By BOB PARASILITI
11:00 PM EDT, April 23, 2011
Fans have been flocking to Municipal Stadium just for the chance to see the follow-through of the Hagerstown Suns’ Bryce Harper.
The Washington Nationals’ top prospect has a wealth of talent. He runs the bases with abandon. He plays defense with purpose. And then there is the swing.
It is forceful, fluid and powerful. How good it will be is yet to be seen.
But many fans are more interested in Harper’s other stroke. It isn’t the mechanics with how he swings his bat.
They are more fascinated with how the top selection from the 2010 amateur baseball draft dots his i’s and crosses his t’s.
A trip to the stadium isn’t complete without leaving with Harper’s autograph. Some fans turn into Jack Sparrow … another pirate looking for treasure. They jockey for position along the first-base-side fence like they are competing in a roller derby. The only time there might be more reaching and grabbing is on Black Friday.
But, why is a signature so valuable and as big of a must-have accessory as Ugg boots?
For many, it is for status, proving that you have seen Harper play and had a 15-second conversation with him. They have something no one else possesses. Others are collectors with stacks of signatures and trading cards of all the players who have come to play for and against the Suns for years. A small percentage of those players make it to the majors.
A third grouping is looking for profit. Autographs, baseball trading cards and autographed baseball trading cards are like owning stocks or bonds. You hold all three with hopes they will be very valuable someday.
That makes Bryce Harper’s signature one of the hottest commodities going for star-struck fans, collectors and profiteers. It’s the novelty of it all.
“One of the main reasons Harper’s autograph is so hot is because of potential,” said Kerm Elliott, longtime owner of Kerm’s Cards, which sits just off the square in Greencastle, Pa. “It is the chance that he will be as big as they say. You can buy the cards of 50 potential Hall of Famers for the price of Harper’s autograph. If you are a collector, which would you rather have: The players with the proven results or the potential?”
Elliott said signed Bowman Draft edition trading cards of Harper are fetching up to $1,200 each right now. Those cards were signed before being placed in a pack of trading cards and sold. They are already authenticated as original signatures.
The sale of garden variety ballpark autographs probably won’t be worth more than sentimental value. If they are personalized, it takes away some value and it will have to be proved authentic because there is a tendency for fakes to be sold on the open market for profit.
“A regular autograph?” Elliott said. “If a person gets it for their collection, it’s great. It has sentimental value. There are so many fakes out there. I would never buy an autograph from someone who just got it at the ballpark. There is no certification. It is just the seller’s word. I think most fans are trying to keep the autographs now.”
Baseball card collecting used to be a thriving industry that has fallen on hard times, mostly by its own greed.
Many, like Elliott and Robbie Smith of Burton’s Coins and Baseball Cards in Buckeystown, Md., have collected cards their entire life.
“I used to get them when I was a kid,” Elliott admits. “I liked sports. I wanted to play Little League and I would go buy packs of cards. I traded a lot of Mickey Mantles for Boog Powells.”
As the craze blossomed, many companies started to create different variations of cards. Each company started offering different things to coax consumers to buy their cards.
That’s when autographs became en vogue.
“It used to be the big thing was building full sets of cards. The demand started in 1997,” said Smith. “Upper Deck started issuing autographed cards and jersey swatches randomly in packs of cards.”
The move dramatically shifted the market.
“The autographs, the pieces of jerseys and pieces of bats in cards … it ran the kids away from collecting cards,” Elliott said. “It turned it all into a gambler’s mentality. Buy packs of cards and open them to try and get a $1,000 card.
“I think autographs are for pure dollar value. When I was a kid, you wanted the card. Now kids get them and automatically open up price guides to see what the card is worth. It has taken away the true collectors.”
The autograph craze bloated the industry. Elliott said between 1985-95, companies overproduced cards and overloaded the market, which cheapened values. Changes were made.
“Topps is the only licensed trading card company in baseball,” Smith said. “There is a rule that only allows cards to be produced for players who make it to the majors, but Topps has a grandfather clause. They can produce cards for players who are coming out of college.”
Back to the future
Still, the younger generations haven’t been able to keep the tradition of collecting baseball cards alive.
“Because of all the autographs and things in cards, packs are going for $20, $50 and $500 a pack,” Elliott said. “It is taking people out of collecting them. I have been keeping 50 cent and $1 packs and I have 25 cent grab bags of cards set up for the kids to keep the tradition of collecting going.”
Enter Bryce Harper, who has appeared on cards for three years, thanks to his early graduation from school and his selection to play on Team USA. Harper has cards on the market as easels for his autograph.
Part of the novelty surrounding Harper is his intention that he would rather sign autographs for kids over adults, because of the tendency to sell the signature for profit.
“Since he is only signing for kids, there is less availability for the autograph,” Smith said. “Less is more, so there is a bigger demand for the autograph. The value falls for those who get them personalized. It is bigger around here, too, because he is a local attraction.”
Stroke of luck
Still, any money to be made in the trading card industry comes from being the lucky one to find a prime autographed card when you open the pack. The big craze started last year with the introduction of Stephen Strasburg, who was Washington’s top selection and the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft.
“Someone had a ‘one of one’ autographed series card. It was the only one in existence and it was autographed in red by Strasburg,” Smith said. “It was sold for $21,000 on EBay when Strasburg was called up, right before he threw his first pitch for the Nationals. It was worth $16,000 but it got $5,000 more because it was authenticated.”
Strasburg and Harper have breathed some new excitement into the trading card industry. Smith said that each of the future stars have cards which are worth $1,000 already.
“I think (Harper) will blossom,” Smith said. “I’ve been in this for 30 years and I can’t remember such a demand like there is for Strasburg and Harper. They are in high demand.”
The jury is still out if Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg can revive the Washington Nationals, interest in baseball and the trading card industry all at the same time.
“People are paying attention to them,” Elliott said. “Last year it was Strasburg. I had five or six customers who I haven’t seen in years come in looking for his card. This year it is Harper. Who will be the next guy? There will always be another Harper and Strasburg coming along.”
And until then, Harper practices his stroke — in the batter’s box and along the fences for adoring fans.
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