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BILLION DOLLAR BALL CARDS

Choose one:Baseball cards are:

a) Fun, nostalgic collectables

b) Penny stock investment certificates

c) Lottery tickets

d) All of the above.

Right. It's D.

Baseball cards ("bubblegum cards" to baby boomers) are a billion-dollar business now. And just when everyone says the whole hobby's going to collapse like a house of cards, it grows even larger.

"Back in 1979 I remember thinking that cards had peaked out," says Joe Casey, the guy local card collectors affectionately call The Godfather. "Then I thought the same thing in 1981. But it never has."

And why?

"Because of the emotion people feel for baseball and baseball cards in general," he explains. "The bottom could go out of the market tomorrow but there wouldn't be any panic selling. Collectors will keep their collections whether they're worth a million dollars or 10 dollars. They're not going to sell their memories."

People who don't collect ball cards may be asking, Who pays all that money for cardboard pictures? The answer is trickier than the question. The real high-brow collectors - those who will pay $6,000 for a Mickey Mantle card from 1952 - tend to be white, urban, male professionals; guys looking for continuity in their lives and finding it in a love of baseball.

But Casey says after 30 years with the hobby, he can offer something of a "collector profile."

"Most collectors - the real die-hard collectors - tend to be just a little neurotic," he says. "They're very passionate about the hobby. Some of them will collect certain years, some collect a particular player or team. Some collect players who share the same religion, same birthday or same hometown.

"I can say, though, that if you show me a group of 50 kids who collect baseball cards, I can almost guarantee they're mostly A and B students. Most will grow up to be lawyers, accountants - white-collar professionals. Few are excellent athletes. Athletes seldom collect cards. Most collectors start at age 8 or 9 and the memory of opening a pack of cards - the smell, the colors, the texture - stays with them forever. It's as vivid as any memory they have."

As the hobby grows and cards - even cards printed as recently as 1986 - begin to be worth hundreds of dollars, there has been some abuses and some criticism.

The fact the cards of white players tend have more value than black players makes some people a little nervous. And many feel uncomfortable with the "lottery" aspect of the hobby. Anybody in Salt Lake City, for instance, can walk into one of the half dozen baseball card shops, pay $7 for a wax-pack (unopened pack) of baseball cards from 1983 and maybe get a Wade Boggs rookie card (worth $35), a Tony Gwynn rookie card (worth $16) or Ryne Sandberg ($7.00).

On the other hand, you can spend $100 and come up empty.

The Beckett Monthly is the price guide and Bible for collectors. Kids use it like the daily racing form. In one variation of the game, three kids each buy a pack of cards for 50 cents. The kid who has the most valuable card in his pack gets to choose cards from the other kids. Other variations are "the card with the player whose birthday is nearest to Christmas," "the player with the highest batting average," etc.

To keep the "gaming" aspect at a minimum, card show promoters are quick on the draw to eject dealers who set up games of chance - such as "Wheels of Fortune" where $5 may net you a $65 Jose Canseco rookie card. And most dealers and collectors don't like to play up the "investment" aspect of the hobby. They feel it cheapens the thrill.

In the end, the one thing that has changed more than the price of rare cards, is the sophistication of collectors. Collectors have eagle eyes for flaws, for instance. Nothing gets by them. One, tiny ding in the corner of a rare card may mean as much as $600 difference in the price. And most buyers can spot bogus cards on sight.

If you're thinking about getting into the hobby, Casey says your best bet is buying the cards of established players. A flash-in-the-pan rookie may have a card valued at $20. But when the sophomore jinx hits, his value bottoms out.

Hall-of-famers are always safe.

And - as more girls get into the game - Casey has come to note one other collecting phenomenon.

"Some of the girls really know baseball and baseball cards," he says, "but you can bet your bottom dollar the players they collect will be good looking."

Ah yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.