Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Behind the Numbers; Part 2

In my first segment, I looked at just what it is that goes into a box (or entire production run) of contemporary mid range product.  All in all, I wasn't overly surprised.  Products are continually hit driven, but those hits frequently don't actually cost the card companies all that much.  Still, once operating expenses and overhead are factored in there is considerably less wiggle room on a box of cards than you might expect at first glance.

To give some historical context to how the hobby structure may have changed, I'll be looking at 1998 Collector's Choice baseball.  It was unquestionably a low end set primarily geared towards kids.  And that strategy definitely worked.
While I had absolutely no idea who Hines Ward was in 1998, I still fondly remember pulling his rookie card out of couple packs we busted during a Cub Scouts meeting.  The photo features a kid in an Upper Deck hat doing some kind of interview (real or otherwise) with Hines.  And at just $1.29 a pack, it had a parent friendly price that I definitely recall making it an easy choice over pricier sets like Stadium Club.

But childhood nostalgia aside, what made the set tick?  Thanks to the StarQuest Home Run insert /100, we can get a relatively good gauge for how many packs were produced.  The inserts fell at 1 in 5 cases, or 1:2,160 packs.  With 30 cards in the set, that makes for 3,000 cards.  While Topps is known to hold back a portion of the production run today, Upper Deck typically would send hand numbered replacements for damaged cards, meaning likely all the cards were inserted.  Plus in the pre-redemption days, companies didn't have to make good on cards they had promised but didn't actually produce.

Doing the quick math comes up with 6,480,000 packs of Collector's Choice baseball being pumped out in 1998.  Compare that to the roughly 2,000,000 packs of 2013 Topps Chrome produced between hobby and retail.

Packs retailed for $1.29, or an inflation adjusted $1.91.  A box would have ran about $45 for a 36 pack box.  Markup on current products is typically between 35-40%, so assuming similar ratios in 1998 a dealer direct price would come out to about $28.50 a box.

There's no way of knowing exactly how much printing costs would have been to produce such a set.  With 14 cards per pack, boxes delivered a healthy 504 cards per box.  Most of the inserts were foil based like StarQuest and Crash the Game.  But the base set was largely the meat of the packs.  And a decent amount of care was put into the photo selection and design of the cards.  They might not have had the top of the line photos, but the photography was definitely up to par with other sets of the time.

Taking an educated guess, I'd assume production costs, again before any overhead, advertising, etc, would have been in the $10 neighborhood.  There isn't a ton of meat on 'them bones, but the key is in the production size.

The roughly 6,500,000 packs come out to 180,000 boxes, and 1,500 cases of product hitting shelves.  I'm assuming a decent portion of that went to retail outlets that don't sell cards anymore or have a small card selection.  As a kid in the mid 90's I remember every gas station and grocery store stocking at least a box or two of cards, usually headlined by the low end, kid-friendly releases.  Even into 2002 or 2003 I remember Rite Aid carrying packs of $3 and under products.  Now most collectors are saying that the already meager card sections in Target or Wal Mart are being eliminated or overrun with non-sport cards.

And just for a fun fact, there would be roughly 155,000 produced for each card in the 530 card base set.  Amazingly enough, I can't recall finding a single one in a dime box at any point in the last few years.

So what does this all mean?

While this era can't hold a candle to the amount of wax pumped out during the early-mid 90's, there were nearly three times as many cases packed out in 1998 of a product that was definitely considered low end than we see of some of the most popular products like Topps and Bowman Chrome today.

Perhaps just as important, the added quantity would have made up quite a bit of ground financially for both the card companies and for store owners.  It is worth noting that today Topps products are printed to order, so there's no way of knowing how much of that '98 CC was sitting in a warehouse unordered for the next year or two.

But this really seems to illustrate where the shifting collector population may have forced the industry's hand.  Those 6 million packs were undoubtedly spread around to a wide cross-section of collectors.  I doubt there were many folks who weren't big time dealers busting a case of Collector's Choice.  At that price point people could afford to rip and rip and rip to get the cards they wanted, and trade or buy on the (much more limited) secondary market to get those missing cards.  Today's market is much more reliant upon people who might rip a case or two of product and then are dumping 99% of those cards straight into the secondary market.  When there are really only 2-3 cards in a box that even have the chance of being worth the price of the pack, there's greater incentive to buy by the box.  And you can extrapolate that same logic to the case as well.

So it would be safe to assume that we'll never see those low end, low profit, high volume products again, right?  At this point I'd be inclined to say yes.  But there is one really interesting exception to this - Topps Opening Day.  Opening Day was a pretty pathetic product for more than a decade, offering bastardized versions of Topps Flagship cards at first with foil stamping and later just with an ugly color logo.  In 2006 Topps introduced numbered parallel cards, similar to the Topps gold cards.  But the set was still relatively bland, and garnered little interest.  But over the past few years the set has increased the presence of autographs, unique inserts, and foilboard parallels to make it one of the few products each year that truly sells out.  In my third segment, I'll take a closer look at Opening Day, and discuss whether it's truly a model that other low end sets could utilize.

By The Numbers: Are Low End Products Still Feasible?

There's no doubt that the card industry has seen radical change over the past 30 years.  I'm not even talking about the more micro changes - the shifts from set building to inserts to the big hits.  Let's just talk about the industry as a whole and its players.  Forbes cites industry sales at $1.2 billion in 1991, having fallen all the way to just $200 million in 2008.  Presumably current numbers may be even lower.  Estimates put annual card production as high as 80 billion cards in the early 90's.  While Topps seems to have nearly a billion parallels in Flagship this year, I still don't think the numbers climb quite that high.  And who is making the cards has changed.  Gone are the days when a fly by night company could essentially open shop on a rich investor's whim, get approval for a license, and start printing cards within a matter of months.  Longtime players like Fleer and Donruss are gone or printing logoless cards, while the Pinnacle's, Pacific's, and Pro Set's of the world have faded from collector's memories.

So what does the hobby look like?  I think we all come across the stories every few months that get picked up by ABC News or Forbes on how the industry is crumbling, nobody collects cards, and those cases of 1988 Topps you were hoarding are completely worthless now.  Is it reactionary?  Sure.  Is it largely true?  Well, yeah.  Go to a card show, and just people watch for a few minutes.  You might see a few kids there with a parent or grandparent.  You'll probably see the typical local flippers and dealers, trying to scoop up any and every card they can turn for an extra buck or two - the same guys who have been prowling the same mall shows since the "good old days" of the show circuit.  But you'll probably also notice that there aren't...really all that many people to watch.  The mall show that used to have 20 dealers on the top and bottom level might now have a small circle of tables, compressing in on themselves for safety like a circle of Conestoga wagons trying to weather an Indian attack.

But even for someone who feels like he is pretty in tune with the modern hobby, I wonder just how deep those changes are felt.  How much has the hobby fundamentally shifted, in hard, concrete numbers.  I have suspicions, I have hunches, but I don't have hard numbers.  I'm not expecting to do any in depth, hard hitting investigative reporting here.  This isn't Watergate.  But I would like to see what a modern product looks like once you peel back the layers of sticker autographs, foil board, and patch chunks.

The goal here is twofold: to better understand the composition of modern products and why hit-driven products are dominating the marketplace; and secondly to see if it would even be possible for a low end, base driven product to be profitable in today's marketplace.

To do this, I'll be looking at three products - 1998 Collector's Choice, 2013 Topps Chrome, and 2014 Topps Opening Day.   These three products were chosen because they had readily available data of odds for numbered cards that could be extrapolated into overall print runs. I wanted a low end product from the tail end of the days when you could find a card show in a local VFW every weekend and a card shop in every town.  2013 Chrome had information available on dealer direct cost and odds data.  Opening Day seems to be representative of the one product still produced at a low price point, and has seen relative success in recent years, but may or may not be operating as a loss leader to engage younger consumers.

I think the numbers I calculated are correct, or at least within the ballpark of actual production runs.  But I'm an English major here guys, and numbers are my mortal enemy.  If something looks off, please correct me, so these calculations can be as accurate as possible.

I'll be breaking down each product individually in its own post, and then providing analysis at the end.  If you're not interested in the nitty gritty, skip down to the bottom.  And after years of being drilled to show my math by math teachers, I have included the calculations in case anyone cares to double check my arithmetic.

2013 Topps Chrome

Auto relic base cards - Hobby exclusives #'d out of 10, 30 subjects.  1:3715 packs
***I've seen it commonly reported that Topps withholds 6% of the production run for replacements and God knows what else, so I removed 6% of possible inserts from these calculations

Roughly 1,047,630 hobby packs would be produced, equivalent to 43,650 hobby boxes, or 3,637 hobby cases.
Black refractors were inserted at 1:55 hobby packs, or 1:425 retail packs.  Based on the number of hobby packs, roughly 19048 black refractors (of 20680 inserted across the production run) were inserted into hobby packs.  The remaining cards would have been in retail packs.

This means roughly 693,600 retail packs of 2013 Topps Chrome were produced.  Those cards would be split across retail boxes and blasters.

Cards are sold in 4 card packs, with the majority of packs containing 3 base cards and one insert/refractor/autograph.  That would mean base cards would have a print run of between 23,500 and 24,000 copies per card.

Packs carried a $3 SRP, making the full SRP of a box $72.  Dealer direct cost, as reported online, was $53.15 per box, or $637.80 per case.

So that's what we know.  Now things get a little more tricky.

Topps has actually maintained a surprisingly consistent price point on Chrome, with 4 card packs retailing for $3 back to the late 90's.  Presumably that means that the per sheet printing costs of Chrome has actually gone down since the technology was debuted in 1996.

2013's product featured two autographs per Hobby box, made up almost exclusively of rookie autographs.  It appears that most of these players are paid between $1.50-$3 per autograph.  For comparison, a legal dispute records basketball stars Derrick Rose ($25), Tracy McGrady ($50), Russell Westbook ($12) being paid more per autograph.  These scales would presumably translate to baseball, while superstars like Jeter, Trout, or Hank Aaron would presumably be closer to the $100 mark.

In short, the hits are probably costing Topps about $5 or per box in Chrome.

Let's extrapolate that to a product like Topps Tier One, which retails for around $1,200 a case and holds 2 autos per box.  The quality of player increases slightly, but there are still plenty of Adam Eaton's and Brent Morel's in there.  I'd guess an average autograph cost would increase to around $10 per signature, with the case hit costing between $50-100.

This print run for TC seems to be in line with their Bowman Chrome press runs, and I'd imagine is typical of a midrange product with a relatively weak retail market.  While the cost of the technology has almost certainly gone down from when it was first introduced, Chrome cards still presumably cost more to print than lesser stock cards.  Factoring in printing costs of base cards, parallels, and inserts, plus the known dealer direct cost per box, I'd imagine Topps can make a box of cards for around $20.  Of course there are overhead costs, design (limited in this case, since TC is mostly just a reprint of Flagship cards), and marketing (which never seems to be more than an ad or two in Beckett).

It is worth noting that adjusting for inflation, that $3 pack of 1998 Topps Chrome would be up to $4.38 today.  That would boost the box cost up to about $105.

There's certainly money to be made, but it does seem pretty interesting that the "value" collectors pull from the box actually often seems to line up with what Topps put into the box.  Know how you're pissed you only got $20 worth of cards from a $75 box?  Well, that's apparently about what went into it.

Up next I'll be digging into 1998 Collector's Choice to give a little context to the conversation.

Pass Me the Soapbox, Please

For those who read this blog on a semi-regular basis, you've probably noticed that over the last few weeks I have posted more pictures of digital mockups created on my computer than scans of real, live, pack-fresh baseball cards.  Judging by my hits, some of you aren't nearly as thrilled to read about cards that don't actually exist.  And that's totally cool.  Because you see the thing is that I'm having a blast fiddling away with Photoshop each night.

And in deconstructing and reconstructing some of my favorite designs, I've learned a lot about what (at least in my opinion) makes a good card.  Not a good product.  Not a good release.  A good baseball card, that when held up by itself just makes you feel good.  I've been recreating the designs that resonate with me - packs that I remember ripping open when packs were $.99, or $1.29, or if you were really going to break the bank $2.  Sure, part of the appeal is that these cards are the designs of my childhood.  The familiar patterns and designs that I sorted and resorted almost daily as a kid, the stat lines and flavor text on the reverse forever burned into my brain from hours spent reading and rereading the cards.

But I think there's more to it than that.  It's not just the warm and fuzzies of childhood.  There is something fundamentally strong about these card designs.  They're clean, crisp.  Not too cluttered with graphics, or loops, or even foil stamping.  They let the photo do the talking, and offer a design that draws your eye exactly where it needs to go.  But there's a reason for that, isn't there?  Those cards, those products, were ultimately driven by kick ass looking cards.  Not inserts, or a billion parallels.  Sure, the insert craze was in full blast.  And there were certainly those who were chasing the big dollar cards.  But the financial success of a product still seemed to lie in selling a base card that at the very least wasn't ugly.

To each their own, but I've been really sick of seeing cards that are photoshopped and filtered to hell and back.  Think Bowman Inception, or about half the football and basketball products Panini puts out.  The 90's are gone, and aren't coming back.  That I can deal with (though I do occasionally have a hankering for some Oasis).  But has the card industry changed so radically that the only profitable model is the current high hit/throwaway base model?  I don't have answers.  We will probably never have concrete answers, since the full breakdown of production costs, profit margins, and sales data will never be released.  But just how close can we get to breaking down how these products are put together, and whether this is the hobby going into survival mode, boiling products down to what has the highest marketability to stay in business, or simply a choice that collectors have come to accept over the past decade?

Over the next few days I'll be looking at this from two perspectives:  the design, and the dollars and cents.  I'm trying to go in as open minded as possible.  I honestly have little idea what the overall production picture looks like, and as somebody who almost exclusively deals with the secondary market I'm curious to take a closer look.  We all know the hobby isn't as robust as it was a decade or two decades ago.  But where do things stand in terms of production, collecting, and resale?  And what might that $1.29 pack of Collector's Choice look like today.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Another Day, Another Low End 90's Custom

Forgive me, but I've been on a bit of a roll here.  Collector's Choice was a pretty apt name for the set if you had asked me as a kid.  The sets had a great mix of fun inserts, a cool base design, fairly good photography, and perhaps most importantly a mom-friendly price point.  And as a result, my childhood collection boxes were littered with these things.  Not that I'm complaining.
 UD Choice was a pretty major flop on the baseball side, but the product had was a little more interesting (to me at least) on the football side.
Meanwhile, this photo was just too awesome not to turn into a custom.  Pearce was one of the guys I always liked who never really got a shot in Pittsburgh, so I'm glad to see him having success for the O's this year.

Mail Call

It's nice to see Frankie Liriano making it into quite a few sets this year.  It seems like Pirate free agent signings rarely get any love.  Granted there haven't been many players worthy of inclusion on cardboard, but even some of the better signings like Kenny Lofton and Russ Martin haven't had many cards in a Pirate uniform.

Unfortunately it's probably a safe bet that Frankie is on his way out of town for richer pastures.  But at least I'll have some shiny cards from his time in the Burgh.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Custom Creations

Some more customs came down the pipeline over the weekend.  I've been slowly working my way through many of my favorite designs from the 90's and early 00's.  The 2000 Topps set will always be my favorite, but 2001 was a pretty nice followup.  I busted a ton of Series 1, and really enjoyed opening the packs and the unique green design.

The design was actually pretty fun to recreate.  But one of the downsides of cards from this era is the prevalence of foil stamping.  I have yet to find a way to really replicate the foil look in photoshop.  There may be a way, but it's definitely not something I have in my bag of tricks.  The end result ends up looking a little bit flat, but I'm still pretty happy with how this one turned out.  It's not something I would print yet, but with a little tweaking I'm hoping I can bring one of my favorite designs to life.

The other creation was 1998 Aurora.  The set was a higher end product put out by Pacific, and featured some pretty cool cards on the football site.  Baseball never lived up, and the products were pretty forgettable in my opinion.

But the football side was a little more exciting, helped in part by rookies of Manning and Moss.  The football design features a weird reimagining of the team's logos as medieval coat of arms, somewhat similar to soccer club logos, in the lower right corner.  I decided to forgo those for now, but I must admit I think the weird shields were actually part of what drew me to the product.  I remember my dad buying me a box of this from the LCS for Christmas one year, so it holds some special significance to me.  It's a pretty fun design.  Again the lack of proper foil stamping takes something away for me, but it's a cool set that was fun to deconstruct.  

My next custom post will be going through the process of deconstructing and reconstructing a custom design.

Cleaning Up at the Card Show

This weekend was pretty crazy, but I managed to squeeze in a trip to a mall show out near my parents' house.  It's only the second show in Pittsburgh since the big annual Robert Morris show in May, and the other show happened to be last weekend when I was in Boston.

With shows such a rarity around here anymore, I wasn't going to miss it.  I made it out on Friday, and it was well worth the trip.  When I first get to a show, I try to scope out any tables that look to have a crowd, since it's a fair bet thats where the deals are and I want to at least get a crack at some stuff before dealers and flippers totally pick it over.

The show was largely dead when I got there, but I noticed a couple local flippers anxiously flipping through a table.  The sign said everything was a buck, and was covered with a couple dozen boxes.  A quick flip through didn't look promising - some star base cards, inserts from recent Topps years.  Nothing I'd consider paying a buck for.  And then I heard the guy next to me say "Hey, there's some Jose Guillen autos in here," and caught a glimpse of a '98 Donruss Signature auto out of the corner of my eye.  Luckily they didn't make it into his pile, and I quickly shifted my search to the left a few boxes towards where he was.

Much to my surprise, most of the other boxes were loaded with autos and game used cards.  There was no rhyme or reason - nothing was sorted in any way, and years and sports would change randomly.

There wasn't anything overly impressive in terms of Pirates or Steelers (though I did snag both the '98 Guillen and its Millenium auto parallel), but I hit a small goldmine with some of the cards.  I easily could have pulled out more cards with the intention of flipping them, but was trying to watch my budget.  Nonetheless, at a dollar a pop I think I did pretty well...

I've been slowly picking up autos from some of my favorite players of the mid 90's, and this was a perfect chance to make a nice dent.  One entire box was filled with Donruss and Leaf Signature autos.  Unfortunately the vast majority were from 1996's Extended series,  and was a vast who's who of middle relievers with 3 year careers and fringe bench guys.  Still, I was able to find a couple decent additions to the collection.  Looking over the various checklists, I may make a run at the 1998 set one of these days.  It's aesthetically stunning in my opinion, and the player selection is a little more manageable, since most of the superstars were sp'd in the colored parallels.

But perhaps the most surprising finds were the faded star cards.  Hobby trends inevitably shift to the newest, shiniest thing.  But it's crazy to think that cards of players who were at or near the top in the game just a few years ago can now be had for less than a Wendys hamburger.

As cringeworthy as the auto, photo choice, and design's a freaking Dan Uggla auto for a dollar.  I picked Uggla's Topps Total rookie card out of a dime box when he first hit the majors, and promptly sent the card out in the mail for a TTM autograph in my younger, less researched days.  The card never came back, so this is a nice substitute.  Though I still do need to replace that Total card.
Granted, Uggla's star (and career) have faded quite a bit in the last few years.  But it was a little surprising to see autographs of players who are still performing well at the major league level popping up for a dollar.  But then again I'm sure this dealer had more than made his money on these cards months and months ago - it's easier to throw it all in a box and sell it for a buck than to sort through and price everything when there only may be a handful of cards worth pricing higher.

In an ideal world I'd probably want an autograph of these guys that was a little more visually appealing.  But that's the point, isn't it?  I wanted their autograph.  The pretty picture behind that?  Well, that's just icing on the cake.

I may have gotten a bit carried away.  My non-Pirate certified autograph collection has grown pretty aggressively this past year, and this weekend did nothing to slow that down.  Still, some of these cards may get passed along to better homes at some point.

Were any bloggers Beckett Message Board members during the Phil Hughes saga?  Phil was apparently a big card collector around the time he was drafted, and was a posting member on the BMB for a while until the constant harassment probably ran him off.   Still, it's been an auto I have wanted ever since.
But the best part of digging through large blowout collections?  The random uncertified autographs that sneek in.  See, uncertified autographs are a funny thing in the card show world.  From what I've seen there are basically two types of dealers who have uncertified autos:

1) Bulk inventory dealers who make their money off the big time and certified stuff, and couldn't care less to be bothered with an autograph of questionable authenticity that they aren't familiar with pricing on.  I've had numerous dealers give me an explanation along the lines of "I don't actually know if it's real, so I don't want put a high pricetag on it and accidentally rip somebody off."  It's an admirable sentiment in a hobby where honesty isn't always all that common.  But I think it also shows how much we rely on stickers, vague authenticity statements, and the good word of the kindly card companies these days.  Luckily if you are at least passingly familiar with a player's autograph, signs of an autopen or forgery, and willing to get burned for a buck or two, it's a bargain shopper's dream.

And of course there's the second type...

2) The autograph dealer.  The guy who knows his stuff, and maybe even got the cards signed himself.  But is also convinced that they should be worth as much, nay even more than a certified auto.  And I hate to break it to you pal, but I'm not going to pay $5 for a Rafael Belliard auto, let alone the $20 you want for Jason Bay.  Can deals be found?  Sure.  But mostly these guys are the standoffish, not particularly well socialized jerks found standing outside hotels and ballparks nationwide with a page of 9 of the exact same Topps card to be signed, just put into a situation where money can change hands.  The end result?  Hint: none of the cards I post on this blog come from those guys.

But a Paul Molitor auto for a buck?  Don't mind if I do.

But perhaps the coolest find of the day came from another dealer I know who had a table of nothing but dime boxes, again just selling out the inventory on a big deal he already made his money on.

He falls in category 1 to the extreme, typically dealing only with super high end stuff and then just blowing out anything that doesn't sell for $50 or up.  Miggy's auto is a little inconsistent and there aren't many letters to it, so I'm less certain of its authenticity than the other uncertified autos I picked up.  But it looks like a decent IP autograph, and for a dime I'll take a gamble on an autograph of a former MVP.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cards of the Non-Tangible Variety

Another day, another photoshop experiment.  The low end early late 90's/early 00's product love continues with 2000 Fleer Impact.  The product was a $.99 pack released in both football and baseball, and was focused on attracting kids back to the hobby.  There was one insert set which fell one per pack, and an insanely rare game used insert that I refuse to believe exists.  The base cards were pretty cool in my opinion, but obviously the rest of the collecting universe disagreed since the set was a one-and-done.

This Ultimate Signature card was a little more difficult to make.  Cards involving a cutout are always more time consuming, since a good chunk of time is required to cut the player out (and find a photo that won't be impossible to cut out).  Bagwell was one of my childhood favorites who I'd love to get an auto of some day.  I made some subtle tweaks to the design, but I love the big area for the autograph.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Impulse Photoshopping

Alright, I think it's safe to admit I have the Photoshop bug and I've got it bad.  I was catching up on my blog reading when a post from Orioles Card O the Day popped up featuring a card from 1996 Collector's Choice Star Rookies subset.

Now anybody who grew up in the 90's probably shares my affinity for Collector's Choice.  The low end (read: affordable, kid friendly, and parent approved) product offered some pretty cool cards at a price point that always made it easy to sneak multiple packs into mom's shopping card when we went to the store.  The products are still one of my favorites to this day, and with some pretty cool foil inserts like The Big Show and Crash the Game, the packs were a fun rip in the mid 90's.

The '96 set was actually pretty unassuming in my eyes.  It would be overshadowed by...well, just about any other CC set released.  Even the beleaguered 1998 UD Choice, which was a total flop but a product I opened a bunch of on the football side of things.

But for whatever reason the 1996 CC rookies subset looked awesome.  Maybe it's some underlying patriotic zeal deep within every 10 year old.  Maybe the card just looked a lot flashier in comparison to the rest of the pack.  But those cards have stuck in my memory as one I always hold near and dear.

So when I saw the post, I figured what better to do with my evening than recreate the design.  Admittedly, the layout isn't all that complex.  Lots of straight lines and a repeating pattern makes for a quick template.  In fact, this post is taking longer to type up than the actual card took to create.

So into the time machine goes Gregory Polanco, and our comes an awesome looking 1996 rookie card.  For comparison, Jason Kendall's card from the actual '96 subset is below.

Fun with Photoshop

I decided to play around with some more customs, and was able to whip up a couple new templates.  The Signs of October card is based on a hybrid of a few of the different Ultimate Collections dual signed cards that were released by UD in the mid 00's.  They're some of the cleanest cards out there, and while I don't think this one comes close to stacking up, it should make for some cool custom TTM projects.  

The 1960 set is one of my favorites of all time, and has an extra special significance since the Bucs won the World series that year.  After taking a second look, I think the player name font needs to be a bit smaller.  But otherwise this was really a pretty quick one to throw together.  And thin Barry Bonds just looks so...weird.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Vacation Mail

Annnnd we're back to our regularly scheduled program.  Kate and I were up in Boston enjoying a gorgeous fall weekend, some chowdah, and some of the most terrifyingly aggressive drivers I've had the pleasure to nearly wreck into.

Sorry for the lack of posts while I was away.  I had hoped to schedule some autoposts, but the time slipped away from me.

But fortunately there were some surprises waiting in the mailbox when we got home late last night.

Andrew Lambo spent most of the year wasting away in AAA, but that didn't stop him from being included in just about every product released this year.  But surprisingly, this is my first autograph of his.  I've been a big fan of Elite, and the decision to include it with this year's Donruss S2 made for a loaded break.

A couple of boxes of Donruss in group breaks didn't yield any major Pirate cards, so I decided to go the ebay route to meet my needs.  The Status die cuts have always been one of my favorites, and I think the die cut and color does nicely to distract from the pretty glaring lack of logo-age on this particular card.  Better yet, I snagged this for just barely under $4.  A pretty nice pickup, since I had been getting consistently outbid on the more common base (base insert?  how the heck is this set categorized???) auto around the $3 mark.

Oh, and for those wondering yes, Fenway was a must see on our trip.  I'll try to get some photos up later today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When Custom Becomes Reality

I've had a blast playing around with Photoshop this past weekend.  Kate has CS5 on her Mac, while my laptop still has CS2.  For those who aren't Adobe inclined, the difference, as I've been learning, is miles apart.  Things that took hours and hours to perfect can now be accomplished in literally a matter of minutes with some of the improvements available.

Over the past couple weeks, I have been looking more seriously into how to take these jpeg files I dream up on my computer screen and turn them into something that looks like an actual baseball card.  You know - something I can hold, look at, put in the spokes of my bike.  Well, maybe not the last one.

In fact, I've come across some really cool work done by custom card makers.  Home-printed refractors, superfractors, and the like.  The catch is that they aren't the most caring and sharing bunch on the block.  I get it - time and energy went into perfecting their craft, and if they can make a few bucks charging people to make customs then that isn't a secret they're willing to give up.

But the thing is I've always been pretty shitty at capitalism.  So here begins my magical journey to make awesome looking custom cards come to life - and then to share that knowledge with anyone who cares to use it.

But first, I need to figure out how to calibrate my damn printer.

 As you can see, it took a few test runs (about a dozen in fact) to get something actually resembling a baseball card to correctly print out.  Don't judge.

In the past I have used heavier card stock to print, but found the more absorbent stock tends to give out a less crisp image.  If you're going for the 1984 Topps look, it might work perfectly.  But for now, I wanted clean, crisp images.

So photo paper it is.  But the stock is pretty flimsy, and definitely doesn't feel like a baseball card.  Fortunately this Joe Oliver test scrap was kind enough to volunteer for a test run.  With a little rubber cement in hand, it was time to cut him down to size merge him with some actual cardstock.  

 I've never been concerned with making custom card backs - the front is where the real action is.  So Joe can inherit Bo McLaughlin's stats from 1982.
 Put the two together, and presto!  Suddenly it feels like a baseball card.
 More importantly, the photo paper is so thin that is really doesn't add any extra weight or thickness to the card.  It feels pretty similar to a modern glossy thin stock card, akin to Topps Flagship from the past few years.
For now I'm sticking with getting some of these customs signed through the mail.  After all, that had been the original inspiration for my custom cards, filling in team sets for former Pirates who didn't have a card released as a Buc.  While I'm sure it will take me a while longer to perfect the basics, I do plan on experimenting on some of the super shiny premium stuff in the near future.

With some work and a little luck, maybe I'll become a card making master one of these days.


I spent some time this weekend tackling the massive undertaking of migrating my 13,000+ Pirates cards from boxes to binders.  The good news is that most of the work is done - I'm down to a 4 row box and two shoeboxes.  The bad news?  That also means most of the "easy" put-aways (base sets, inserts/parallels that I have a large number of) are already done.  The resulting mess is a pile of one-off sets, sets with only one Pirate card in them, oddball releases, and base sets that I might have 1 card in the entire 9 pocket page.

But I decided to slowly chip away at it again this weekend after taking a month or two break.  And one thing that quickly bugged me: Topps Uncirculated cards.

Remember the uncirculated fad, when Topps tried to cash in on grading without actually...grading anything?  The cards were distributed - usually as a boxtopper - in a hard plastic case sealed with a Topps holo-sticker.  The idea, supposed, was that these cards had never been circulated, going straight into the case from the factory.  Therefore, or so the logic goes, they are more desirable, or valuable, or higher grade.  Or some jazz like that.

The real end result?  Lots of pretty cards sealed behind a thick layer of plastic that was easily scratched, scuffed, and dinged.  And a card that had way too much room to move around inside the holder, and probably would have been better off inside a penny sleeve and toploader.

But ignore the Uncirculated holder for a minute here.  These are some cool looking cards!  But with my incessant need to keep cards in their original state, I had left the half dozen Uncirculated cards I own inside their holder.

If you're keeping score at home, the holders do not, in fact, fit inside a 9 pocket page.  Clearly something must be done.

 Part of the reason I hadn't made an effort to jailbreak these bad boys before was that Topps had done a pretty good job of making a case that was a real pain to open.  But a little online digging revealed that the pros at this suggested using a penny to wedge the case open, at which point the snapping tabs on each side would release.
 And the results were certainly worth the scraped up fingers that resulted.  The cases really put a damper on the refractor effect of the cards, presumable because less light is able to pass through the plastic case.  In particular, the 2004 Bowman Chrome Blue Refractors look amazing.  I've been a big fan of the blue ref since it was introduced into packs in 2005, but this 2004 version may actually be my favorite.
 And the end result?  A win for card collectors everywhere, and a carnage of plastic cases.  As you can tell, the bulk of plastic majorly outweighs the actual amount of cardboard it was protecting.

Now there are some great looking cards safely at home inside their binders, and I managed to clear out a few inches of space in those remaining boxes in the matter of a few short minutes.  All around a job well done, if I do say so myself.

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Photoshop Weekend

In case you were wondering, yes, it would appear that I spent the majority of my weekend on photoshop.  But boy was it fun.  I think I made my first custom cards while I was still in high school.  Hell, custom might not even be the right word.  I basically took scans of old Topps cards, used photoshop to (very poorly) cut out the image, and then reframe new images.  

The results weren't bad, per se.  But they certainly weren't as clean and crisp as they could have been.  I'm far from a photoshop wizard these days, but I've been challenging myself to try to develop new skills and techniques with each new custom I work on.

More importantly, I've targeted a few of my favorite card designs from the past to recreate.  Eventually I would like to print some of these off to be signed, and even look into some of the various higher tech papers that can be used.  From some of the great work I've seen done by other custom card makers, apparently you can purchase stock that is pretty similar to what is used on foil cards or even Superfractors.  Makes sense, right?  With the internet and all the products out there, it's not likely that Topps has exclusive access to the sole place to print these great looking cards.  It's just a little minblowing that I might be able to pull off something half decent looking with my desktop printer sitting right next to me.

Anyway, the Buck card recreates the 2001 Topps Golden Anniversary Autographs insert set.  It's a pretty beautiful set if you ask me, and one that still commands some pretty high prices.  I'm pretty happy with the way it came out.

The Cutch card is an homage to the 1996-97 NBA Hoops set.  This was my absolute go to when my mom would let me buy a few packs at the local Hill's department store out of the mindblowingly awesome card dispenser - dozens of different packs all waiting to feed out of their plastic home.  Obviously I reworked the name to be more sport appropriate, and replaced the gold foil font with something more visible.  The design is more plain than I realized.  The set had some really great photography that I didn't really recognize until I started building the template.  While this Cutch photo is cool, I think any future versions I make will a) be scaled slightly smaller so the player doesn't take up as much of the frame and b) include multi-player shots, like double plays or plays at the plate.  If you look at the NBA set, I think the action in the cards paired with the clean design was what really made the set a winner in my eyes.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fun with Photoshop

I had a little free time today while watching the WVU game, and decided to play around with Photoshop for a bit.  It's been a while since I've done much with custom cards, primarily because my nearly 9 year old laptop isn't too fond of running programs that require a lot of processing power these days.  But with Kate out shopping, it was a prime opportunity to jump on her Mac and mess around for a while - and work on learning the upgrades found on CS6 from the CS2 that I'm oh so familiar with.  Don't judge.

I was flipping through some cards for TTM requests, and came across few Jamie Moyer cards that had been forgotten about.  In particular, a 2000 Upper Deck Victory card.

Victory was one of my favorite sets in my triumphant return to collecting in 2000.  I remember my mom buying me a blaster of Victory - probably 10 packs of the stuff.  It didn't matter that it was a low end set (nor did I know the difference at the time).  I had a whole box of cards to rip open, all for myself.  The design is far from perfect - it's very busy, the photo selection was horrible, and the cropping even worse.

But the set brings back some great memories.  So why not try to throw together a template in photoshop?

The end results aren't perfect on my end.  I still need to play around with the fonts a little bit more to find a closer match, as well as some other minor tweaks (I didn't realize how tiny the jersey number bubble is supposed to be on the left side).  And while I was able to add an effect to the card borders that mimics the scuffed up markings on Victory, the pattern and shape is entirely wrong.  If anybody has any idea what kind of effect would be closer to what was used for the set, I'm all ears.

But all things considered, it was pretty fun to throw together.  For reference an actual card from the set is below.

Any other favorite sets anyone would like to see recreated?  I'd be happy to give it a crack with my admittedly limited skills.

Friday, October 10, 2014

I Walked the Plank: Trade with Bob Walk the Plank

The Pirate online collecting community is a pretty small group.  I'm not sure whether it's because there just aren't that many Pirate collectors, if most of the Pirate collectors just don't share their collections with the web, of somewhere in between.  But the what Pirate collectors there are are a great group of people, some of whom I've been online pals with for the better part of a decade now.  And it's always nice to see to see a new member added to that rank.

By now I think everybody knows about Matt from Bob Walk the Plank, trading extraordinaire.  I found out about Matt's blog early on, maybe two or three posts into his newly founded blog.  I dropped him an email to welcome him to the blogosphere, and suggested striking up a trade.

And then...I dropped off the face of the planet.  This year has been a series of crazy ups and downs, and my irregular posting can vouch for that.  I was pretty bad about posting and reading blogs for a few months, and even worse about having the time to work out trades and send packages.  By the time I got my shit together?  Matt had made quite the name for himself.

A couple weeks ago I sent another email suggesting we revisit a trade.  We both have pretty similar collections, since we're both huge Pirate and WVU fans.  A few days later, a package was in my mailbox.
Matt has made a name for himself as a great trader, and I can see why.  
The package was full of hits, mostly of former Mountaineers.  My WVU collection has been slowly growing since I moved to Morgantown for grad school in 2010, and my arrival just happened to coincide with some amazingly exciting teams and players.  Unfortunately, that time period also overlaps with the college football license consolidation, pushing companies like Press Pass and Sage out of the game.  As you can see, they produced some absolutely beautiful cards of players who were college favorites, but likely to do very little in the pros.
But Matt wasn't done there.  This beautiful Jason Grilli auto was smack dab in the middle of the package, and made my jaw drop.  It has a beautiful refractor finish that doesn't show up in the scan, and the blue ink on blue background looks great.  The man has some serious trade bait sitting around.
Kay Jay Harris was another guy who predated my arrival in Morgantown, and I think this is my first autograph of his.  The Dolphins were my favorite team growing up because of Dan Marino, so this is a cool bit of collection overlap as well.
And last but not least, a great jersey card of the Pirates ace (future ace?).  I'm hoping Cole will get off high high horse and appear at Piratefest this winter so I can try to get this bad boy signed.

Talk about instantly beefing up the collection.  Thanks Matt!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

All the Small Things

A few years ago, my entire vintage collection would have fit in a 9-pocket page.  Well, not literally - some of the cards would have too tall.

I collected modern cards - inserts, autographs, and an (un?)healthy obsession with the Pirates starting shortstop.  The few vintage cards in my collection came from generous internet friends who tossed them as an add in to trades or outright gifts.

I've been fortunate enough to find some real deals over the last few years, and combined with the discount vintage dealers at shows I've managed to put a good dent in most of the mainstream Pirates team sets.

But one set has been pretty much off limited: '52 Topps.  See, the famed set rarely makes its way into discount boxes.  I have exactly two '52 cards in my collection - a Ted Beard that I picked up on ebay for about $5 to get autographed ttm (and boy am I glad I did), and a Vern Law I picked up at the Robert Morris show for $3 this spring.

But this post isn't about '52 Topps.  Rather it's about what the '52 set does to its next door neighbors.  Anybody who goes to major shows knows vintage is king at these shows, and Topps set builders can easily make a dealer drive home with a big smile after a weekend.  But I've always preferred the early 50's Bowman sets.  Simple, quaint, and colorful without being too cluttered, the slightly smaller stature of the set both physically and in the hobby landscape has made it one of my favorite things to hunt for at shows.  And the lower prices don't hurt either.

I've made a nice dent in the Pirates team sets over the last few years.  Better yet, I've been able to find some pretty clean cards for just a buck or two.  In fact, I don't know that I've paid more than $2 for any of my early Bowman cards.  Granted, the Pirates of the early 50's weren't exactly crawling with star players.  But it's a series that has been a lot of fun to chase.  And better yet, the cards are kind enough to snugly fit in my nine pocket pages.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

PWE Bomb from 2X3 Heroes

I haven't been very active in the trade market this year.  Life's kept me pretty busy, and way too stressed.  I've tried to keep up a fairly regular posting schedule, but there just isn't as much time for cards as I'd like most weeks.  Incoming packages have been more rare than in the past, so when a surprise comes in it's much appreciated.

And Jeff from 2X3 Heroes was kind enough to dig through my list to see what I didn't have, or is just a really good card picker.  But either way, he knocked it out of the park.  The package had some awesome new additions to my collection.  The Gold Sparkle cards are actually one of the few Topps parallels I've really enjoyed in recent years, and I've slowly been plugging away at the team set.  I think I have most of Series 1, but Update and S2 are still a work in progress.

 And if you want to talk about awesome pickups, this Cutch card takes the cake.  This is probably one of the coolest cards I've received in a trade all-time.  I'm thrilled Topps has brought back die cuts, and is actually keeping the concept fresh year to year.
 And keeping the theme going, this Cole Chrome base card goes great with the Refractor I got from the group break I posted yesterday.
Rounding out the package, this finishes my Pirates GOTG team set.  The 2000 GOTG set is hands down one of the most visually stunning sets ever produced.
And finally a card of two time Pirates minor league pitcher of the year Tyler Glasnow.  He's been blowing through the minors, and hopefully will continue that success right on to the majors in the next couple years.

Thanks, Jeff!