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Collectors ultimately decide what is collectible

May 2, 2007

One of the toughest things for hobby old-timers like myself is adjusting to the changing dynamics of the business end of things, which, of course, so dramatically alters the whole landscape of what is available to collect.
For many years as I struggled with these questions, I used to admire Bob Lemke’s ability to adapt and still find ways to enjoy the hobby. When the all-encompassing changes started with a vengeance just after the labor stoppage and World Series cancellation in 1994, Lemke (former editor of the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards) rather adroitly started dabbling with this or that insert series, putting together some nifty displays showcasing cards that would have been regarded as quite exotic for the time.
Well, the exotic threshold has been ratcheted upwards in dizzying fashion since that time, with the most profound changes being the emphasis on autographs and to a lesser degree memorabilia scraps, all part and parcel of an even more stunning escalation in pack prices.
While I am glad that the manufacturers have figured out a way forward that still provides profitability in a marketplace that has contracted to perhaps 25 percent of what it was 15 years ago, I can’t shake the uneasiness that I feel about the underlying structure of the business.
It’s essentially the same reason I worried about the overall economics of MLB, which seem to me to be more precarious than the giddy numbers tossed around by officials. My concern is that the game is already on a footing that requires such huge gross revenue numbers that ultimately all of the accommodations made to ensure those dollar streams are going to be monumental ... and maybe even scary.
Certainly it’s just anecdotal, but almost every time I watch a SportsCenter highlight on ESPN, the cameras seem to show vast numbers of empty seats, even in what I would consider prime locations. I am enough of a conspiracy buff to even postulate that the “highlights” provided are quite closely cropped to ameliorate the impact of so many empty chairs. I know that may be a bit of a stretch, and I concede that MLB reports record attendance totals almost every year, but I can’t shake the notion simply because it seems to be so remarkably conspiratorial.
My real concern is that, ultimately, the scramble for dollars over time is going to create sideshow distractions and advertising revenue scrambles that go far beyond the unseemly to the point of being thoroughly obnoxious. We already have sponsors for everything from the seventh-inning stretch to the batting order, and the whizzing and whirring graphics on the TV screen that frantically milk every available promotional buck have long since passed the point of being annoying.
MLB will likely do its best to temper the impact of all of this, but if past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior (and it is), then ultimately some of the accommodations are going to get truly ugly. I simply can’t shake the fear that the seemingly subtle erosion of so many of the traditions that underpin collectors’ love of the game loom large; when they get around to putting a Valvoline patch and Dr. Pepper logo on the jerseys, perhaps the alarm will be more widespread.
In the card collecting hobby, one of the responses to that kind of revenue pressure has been to make the cards more expensive, which more accurately is a result of the companies’ almost intractable belief in the idea of contrived scarcity. I know the reliance on this idea has colored much of the strategic thinking by the card companies since 1994, along with the “lottery mentality” of being able to open a pack of brand-new cards and suddenly find a single pasteboard with enough oomph to handle a year of tuition at a mid-range state college.
It is a well-regarded but often largely ignored truism in almost any hobby that attempts by manufacturers to designate something as a “collectible” are fraught with conflicting components. Collectors, the legend goes, are the ones who decide what is or isn’t collectible, and that grand determination is something that is largely arrived at over a significant period of time.
I am rooting for all the autographs and jersey clippings and chunks of stadium seats to flourish and prosper over time, but mostly I root for the hobby itself. And at the risk of sounding like an old coot, I would offer the reminder that simply putting together card sets remains a pretty neat thing to do. It merely gets pushed from the forefront amid the clamor of dollars, but there are still thousands of collectors of all ages who worship at this decidedly egalitarian shrine.
Thank heaven.


* * * * * *

And not to put too fine a point on it, but I wanted to relate a brief story from a visit to The Ballpark at Arlington a couple of years ago. I flew in on a Thursday or Friday night for a press conference the next day at the Donruss-Playoff headquarters, and decided to squeeze in a Rangers game that evening, even though my arrival time at the airport would make it a close call to get to the park before the game started.
Though I am not the type (nor financially able) to slip a cabbie an extra $20 to “step on it,” I did my best to illustrate to the driver my desire for urgency. I don’t wear a wristwatch, so I don’t know what time we got to the park, but I thought I was doing OK. I sprinted (what passes for sprinting for me) through the gate, and as I got to the concession area near my section, I said to myself, “Hey, I’m fine.” The game couldn’t have started yet because there wasn’t so much as a murmur from the crowd. I figured that batting practice was still going on.
As I got walked down the tunnel into the section of stands and looked for the outfield scoreboard, it turned out it was the bottom of the second inning.
I grew up going to 12-16 Mets games every year starting in 1964 with the opening of Shea Stadium, and I’d also go to a few Yankees games as well, primarily to see Mickey Mantle. Anyway, I’m used to screaming and hollering, so the polite, garden-salad-munching suburbanites at the modern ballpark sometime throw me for a loop. I’m accustomed to a certain bawdy element to the game, so the genteel quality of the folks who shell out as much for one box seat as I might cough up for car payment doesn’t always compute.
But that’s just me.