Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In the Year 2000: The Fourth Blog Bat Around Edition

This is a hard one. Where will we be in ten years?

It’s hard to comprehend the passage of time. The older I get, the faster it seems to go by. It amazes me to no end that ten years ago this fall I was going off to college and leaving home for the first time. Somehow I’m a now productive member of society. When did that happen? Where did ten years go?

Let’s start by looking back ten years. In 1999 I was nearly five years removed from my last baseball card purchase and honestly wasn’t thinking too much about baseball cards. I still don’t know a lot about the hobby in the late 90s.

I was still a baseball fan, but had moved on from buying cards. In the late 90s my money was going towards music equipment (I’m a violinist and also play viola, mandolin and guitar) and I don’t really remember having other hobbies at that time.

In college I met a few people who were collecting baseball cards and they were talking a lot about some of the new technology. At least new to me. They were going on and on about refractors and I was still talking about my prized Steve Avery Rated Rookie.

While we’re on the topic of Steve Avery, let’s go back another nine years and start from there. 1990 was the prime of my card collecting days. I never really imagined turning any of my cards into profit though. Sure I had the little kid fantasy of some day owning a Mantle or Aaron rookie or some other ultra-rare old card.

I started following the Braves pretty closely around 89 and started hearing all this talk about a kid named Steve Avery. By 1990 that talk was getting louder and louder and I started to get interested. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but Steve Avery was born in 1970 and it seemed strange to me that this guy who was only eleven years older than me was going to play in the Big Leagues.

At that point in my card collecting days I wasn’t buying singles. In fact I’ve bought very few single cards in my time. But for some reason I thought that the Steve Avery Rated Rookie in 1990 Donruss was THE card to have. I don’t know why. At least I don’t remember why. I was nine years old.

I think I paid five dollars for that card and I cherish it to this day. Did I buy it thinking it would be worth millions? Probably. Would I have sold it if it was? Probably not. I don’t know if I understood the idea of an investment at that point. I certainly understood the value of money and the inherent value of certain objects, but I don’t think I understood the concept of buying something to hold onto for a period of time and then selling it.

So let’s jump forward almost twenty years and see what that card is worth. Not a whole lot. Certainly not worth the five dollars I paid for it. But there’s worth that goes beyond money. And that card is certainly valuable to me. Also equally valuable to me is my newly completed 1988 Score set. I don’t know what it’s book value is, probably no more than $10 to $15, but to me it’s priceless. I started building that set when I was seven years old and now twenty years later it’s finished. It’s worth a lot of time and it’s worth a lot of joy, but you can’t trade that in for a cup of coffee.

The industry is different today. Things aren’t as over produced as they were twenty years ago, but I don’t know if that means anything in terms of monetary value. Baseball cards aren’t like houses.

The rookie card of the next best thing may bring $500 on ebay today, but next month it may sell for a buck and a half. Baseball cards may be a good temporary investment, but it’s just like the stock market. There certainly is money to be made, but it’s all a matter of timing. If you sell a day too early or a day too late you could lose out on huge profits. There’s just no way to tell which way the market is going to go.

A rookie pitcher, a top prospect, could have an autograph card going for $1000 on ebay. Someone buys it with the intention of making a profit on it. They decide to wait until the season starts in hopes that some actual national exposure will push the price up. Opening day rolls around. This top prospect comes in the game in the bottom of the sixth in a blow out. Toes the rubber and fires his first big league pitch, feels something pop and spends the next eighteen months rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. What happens to his hobby value then?

That $1000 has quickly turned into a flap of cardboard with a picture of a guy on it who may never throw another pitch in his life.

$1000 is a lot of money to have riding on the ligaments in a 22 year old kid’s elbow.

He may not even get hurt, he may just get knocked around for several years bouncing up and down between Triple A and the big club, then spend the next ten playing for nine different teams.

If there’s an investment to be made in a baseball card, and in turn a baseball player, the rookie card certainly isn’t where it’s at, at least not initially. If he makes it five years, then his cards may be a safe investment.

But I don’t think the word investment in the baseball card hobby has the same meaning as the word investment you’ll find in a dictionary. I think the word people are looking for when they say investment is actually prospecting.

Buying that $1000 rookie card isn’t an investment, it’s prospecting on the hope that he’ll turn out a Hall of Fame career. Sadly that doesn’t happen often. I think it’ll be a while before we see another truly gifted player. With Maddux gone I don’t know how many more future HoF’ers are in the league right now. Chipper Jones is a lock, Pujols, Jeter maybe… Evan Longoria? It’s certainly too early to invest too much in his career.

Less than 1% of people who put on a Major League uniform will make the Hall of Fame. A good number of those will have good careers, some great careers. But it’s too hard to know where to begin when it comes to predicting the monetary value of a card printed today in ten years.

I think we have to look at the value to us as collectors and not value to the market. Where do we place our value? Where do we choose to put our time and money? For me its in set building and while the 2009 Topps set I’m about half way through may not be worth anything in ten years, it’ll certainly be full of fond memories and there’s no way to put a numerical value on that.

The baseball cards we buy today and put in a binder and eventually into a closet may be the catalyst for a future generation of collectors.

I liken it to great music. Once every generation some kid finds a record in his parent’s collection and thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. He thinks he’s the first person in the world to discover this great music. That’s true value. Value that transcends generations and time. Something that means as much in ten, twenty or a hundred years as it does right now is priceless.

So to answer the question, I have no answer. To me there is no answer. If I’m still interested in this hobby in ten years, then every card I own is important. If I’m not interested, maybe someone else will be inspired by what I’ve collected in the past twenty years.


MMayes said...

We were pretty close to having the same answer. When you were born in 1981 I was entering my senior year in high school, but we've come to the conclusion that "value" in ball cards isn't found in a price guide.