Jeff Keppinger kicks himself that he didn’t get back into card collecting until after he retired from playing Major League Baseball. That’s because he could see immense talent from a young, opposing player named Mike Trout.
Keppinger, who played nine seasons in the big leagues for seven teams, was on the Tampa Bay Rays when they took on Trout and the Los Angeles Angels.
“I was playing third base, and their scouting report against him was take the bunt away,” Keppinger said. “And I was like, ‘Man, do you guys see how hard the ball comes off the bat when this guy hits? We’d probably be better off giving him the bunt and letting him have this than playing up and getting killed.’
“I would have been all over him Day 1. Probably could have got a bunch of his stuff really cheap back then, I’m sure…It’s pretty cool collecting guys that I played against that are in the game.”
Keppinger got back into collecting cards after taking a 25-year hiatus. Now, he’s collecting some of the legends of baseball, football and basketball. He’s able to spend a little more money on his hobby now as opposed to when he was a kid since he made a good living in the majors.
Growing up in south Florida, Keppinger caught the collecting itch right about the time he started school.
“We used to have card shops all around my neighborhood, so we would just hop on our bikes and go ride to them,” said Keppinger, 40.
Keppinger’s brother, Billy, who played in the minor leagues, is one year older, but the two played on the same baseball teams as youngsters. Their parents would coach the boys’ teams and would offer little prizes after each game.
“The MVP for the game and guys that did things to help us win, they would have one or two boxes of wax,” Keppinger said. “Depending on what you did, you’d get a pack of cards, two packs of cards. That was awesome. Started off in T-ball for me, 4-5 years old.”
When his birthday and Christmas rolled around, Keppinger always asked for wax boxes. He loved opening the packs and chewing the gum. He had thousands of baseball cards, but one player stood out in his collection: Pete Rose.
“We didn’t have a team in Florida when I was growing up, so my grandfather lived right down the street in our neighborhood and he’d always have the Reds games on,” Keppinger said. “Pete Rose was my favorite player, so ’86 Topps, ’87 Topps. I always like him. Bonds, McGwire, Canseco were a big chase back then. Then Griffey, Frank Thomas Leaf in ’90. Right before I moved to Georgia, I got into football and basketball a little bit. Of course, loved opening up basketball cards and pull Michael Jordan, especially as a kid.”
Keppinger, who now resides in Dacula, Ga., recalls picking up some important older cards when he was a kid, including Rose along with George Brett and Alan Trammell rookies. But in 1993, when Keppinger was 13, his family moved to Georgia. There weren’t local card shops near him, so he gave up on the hobby.
“I kind of put card collecting on the side for a while. Then when I got done playing and retired, I’ve got a buddy that I hunt with and he was doing breaking. So, I started watching him and then I got back into it.”
Keppinger – a career .282 hitter in the big leagues and known as a contact guy who had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors during his playing days – learned about how card collecting had changed in the quarter century he had been away from it. The biggest differences Keppinger points to are the emphasis of prospect cards and all the added inserts in packs with autographs, numbered cards, short prints and parallels.
“It would be pretty fun now to be kid with all the wax. But they are a lot more expensive nowadays.”
Now that Keppinger is back collecting, he wishes he knew where his card stash was from his childhood. When his mom moved back down to south Florida a number of years ago, she had her son come over to retrieve his items. However, his cards weren’t among them.
Collection Starts to Take Shape
Keppinger enjoys buying sealed cases and boxes to crack open as well as store away.
“The card industry seems kind of insane right now,” he said. “If I buy a case, two months later, they’ve tripled in price. I sold a couple of those cases off to be able to buy a couple of those Trouts that I wanted and held on to a couple other cases. I’ve held on to a couple boxes here and there.”
For individual cards, Keppinger mainly concentrates on collecting a handful of players: Trout, Jordan, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Patrick Mahomes II. Early in his career, Keppinger played alongside Mahomes’ dad, Pat, with the New York.
“I saw him (Patrick) around the clubhouse chasing flyballs and stuff as a kid, so that’s pretty cool,” said Keppinger, who has a variety of 10 Patrick Mahomes rookie cards. “And he’s a stud, so that’s pretty awesome.”
Keppinger has an impressive Trout collection he’s amassed in his short time collecting. His big card is a 2009 Bowman Chrome auto in a PSA 9 and autograph 10.
“I actually looked around at some boxes of those,” Keppinger said. “I couldn’t believe the prices of those things. Those are insane – like six, seven grand a box, maybe.”
Keppinger’s other Trout cards include: three 2011 Topps Update (two PSA graded); 2011 Bowman Chrome Draft rookie; Purple Bowman Chrome Draft rookie; 2011 Topps Finest Refractor (gem mint); 2011 X Factor Finest (BGS 10); and a 2011 Finest Refractor auto.
“Every time I come across one and have a chance to get one, I jump on it. I think he’s something special as a player. He’s a hold no matter what he does the rest of his career for me. Being able to play against him and how dominant he is. Man, he’s exciting to watch and a great player. That’s something I’ll have and pass down to the kids later on in life.”
Keppinger mostly collects established players. He’s not into guessing if a young player is going to make it big someday.
“Being in the game, I know how tough it is. These prices on some of these prospects is, man, some of them aren’t even in Double-A yet and their cards are thousands of dollars. I think that’s a little silly. But I understand that collectors trying to get the next Hall of Famer or the next GOAT. I think there’s so many that they’re such high-dollar values now that they’re going to end up doing nothing in the major leagues.”
Keppinger does have a number of up-and-coming MLB youngsters, though. He has about a half-dozen Ronald Acuna Jr. cards, along with Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wander Franco.
Keppinger likes to mix up his collection, not just go after baseball cards. He’s a big fan of watching football and basketball.
“I actually really don’t watch baseball. To me, watching baseball’s boring. I always love playing it, but watching it is a little bit too slow for me. I sit there and watch it and I want to be in the batter’s box hitting. Or I’m watching that guy take a fastball right down the middle and I’m like, man, why can’t I be hitting right now? I loved to hit in my playing days.”
Keppinger said he enjoys watching baseball when ace pitchers are facing off or a team with a strong lineup takes on a stud pitcher. He’s also interested in postseason play.
In the fall, Keppinger watches college football and the NFL. And he recently got back into the NBA with the emergence of young stars Doncic and Zion Williamson.
Keppinger has a couple Jordan rookie cards – a 1986 Fleer BGS 7 and one 1986 Fleer Sticker graded by PSA. He also collects Brady rookies, having a 2000 Bowman Chrome as well as two Upper Deck cards.
Keppinger has never gotten into collecting cards of himself. He said he might have 10 of his own cards, and joked they aren’t worth anything. “I held on to a few just for my kids or grandkids later on down the road,” he said. “But I’m not that egotistical to buy all my cards.”
Displaying His Collection
Keppinger jokes that he keeps his PC cards in his nightstand next to him. However, his wife bought him a shelving unit for their bedroom to store his cards.
In the basement, he has tons of memorabilia: newspaper articles, plaques and awards that he won during his days at Parkview High School (Lilburn, Ga.), the University of Georgia and in the minor leagues.
Keppinger also had plenty of jerseys, bats and balls autographed by different MLB guys he played with and against. He has 20-25 signed baseballs, including Trout, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. He had an autographed bat and ball from Ken Griffey Jr. and a signed picture of Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. Keppinger also has jerseys autographed by Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
“I’ve got a pretty good-sized basement that I’ve got all that stuff scattered around,” Keppinger said.
His most prized memorabilia piece? A personally signed jersey by Rose.
Keppinger played two seasons with the Reds in 2007 and ’08, but he didn’t get many opportunities to see his idol. Before one game, Rose – who is banned from MLB and the Reds’ locker room – was granted access to the stadium for an event.
“I was in awe sitting there when he came into the clubhouse in Cincinnati and started chatting with him,” said Keppinger, who wished his grandfather would have been alive to hear the story. “I’d never met him before. He personalized a jersey to me. It was just awesome.”
Keppinger is now in search of a Rose rookie from 1963 Topps. He’d like it graded 8 or higher for his personal collection. Another card on Keppinger’s bucket list is the coveted 1952 Topps Mantle; he’s seeking one graded about a 1 or 2.
Collecting cards is big in Keppinger’s life. He’s in it mostly for the fun but also as an investment.
“I look at it from the financial point as let the newer products kind of jump in value a little bit and make a little bit of money on that, so that way it’s basically coming off my total cost of those higher-end vintage, like the Mantle when I do buy it. Hopefully, I can make five or 10 grand on selling some of these cases; that’s basically like five or 10 grand off the Mantle. Mantle cards ain’t never going to go down, I wouldn’t think.”
Even though Keppinger made millions of dollars during his playing days, he’s careful about what he spends on his card collection.
“I’m trying to make a little plan for it,” he said. “Maybe sit on a few newer products and when those values go up a bit, be able to trade them off for those higher-end vintage cards I would like.”