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Play your (baseball) cards right

Play your (baseball) cards right

It's Mickey Mantle on the front of a 1952 Topps card that was either passed down through generations or innocently attached to bicycle spokes with a clothespin.

It's Albert Pujols on the front of a red-hot 2001 Bowman rookie card, wearing a Spring Training hopeful's No. 36 jersey in the photo.

It's Honus Wagner on the front of the "Mona Lisa of Baseball Cards" -- the priceless gem from the 1909 American Tobacco Company "T206" white-border set.

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Trading cards have been part of the lore in baseball since its earliest days, with the first baseball cards generally considered to have been produced in 1860 by the Peck and Snyder sporting goods store. They are commonly 2 1/2 inches wide by 3 1/2 inches tall, ranging from that mint card sealed in your acrylic casing to the ones with the roughed-up edges that bring back treasured memories of yesterday's players.

Now, MLB.com/Cards has just been launched in conjunction with the Major League Baseball Players Association and the card companies to expand interest and give everyone a dedicated area to celebrate this time-honored hobby. It's where young fans will learn the joys of collecting cards, and where card collectors will learn the latest information about news that is important to them.

It also will be the online home of National Baseball Card Day on June 17. Everyone who signs up on the site on that Saturday will receive a pack of special National Baseball Card Day cards -- a 12-pack that will feature six from Topps and six from Upper Deck.

"Baseball cards have always been popular, and the fact that MLB.com acknowledged the need to create a site dedicated to baseball cards is further evidence that the popularity of baseball cards is growing," said Evan Kaplan, category director of trading cards and collectibles for the Players Association.

"The new site will serve as the official baseball-card hub for fans of all ages. There's a tremendous amount of marketing and promotional efforts currently being made to support the baseball category. MLB.com/Cards will make sure fans know everything about new releases, great programs like National Baseball Card Day and interesting stories."

In addition to National Baseball Card Day, some of the highlights at MLB.com/Cards will include:

Pack of the Month Club. This an exclusive club at MLB.com, aimed at promoting card collecting. Fans can sign up for a subscription of one, six or 12 months, and if you sign up now, each six-month commitment (limit two and while supplies last) means you will receive a trading card featuring an authentic piece of a game-used uniform or bat. Each month, at least one new pack of recently released cards will be mailed directly to you. The number of packs depends on the retail value of the cards.

• Articles about new releases, how to collect and the history of collecting.

• A "Top Sellers" list for sets and individual cards, with links to buy the cards online. Still need that 1993 Bowman Derek Jeter Rookie Card? There's nothing quite like opening a set and hoping for a gem, but ordering one this way is a matter of convenience in helping you fill in that collection.

• A regular "Featured Card." This will be a card that is of interest in some way, whether because of the picture itself, the story behind the card, an error on the card, etc.

• Upcoming Release Schedule. This is a calendar of the latest upcoming baseball-card releases, and there will either be a link to buy or read more about the set, depending on how far out the release date is for that set. Want a 2006 Topps Chrome Box set? You can wait until it comes out on July 17 -- or you can just order it now at MLB.com/Cards and there's no worry about it being unavailable later.

Another distinct feature of MLB.com/Cards will be the MLB.com "Top 5 Cards" list. This will be a list of our five favorite cards at the outset, and shortly this will become a current player's top five. After all, baseball players love their own baseball cards as much as their fans do. It was Bob Uecker who once said: "I knew when my career was over. In 1965, my baseball card came out with no picture."

"Your first baseball card is a player's true recognition that they have made it to the big leagues," Kaplan said. "They look forward to this first card as nearly every player collected as a kid. The new 'Rookie Card Logo' makes it easy for fans to find and collect these first cards."

That new denotation is just one example about how steps have been taken very recently to help cards hold their value and reduce dilution. There will no longer be official rookie cards unless a player is in the Majors, eliminating the chance of a player having a rookie card despite not making it to The Show. There also has been a consolidation in the industry, with fewer brands from which to choose.

The current marketing efforts by the Players Association and card companies are focused on kids, who are growing up in a high-tech age in which video games and iPods are a way of life. Will they love baseball cards as much as their ancestors have?

Kaplan said a new TV ad campaign just launched and will be running on Nickelodeon, The Cartoon Network, Kids WB and FOX. "Bring the Game Home," an online sweepstakes for kids that is supported by TV, online and print advertisements, will launch Memorial Day weekend.

"There are amazing programs at retail," Kaplan said, "and as previously noted, National Baseball Card Day takes place the Saturday of Father's Day weekend."

Baseball cards have come a long way since those first ones before the Civil War. They were largely popularized later by tobacco companies, typically with an image of the player on the front and an ad for that product on the back. Wagner, at least according to popular theory, ordered his card removed from that vintage T-206 set because he did not condone tobacco use. That made his 1909 card extremely rare, and rarity is the reason that any especially prized collectible gains tremendous value.

Still, for all the creative changes to the cards over the years, one thing remains constant: They are baseball cards. They remain a way to hold onto an object that bears the likeness of favorite players, to tuck them away or trade them with friends. It is a pastime within the national pastime, and now there is a new online home for it.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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