On one hand, industry cheerleaders report anecdotally that card stores and collectors klatches have never been more vibrant. On the other, both Topps and Upper Deck are privately held, so theres no telling how many cards theyre moving vis-à-vis the boom period. Similarly, despite a few half-baited attempts to compile a tally, nobody knows just how many card stores currently exist and thats before one throws into the mix comic-book stores that stock ¬baseball cards, online-only sellers (hello, eBay), and big-box behemoths like Walmart and Toys R Us.
The product offerings have similarly changed. Casual collectors can still purchase 99-cent packs of cards, though theyre rarely carried by corner stores anymore. But generating the most collector buzz are the cards targeted exclusively at high-end ¬consumers like Upper Decks Exquisite Collection, which UD sports marketing manager Chris Carlin describes as kind of the Bentley of trading-card releases.
Owing to the sets limited availability, each pack of six costs a jaw-dropping $600 to $650. Not only are the Exquisite cards thicker and more lushly appointed, but theyre also engineered (and engineered is the proper term) in a way that those who abandoned the hobby years ago will find amazing. Some of the cards come embedded with thin shards of a game-used Shoeless Joe Jackson bat or fabric swaths from a Derek Jeter jersey; by comparison, the authenticated autographs found on other cards seem almost old-fashioned.
With smaller quantities of a product comes increased rarity, thus propelling values skyward from the moment a treasured card is freed from its plastic-sealed tomb. Collectors dont have to scour flea markets to find a rare, and potentially valuable, treasure; they can happen upon one in a new pack. Carlin says that Upper Decks autographed card of Stephen Strasburg, the college phenom taken by the Washington Nationals with the first pick in the 2009 draft, has been valued at $500 and thats before Strasburg has thrown a single big-league pitch.
Clearly, new product lines and any offering with the faint tinge of authenticity will keep collectors interested. But most believe that the future of baseball-card collecting hinges on card makers ability to integrate new technology a hard-to-envision prospect given how card makers only have a 2.5-inch by 3.5-inch piece of cardboard canvas upon which to work. Collectors and execs say they expect cards to become more interactive, but theyve yet to stumble upon an application that bridges the digital/cardboard gap.
Theres also the question of what the industry can do to pass along the hobby to the next generation. As much as every person within the baseball-card food chain preaches the purity and sanctity of collecting, nobody seems to know how to capture kids imagination as they ping-pong from one blinking stimulus to the next. We cant expect them to just pick up a pack of cards and have the same experience that we had when we bought cards. Its a different world, Luraschi says.
To that end, Topps recently issued its Attax line of cards, which doubles as a game, and has integrated its cards with codes that unlock content on the ToppsTown website. Store owners, for their part, have pushed forward with grassroots programs of their own. Fox not only gives away hundreds of card packs to fledgling collectors, but he also hosts scout troops, church groups, little-league teams, and anyone else who shows a burgeoning interest in the hobby.
He does so out of love and, in a way, out of obligation. When I was 10, it was either a candy bar or baseball cards, he recalls. Im 47 years old, and Ill say this: You can never get past that thrill of opening a pack of cards. There arent too many things you can do at age six that you can enjoy as much at 47 or 87. Something like that should be passed on.