Want to know Cal Ripken's true value? Don't ask the crack talent scouts in the Orioles' front office. Just ask your local baseball card collector -- be it a professional like Jay Finglass, or the 8-year-old down the street.
We now know Ripken is having a great season, because his first solo card is going for $175. Such validation is critical for players of the '90s. Next thing you know, agents will start quoting card prices as proof of their clients' popularity.
Sound ridiculous? Well, no self-respecting collector would pay a nickel for Matt Young's rookie card. But the Boston Red Sox are paying Young $6.4 million over three years, and look where it's getting them.
Of all baseball's sub-cultures -- literary windbags at one end, Rotisserie nuts at the other -- the card freaks are the most fascinating. In another life they'd be stockbrokers. This way they have more fun, and get to keep their jobs.
Finglass, 43, runs Jay's Sports Connection in Towson. He can't wait to see the boxscores each day and satisfy all his hidden agendas. "I'm also in two Rotisserie Leagues," he says. "My brains are scrambled. Being a true fan is out the window."
For Finglass and other Baltimore collectors, Ripken's sudden revival is of special interest. In previous years his card prices were stable. But Finglass says his stunning first half led to "major increases -- not just here, but all over the country."
The Ripken name, of course, is somewhat magical in the card-collecting world, but not because of Cal. Bill's 1989 Fleer card -- the one with the obscenity on his bat handle -- still sells for $15-$20, down from $100.
Cal's cards always moved steadily, Finglass says, but now his market has exploded. It's the same type of rush collectors experienced when Jose Canseco approached 40-40 and Rickey Henderson neared the stolen-base record.
"It's quite a surprise he's this popular," Finglass says. "It didn't really start until May, when it looked like he was for real as far as having a good year. Everyone expected him to fade, fade, fade. But the longer he kept it up, the more it kept going up.
"Right around the All-Star break, at the time of the big national show in California, his cards were moving up almost daily. It was nuts. But now they're starting to plateau. The price is still increasing. But the rate of increase is much slower."
With Ripken, the focus is on two Topps cards, both from his rookie season in 1982. As the original issues, these are the most valuable. His other cards rise with the market, but not to the same extreme.
Anyway, the first Ripken rookie card shows our hero flanked by two Orioles immortals, shortstop Bob Bonner and pitcher Jeff Schneider. In mint or near-mint condition, it sold for about $30 at the start of spring training. Finglass says it's now worth $75.
The second Ripken card is from an update series issued later that year. This is the first card that depicts Ripken alone. It went for $50 at the start of spring training. Finglass lists it for $175, and has sold it for as much as $185.
The prices, Finglass says, are finally "leveling out. They probably will stay leveled out. He's still doing great, but he's dropped out of the batting lead. With a hot card, everything affects it."
But for now, Ripken's rookie cards remain the most popular at Jay's -- ranking ahead of Brooks Robinson's ($350); Eddie Murray's ($65); Jim Palmer's ($250) and Frank Robinson's ($250).
It's a finicky market. Danny Tartabull ($4.50) and Will Clark ($30) both are having excellent seasons, but Finglass says they're generating "almost no play." Ditto for the notorious Rob Dibble ($0.35) -- card freaks generally scorn pitchers, especially relievers.
Frank Robinson represents Hall of Fame value, but Finglass says with his firing as Orioles manager, "his popularity went down, and his saleability went down." Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Morgan ($175) is just the opposite -- he remains highly visible because of his work with ESPN.
The current Orioles? It's like on the field -- keep Ripken, trash the rest. Ben McDonald is down to $2-$2.50 from $3-$4. Gregg Olson is down to $0.50-1.00 from $2. "Ben was real hot last year," Finglass says. "He's real cold -- ice cold -- right now."
Meanwhile, Ripken's 1981 Rochester card -- with Brooks' No. 5 on his back -- goes for $195. His 1980
Charlotte card, depicting him at Double A, supposedly sells for $300-$400, according to Finglass, but good luck finding one.
Ripken isn't yet in the category of Nolan Ryan ("a very tough sell" at $1,400), Roger Clemens ($225) or Rickey Henderson ($200). But he isn't likely to fade like the subjects of two other crazes -- Mark Fidrych and Super Joe Charboneau.
Back in 1980, Finglass says, "Everyone had to have Joe Charboneau cards. The guy was a legend. He had one good year with Cleveland. Then it was, 'Good night, Irene.' Now his demand is zero. And his price is almost zero."
It's as if poor Joe didn't exist.
The card freaks deem it such.