October 16, 2007

For Love of The Common Star

This post will run on Beckett.com today, Tuesday, October 16, 2007.

If I know anything at all about baseball, it's that a star can emerge at any time. A guy can put together a hot streak (or an entire hot season), or a timely post-season hit or amazing defensive play, and his cards will catapult from common-dom to the dollar bin and beyond. Take a guy like Cecil Fielder. Or Denny McLain. Or Zoilo Versailles. There are a lot of players on this list (rookies not included).

But the thing about catapulting out of nowhere and becoming a star is that it's also very likely that same player will catapult back into nothing. You know what I mean? Those same three players I mentioned above fit this category nicely. (Actually, Versailles is part of a peculiar group: Former league MVPs whose cards can be found in the commons bin.) They were all good players after their breakout seasons, though none ever quite captured all of the magic again.

So why are certain players hobby stars and others not? It's not just benchwarmers who are commons. Some guys that have strung together long and impressive careers are considered commons, too. (And what's it like for a current or former player to come across one of his cards in the commons bin? First of all, I would be impressed that he was a collector, and second of all, it's probably pretty humiliating. Also, if you go to shows to buy cards of yourself, is that the baseball card equivalence of a musician kicking back and listening to his or her own records?)

In a previous column I brought up the idea of a player outlasting his rookie hype. Here's another question: How long does it take for a great player to become a common? Also, is that a course that cannot be reversed? In other words, if you were once a hobby star, but are now a common, can you ever be a hobby star again?

To illustrate this point, let's look at 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985 Donruss. Here are the players I compared: George Brett, Dennis Eckersley, Dale Murphy, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Lee Smith, Fernando Valenzuela and Dave Winfield. Every card of the four Hall of Famers, in terms of book value, is listed over a dollar apiece (in NM condition). Only two cards of the other four players are over a dollar: Lee Smith's 1982 rookie ($4) and Dale Murphy's card from 1984 ($1.50), and I'm fairly certain the value of the Murphy card is inflated; it's from the 1984 set. Another interesting note: The Lee Smith card from 1983 is listed at twenty cents. That's a devaluation of 95% from 1982 to 1983. Just incredible.

And Valenzuela? He's about as close to being a common (commonstar?) as you can get. Case in point: Smith's 1984 card is listed at twenty-five cents. Same with his card from 1985. And this is pretty much par for the course for mid-Eighties Donruss: 1984 provided a half-life for 1985's prices. But Valenzuela? While his 1984 card is listed at twenty-five cents, his 1985 card is right back down to common ground: Ten cents. So then for retired players, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame has to be the ultimate life preserver from a lifetime in the commons bin. Without enshrinement, a regional following (and regional pricing) is probably the most you can hope for.

And for those players whose regions no longer exist – who is left to revere Le Grande Orange? – well, here's to hoping they get another job and forget about their baseball cards. (Or don't mind living a one-in-a-million life and leaving a twelve-for-a-dollar legacy.)

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