Friday, October 10, 2014

Welcome to the other side

I don't know about you, but I'm getting sick of the "gloom and doom" of every mainstream news article I read about baseball cards.

Some of those columns make a few decent points, but they really only tell one half of the story. A couple weeks ago, I got the idea to craft a faux-colum featuring the other side of the hobby. The side we down-to-earth collectors know and love. I finally got around to writing it tonight.

Save for mine and my dad's, all names in this story are made up and only based on caricatures of people I've run into at card shows.

Its working title is "Welcome to the Other Side".


At exactly 10:47 A.M., Nick Pecucci, 22, and his father Mike, 48, push through a pair of glass doors into a tri-yearly baseball card show held in Rosemont, Illinois.

"We've been coming here for years," says Nick Pecucci, a longtime collector who has been a part of the hobby since his elementary school days. "I mark each show down on my calendar."

There's a perception among the general public that baseball cards are dead. Here in Rosemont, however, collectors of all ages swarm through the aisles full of cardboard. Mostly middle-aged, yes, but not at all devoid of the younger generation.

"I help him out when I can," says Mike as he pays for two separate $10 admission tickets. "If I've got, he's got. He knows I'll end up moving in with him when I get older," he jokes, "so he'll pay me back then."

Reflections of the high ceiling lights snap off the glass cases around the convention hall. The father and son walk idly by, stopping at an unassuming white box full of cards marked "10 Cents Each".

"This is where the goldmines are," says Nick, pulling a handful of wrinkled dollar bills out of his pocket after scouring the box for about twenty minutes. "The dime boxes." He hands four of the singles to the vendor behind the table. Mutual thank yous are exchanged.

"You really can't find cards like these anywhere else," he continues. "I mean, take this Edgar Martinez. Most people don't think twice about stuff like this, but I love it."

Most collectors tell a common tale of their past.

Some attribute their eventual teenage detachment from baseball cards to the discovery of cars and girls. For others, their cards were unceremoniously thrown in the trash by their parents. Or, in some cases, both.

"That was never really a problem for me," says Nick, who has been consistently collecting through adolescence and his college years. "I never had money for a car and my friends and I almost always failed miserably at picking up girls."

"I don't get home until one or two in the morning on some nights," Nick continues. "But I still usually find time to play with my baseball cards before I roll into bed."

"My parents threw my cards out," says Mike. "I always tell him how much I wish I could've given him my card collection."

Tom Loewen, 43, a vendor at the Rosemont show, says he picked the hobby back up again ten years ago after a long hiatus.

"I had a little more money and a little more free time," he says. "I walked into Target one day for some gum and I noticed a huge pile of baseball cards in the next aisle. I bought a pack of Topps and haven't looked back since."

"It's a decent living," says Loewen. "It beats breaking my back in a warehouse."

"I ran a card shop for a while about five years ago," says Loewen, "but we had to shut down."

To many, one of the biggest signals of the "dying" industry is the demise of brick-and-mortar sports card shops. Many collectors, like Nick, can trace their appreciation of the hobby back to those shops.

"It was a little corner shop called Graf's," Nick says. "I got all of my first big cards there. I vividly remember bringing my 1965 Ernie Banks into school for show-and-tell the day after I got it."

Many shops like Graf's, however, have had to close their doors over the past decade. It's easy to draw parallels between lack of interest in the hobby and such shops going out of business.

"Maybe," says Mike, "but I think a lot of it has to do with everything being done on the internet these days. It's not that there's less interest in the cards. It's just that it's easier for people to buy something online than getting in their car and driving the mile or two to the card shop."

"He's right," Loewen concurs, "I still did plenty of business online. Still do. Having a brick-and-mortar shop just wasn't in the cards, financially speaking."

"Check that out," says Nick, pointing to another plain white box. "Dollar jersey cards."

In 1997, Upper Deck inserted cards with swatches of game-worn jerseys into packs. They were the first of their kind, sparking a memorabilia craze that would sweep the hobby for the next decade.

Soon, collectors had the opportunity to get pieces of pants, batting gloves, and even shin guards inside packs of baseball cards. Game-used bats and jerseys of past greats such as Josh Gibson and Ty Cobb were controversially bought and cut up for future sale by card companies.

In 2012, sports dealer Bradley Wells admitted to selling fake items to both Topps and Upper Deck, sending the hobby into a tailspin. Collectors instantly became skeptical of the validity of their high-dollar memorabilia inserts. Here in 2014, some can be had for a dollar each.

"As much as I hate to say it," says Nick, "I think that might've actually been good for the hobby. Not for the head honchos, no, but for the little guys like us. It was getting out of control. Memorabilia was being thrown around without anyone questioning its authenticity."

"If an eight-year-old kid wants to start collecting," he says, "at least they can afford these dollar jersey cards now."

"It's going down the toilet," says Carl Mack, 71, a high-end dealer at the Rosemont show.

"These kids today have their cell phones and X-Boxes. Why should they care about baseball cards?" he asks.

"I get less and less people coming to my table each show," says Mack, wetting his fingers while flipping through a wad of fifty-and-hundred-dollar bills.

Jim Wessman, 43, stands across from Mack holding a card autographed by both Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, two of baseball's biggest stars. "I spend less and less every time I come here," says Wessman, handing over three hundred-dollar bills for his card marked at $250.

"It's not what it used to be," says Wessman, lifting a heavy backpack onto his shoulders.

It used to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.

By the early 1990's, collectors were flooding card conventions. Accusations of counterfeiting and fraud were rampant at every show. Fights would occasionally break out.

Everyone was hoping to get their hands on a few of the 81 billion cards that were being pumped out every year, more than seven cards for every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth.

"If I were alive then, I doubt I'd be collecting now," Nick says, back from a lengthy stay at a table lined with dime boxes. "I'm glad it's not what it used to be."

"The stuff would be in the news every single day," remembers Mike. "People faking cards and all that garbage. I couldn't believe it. The days of buying a pack of quarter cards from the corner shop were long gone."

The combination of the messy 1994 baseball strike and a slowing interest in the hobby popped the baseball card bubble. Companies struggled to stay on their feet as the '90s wore on, trending towards louder, flashier designs and concepts in an attempt to grab the attention of collectors once again.

The hobby was pronounced dead by many at the time.

"It's not a question of the hobby dying," says Nick. "It's more of how Topps can get the word out to more people."

Topps, the hobby's main manufacturer since their debut in 1951, gained an exclusive license to print and advertise baseball cards in 2010, pushing other sets like Upper Deck out of the market.

"Part of the reason so many people think cards are dying is because no one knows anything about them any more," Nick says. "Topps's marketing needs to get the word out."

"Maybe they could get that Neshek guy to advertise for them," Mike adds.

Pat Neshek, a 2014 All-Star relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, is a well-known baseball card enthusiast. He is currently attempting to obtain autographed copies of all 720 cards from the 1985 Topps checklist.

Earlier in the 2014 season, Neshek traded his jersey #41 to newly-acquired pitcher John Lackey in exchange for a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.

"Neshek would be the face for an industry that definitely needs one," says Nick.

Lifting a heavy bag full of baseball cards, Nick pushes through the same glass doors he entered four short hours ago.

"Always a fun day at the card show," he says to his dad.

"I don't know how he does it," says Mike. "Close to a thousand cards. Probably came out to less than a dime per if you put it all together."

"I'm not as specialized as most other collectors," Nick says. "I'm jealous of the people that can bring themselves to collect one team or a handful of players."

"It's a lot more compact now," he continues. "Yeah, there might be a few less collectors these days, but we weeded out a lot of the ones who were just into it for the money a long time ago. People in it now are probably the best and most energetic collectors the hobby has ever seen."

"It's good that you don't have to make six figures to collect," says Mike. "Not everyone's in it for the Mike Trout autographs."

"Money doesn't grow on trees in our neck of the woods, believe me," Mike continues. "But there's always enough left over for a day at the card show a few times a year."

A new series of Topps baseball cards is sent to launch in late January of 2015. It's an anticipated event in the lives of many collectors.

"I'm definitely looking forward to it," says Nick. "The dawn of a new year."

"As long as baseball cards are around," he says, "I'll be happy."


Jupiterhill said...

I love this. I honestly think this is the best post I've read this year. I might even link it on my page later. Very well written.

Fuji said...

Great post Nick! Your reward? An American Bandstand set will be headed your way this afternoon ;-)

Kevin Papoy said...

Great piece ! and I didn't know about that whole memorabilia scandal, but can't say I'm surprised

John Miller said...

Great read, thank you.

Swing And A Pop-up said...

"my friends and I almost always failed miserably at picking up girls."
Boy, do I remember those days.

Very well written. Awesome job.