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Thursday
Jul252013

Baseball Cards

Over the past few years, during conversations about the whisk(e)y bubble many believe we're facing, there have been numerous references to whiskey being the newest incarnation of baseball cards: a hobby that blew up in the late 80s, became over-valued, and then dumped when people lost interest and moved on to the next fashionable trend. My friend SKU has written about it, I've written about it, people have posted comments on various sites about it, so it seems that many of us who grew up in the 1980s and collected baseball cards during the peak understand the parallels. It's totally possible that, like baseball cards, whisk(e)y will fall out of focus and producers will be stuck with a glut of overproduction.

There's another side of this analogy, however, that I don't think we've really touched on. In order to understand it you need to have collected baseball cards before Beckett's Monthly Price Guide became inseparable from your back pocket. You also need to have been a whisk(e)y drinker before this whole pricing boom began around the end of 2008. You need to be able to understand how a simple hobby based on fun, enjoyment, and pleasure became completely monetized, data-oriented, and collector-focused. Let me give you a few analogies to explain what I mean:

When I was about seven years old my cousin and I would bring our baseball cards to each other's house to play with. We kept them all in a single plastic case, stacked on top of each other, and we'd take them out to look at and trade. We were both Giants fans, so naturally we wanted to get as many Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Robby Thompson cards as possible. That was our focus: collecting the players we liked. Sometimes we would create an all-star team with nine of our best cards, then go out into the yard and play one-on-one baseball, pretending we were the players on our home-made rosters, putting the cards next to us as each player came up to bat. We'd even keep their stats. Hell, I remember even striking out on purpose so the number of strikeouts would match up to the number on the back of the card! Wow, those were the days.

Then my cousin discovered Modesto Baseball Cards on Oakdale Road, or "Gil's" as we called it, as that was the owner's name. Gil didn't just sell packages of baseball cards, he sold individual cards that were all worth various amounts of money. These cards were placed in protective sleeves meant to protect them from any damage. In order to find out how much these cards were worth, Gil used a magazine called Beckett to determine the value. Every month a list with each card from each brand would be listed, along side a price with an arrow to indicate if the value had recently gone up or down. Our minds were completely blown. All of a sudden, the kids at school all had a copy of Beckett in their Trapper Keepers. Over night my friends and I went from passionate baseball fans to professional stock brokers. All this time we had been trading and collecting based on our own personal taste, but little did we know these things were worth money!

"Want to trade me your Roger Clemens rookie card?"

"How much is it worth?"

"Check the Beckett. I'm not trading it unless I get something back in return that's equal value. Last time I got ripped off."

Opening a pack of baseball cards became a treasure hunt – literally. We would dig for all the most valuable cards, put them into plastic sleeves, and show our friends which ones were worth the most money. "Check out my 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. It's worth eighty bucks!" We were all tiny investors, hoping that our collections would one day make us rich. I don't know one person, however, who ever cashed in on their Donruss, Topps, and Fleer stocks. We mostly just complained, fought, and cried about getting ripped off, bad trades, high prices, or how everything sucked except for error cards and the super-collectable Dale Murphy reverse negative. By the early 90s, some brands were up to $10 a pack because they contained possible high-end cards inside. Brands were creating super-limited cards for the sole purpose of being limited, and therefore valuable. By the time we were ten we had become jaded on the whole scene.

And now I see it with whisk(e)y.

"How old is that whisky? Fifteen years? And it's $100? Man, that's a ripoff."

I might as well be back in 4th grade. Everything about our enjoyment is based on how much we spent or how good of a deal we got within the parameters of evaluation. Personal taste isn't one of these quantifiers, however. Much like with baseball cards there's a formula that combines the brand, age, and scarcity of the whisky to determine whether it's worth buying or not. When you throw in points, you get an entirely new dynamic – prestige!

"How many points did so-and-so give it? 90 points? And it's only $40? Wow, that's a good deal."

Of course there's no inherant value to someone's 90 point review, just like there was never any inherant value in any of the Beckett prices. You couldn't walk into a card store and expect to pay the exact Beckett price simply because one company printed it, just like you can't claim that a 90 point Screaming Eagle should cost the same as a 90 point Spanish garnacha. They're simply guides to help give you some context. However, like the passionate hobbiests we are, we can't help but turn these numeric evalutations into a collection competition. I knew a guy in elementary school who had thirty 1986 Jose Canseco Donruss "Rated Rookie" cards. At one point those were valued at $100 each. He would hoard them, do anything to get them, have his parents drive him to the Bay Area to find more. He took a picture of him with all thirty in his bedroom and brought the photo to school so we could see it. Sound familiar?

While I think the baseball card market is a decent comparison for the whisk(e)y industry, there are a few differences that lead me to believe whisk(e)y will likely take a different path. Most prognosticators don't take into consideration the difference between on-premise and off-premise sales (bars/restaurants vs. retail), and how cocktail culture will eventually affect the demand, but that's another topic for another time. The more appropriate comparison, in my mind, is how both hobbies changed their patrons and how those patrons forever changed these hobbies. Collectable baseball cards will never be used in bicycle spokes again, just like many new collectable whiskies will never actually be consumed. They have monetary value that extends beyond any practical usage. Just like a card with a tear or bend was worth less, a whisky without it's cardboard box or tin is deemed less collectable. That takes away from the resale value! Don't touch it!

The question I have to ask is: which way was more fun? Was it better to just collect the players you liked, or was it more enjoyable to obsess over the value of each? Personally, I had a lot of fun doing it both ways. And I sure learned a lot about business. It's totally possible that the monetization of whisk(e)y, or any hobby for that matter, satisfies some capitalistic itch in us that is just waiting to be scratched.

-David Driscoll