Tuesday, October 1, 2013
This is the only 2013 "hit" that I have bought the first nine months of the collecting year. I expect it to be the only one when the end of December arrives.
In total for this year, I have purchased one hit card, obtained one through a trade, and pulled one myself. That is all.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Lack of money. An increasing lack of interest in modern sets. And especially a lack of interest in the way the hobby operates today. This last item is where this post is going, although I've tried mightily to steer it toward something positive.
I learned early on in my return to the modern collecting world not to judge the way people collect in this hobby. You collect your way, I collect mine. As a born set collector who grew up in a set collector world, it took me a little bit to adjust to that viewpoint, but I got there. And I'm cool -- or at least I thought I was -- if all you want to collect is rookie refractor patches. Go to it, son.
So why did this article make me sad?
The story, published in the L.A. Times, appeared last Thursday. I read it then, but it's still making the rounds among hobby folks. I saw more people linking to it and commenting on it today.
There is nothing in that story that I didn't know already. People congregate at a card shop, throw down lots of cash, and look for that huge hit, searching for a thrill and a profit. I've been aware of this kind of collecting ever since I started blogging.
I didn't go into this story wanting to be sad. I didn't expect it to make me sad. But when I got to the end of it, I was sad. A mourning kind of sad.
I'm not entirely sure why I felt that way, so I'll try to explore what I went through here and see if it makes any sense.
First, I tried to put aside the way I collect. I figured my biases were coming to play here. I value base cards and admiration of the individual card, no matter how mundane the card or player. I value assembling cards over the life of a collecting season, trading with fellow collectors, searching card show tables and internet sites for that elusive number that will complete the puzzle. But putting that aside and just looking at the monthly ritual at Spokane Valley Sportscards, what did I see?
Easy. It's gambling. It's referenced several times in the story. Even the guy participating says so.
There is an aspect of collecting in this kind of card pursuit, provided the person who lucked upon the hit keeps the card. But the gambling element is so pervasive it's all I see.
True, gambling exists in the hobby even at the basic level of buying a pack in Walmart. And that's part of the thrill of collecting. But what the article documents is elevating that pack-buying sensation a thousand fold until you can practically see the dealer at the blackjack table. With set collecting, there is hope in every pack. With gambling-style collecting there is hope in -- what -- every box? Every three boxes? Ten boxes?
It just looks desperate. I'm sure that offends some collectors. But I don't see people having fun or fully enjoying cards when I see this. I see the same underlying desperation that pervades casinos and horse tracks. It's people seeking a fortune, not a card for the collection.
None of this is new to me, so what else about it made me sad?
Well, I think it's that I finally realized that this kind of collecting -- this lottery-style collecting -- isn't ever going away. The industry makes money on this approach to collecting. A number of influential people prefer that the hobby operates this way and that means I'm totally out of touch as I slowly plug along on my 1972 and 1979 Topps sets. The money is in people who buy $600 boxes and keep one card, not in me whining about $5.99 packs. (even if I wanted to be this kind of collector, I couldn't, because I can't afford it).
Again, no revelation -- I've been out of touch so many times in my life that it's the way I prefer to be -- but that realization hit me because there is part of me that can't get rid of the idea that the set collector will not exist in 50 or 60 years. Perhaps it's a large leap to go from some guys betting on the ultimate hit in a card shop to the demise of the set collector. But even cutting out the lottery collectors, there are just too many "disposable cards" to too many collectors' way of thinking. And that's what I thought about again while reading the article.
I also thought about how Topps and other card companies put us on this path -- with the inserts of the '90s, followed by hits, and parallels, and super-short prints, and eventually nobody's going to ever look at the back of a Rafael Betancourt base card ever again. There's no going back. Unless the entire industry blows up and we start from zero.
This is why you hear certain bloggers say "the hobby is dead." There's a percentage of truth to that depending on your viewpoint.
All of that made me sad.
Yes, some of this is me mourning the way things used to be. And I know the dangers of doing that. I've already documented it. But my biases are there. There is no denying after reading the article the sadness that I felt for a certain element of the hobby that is probably dying and for the sense of community that kind of collecting fostered.
This is very unlike me, as I've been a "I don't need you/do what you want" type of person my whole life.
But knowing that someday that there might not be some guy hunched over a card table, looking through a 1973 binder, searching for Denny McLain, number 630?
I'm sorry. That makes me sad.
Just like looking at the guys in their NFL jerseys gathered around a box, waiting to pull the lever on the slot machine.
Without a second to think about it.
That's just the way I feel.
I can't change it. I've tried.