is now home plate and have just been rebuilt.  And since my photos are from 2010, this will be the end of the structural tour.

Of course, you’ll see most of this during the games anyway.  What you won’t see are the Aussie-flavour ads that have been removed from the stands.  Back in 2010, these were largely encouraging people to drive slower by equating fast driving with diminished manhood.  Meanwhile, the bathrooms were encouraging responsible drinking via the threat of violence delivered by a bouncer who your drinking causes you to pick a fight with while the buddy who was kind enough to walk you home just stands there and watches you get your face smashed in instead of dragging your sorry ass out of harm’s way.  Or maybe just getting you into a car and driving away really fast.

Luckily, the ads also propose a solution to both of these problems.  Put a pub in your backyard!  You won’t need to drive anywhere or get into drunken arguments with bouncers when you do your binge drinking at home.  That’s Aussie ingenuity for you, second only to Scottish ingenuity as we’ll see later.

Part 2: A different American tradition takes the field down under