MLB.com keeping collectors busy

MLB.com keeping collectors busy

It's that framed picture of Albert Pujols that you brought to the Cardinals Winter Warmup for him to sign. It's that ticket stub and No. 8 game ball from that unforgettable night when you saw Cal Ripken play in his 2,131st consecutive game.

It's that seat you kept from old Riverfront Stadium where you saw your first game. It's that ball Hank Aaron signed, that jersey Derek Jeter wore, that Ryan Howard Photo Mint, and that bat signed by all of the Red Sox after they finally broke the Curse of the Bambino, whose autograph you would have had way back then.

Memorabilia is important to everyone here at MLB.com, and it is different to everyone in the way it makes us feel. Fortunately, this fabulous part of baseball tradition is not only still around, but thriving like never before. That is not only due to the soaring popularity of the game, but also the advent of Major League Baseball's authentication process and the "long-tail" approach of putting seemingly something for everyone in the MLB.com Shop and MLB.com Auction areas.

To celebrate the start of another huge year in the memorabilia world -- can it get any better than Ripken and Tony Gwynn in Cooperstown together? -- MLB.com talked to top execs at six of our major memorabilia partners. They discussed the state of the industry, what makes a collector collect, and what's hot in 2007:

AllStarLineup | Highland Mint | Ironclad | Mounted Memories | Steiner Sports | TRISTAR

Philip Plotnick, president, AllStarLineup
Shop
| Auction

This Toronto-based company was the first to provide a Gwynn-signed "HOF 07" bat at the MLB.com Auction after the Hall of Fame announcement; it's the exclusive memorabilia distributor for Pedro Martinez; and it supplies a variety of memorabilia and coordinates signings and public autograph appearances by past and present stars such as Vladimir Guerrero, Eddie Murray, David Wells, Deion Sanders, Marcus Allen and Magic Johnson. Many users who shopped for the holidays at MLB.com know AllStarLineup for its personalized "I'm The Star" product, letting you put your last name on the back of a favorite player's jersey in a typical home run celebration photo.

Why people buy: "Fans certainly like to buy memorabilia following hot market events, like the Red Sox' historic World Series championship in 2004. But on a more general basis, I believe people collect what has personal value to them. And in the sports memorabilia market, fans are often buying a piece of sports history, or a part of their favorite team or player -- whatever aspect of the game in which the fan has a strong personal connection. Whether it is an autographed photo of Carlton Fisk's historic Game 6 home run, a team-signed World Series bat, or a game-used baseball inscribed by Greg Maddux from his 300th win game -- fans collect sports memories and milestones that mean the most to them."

About the industry: "Technology and the Internet have really changed the memorabilia industry over the past few years, mostly for the better, and I believe MLB.com is a shining example within the baseball memorabilia market. Fans can easily view thousands of products, including one-of-a-kind items, in one place. And with MLB's authentication on all autographed items, most importantly fans can feel 100-percent secure that what they are buying is authentic."

What's hot: AllStarLineup offers a lot of "hot market" items from star players and special events. For example, it anticipates many commemorative items on display here with Pedro's 3,000th-strikeout milestone approaching (he is two away). In the meantime, there's an autographed No. 45 Mets home jersey on the blocks.

Michael Kott, president, Highland Mint
Shop

This is the 17th year that the Melbourne, Fla.-based company has been commissioned by the NFL to produce the official coin used for the Super Bowl pregame toss, and their ability to make replicas for fans is typical of what Highland Mint continues to do for the average baseball fan from their 40,000-square foot facility. Witness the 2006 World Champions "Team Force" St. Louis Cardinals Special Edition Photo Mint or any of those Ripken Photo Mints that are loaded with commemorative bling.

Why people buy: "The one thing we have is a hot market. You win the World Series or a player wins a particular award, and that drives a lot of attention. But besides that, people are just fans of the sport. There's no real reason. Other than a hot market, people are just fans; they buy something for a birthday, they want to get someone a gift. There is a price range for everyone, starting at $20 all the way up into the thousands of dollars."

About the industry: "To us, the biggest change is how the Internet has really broadened our customer base. In the past, you sold to memorabilia or collectible or card stores. A typical fan's not going to go into one of those; the collector will. Technology has changed memorabilia. The game is more interactive to fans. They can go to MLB.com, look at stats and scores, and at the same time, MLB had enough foresight to get all the clubs involved to have one big platform to represent all clubs with a shopping platform combined into one. That's something MLB has done that other leagues haven't."

What's hot: "Big for us in 2007 are personalized products. Because of the Internet and because of the casual fans involved, we'll have a line of personalized frames. So for instance, you'll have a 13-by-16 frame double-matted in your favorite team's colors, a coin from somewhere like Yankee Stadium with dirt, and a team coin, then the ability to insert your own photo."

Ray Schulte, president, Ironclad
Shop
| Auction

It's a big year for Ironclad, based in Baltimore. Schulte has been in the memorabilia business for two decades, and started working with Ripken five years ago on endorsements, licensing and signatures.

"Cal is a visionary and he saw the opportunity for a viable business going forward, knowing this would be his Hall of Fame year," Schulte said. "Two years ago, we started this up. It really started because Cal and I had a deep feeling for wanting to provide the customer with a guaranteed signature, and also offering the player a more comfortable opportunity to get involved with the signings."

Why people buy: "Memories. They're purchasing because it reminds them of a period of time they will cherish forever. Whether it's the 1980s, 1990s, a World Series game, an All-Star Game or a playoff game, that piece of memorabilia will be a constant reminder. ... It's an emotional purchase that goes beyond fan appreciation."

About the industry: "We feel that MLB.com's platform is extremely important to the growth of our business, not only to the branding ability but also to the sales line, as well. More and more people are gravitating toward the Internet purchase in general, and the memorabilia industry is following suit."

What's hot: "We're the first ones to come out with the Cal-signed Hall of Fame merchandise and Tony's, too. Cal is under an exclusive license, and with Tony, we have a great relationship with him and John Boggs [Gwynn's agent]. We did a signing with them right after the announcement, so we have most if not all of the Hall of Fame merchandise -- the balls, bats, jerseys and photos -- that are out there right now."

Mitch Adelstein, president, Mounted Memories
Shop
| Auction

Adelstein started Mounted Memories in Sunrise, Fla., back in 1989, when the typical card-shop owner started getting into autographed memorabilia. He built the company's reputation not only through his own memorabilia, but also largely to support other serious collectors -- wholesaling countless display cases and acrylics that helped protect those signed balls, cards and photos. Today, Mounted Memories is a division of holding company, Dreams Inc., which also operates the "Field of Dreams" retail memorabilia chain in widespread malls. Mom-and-pop stores love their stuff and so do fans.

Why people buy: "You have someone 50-ish years old who walks into one of our Field of Dreams stores and looks into the case. The manager says, 'Anything I can help you with?' He says, 'I'm a Brooks Robinson fan,' so the manager pulls out that case and the customer starts talking about the time Brooks made the diving catch of Johnny Bench's shot down the third-base line in the 1970 World Series. It's a feel-good product. It brings them back to feelings that attach themselves to families and friends."

About the industry: "It beats selling shoes for a living."

What's hot: The Randy Johnson commemorative display now up for bidding says it all. It includes a piece of game-used baseball along with ticket and patch. "The game-used stuff is really taking a life of its own," Adelstein said. "We were one of the first to work with MLB.com a couple years ago to get this up and running. A lot of people would love Albert Pujols' game-used jersey, but might not have what it takes to shell out to get it. But everyone can afford to get a limited-edition collectible that includes a piece of a jersey or ball that Pujols used in a game. It doesn't break the bank."

Brandon Steiner, CEO, Steiner Sports
Auctions: Mets-Steiner Collectibles
| Yankees-Steiner Collectibles

Two decades ago, Brandon Steiner was an assistant general manager at the brand-new Hard Rock Cafe in New York's Times Square. Players frequented it often, and this devout sports fan "would take care of them." That led to being invited to the players' parties, which led to people asking if he can get this player to do this or that. It evolved into a business handling their corporate marketing, and today Steiner Sports is a power player in the memorabilia business with $50 million revenues and jaw-dropping items placed on this site.

About the industry: "The business has been as strong now as it's almost ever been. We've seen stabilization with pricing and also stabilization with authentication, with MLB being a big help in that process. On top of that, there's so much transparency there, the customer can really see the thing and know who they're buying from a lot easier. Given those factors, people are generally more educated, and it makes for a growth industry we're now in."

Why people buy: "More things are becoming available where maybe fans didn't have access to in the past. There are more collections, and more teams are putting together programs enabling fans to buy stuff. Talent is willing to take more time and put aside time to do it in an organized way so fans get authenticated stuff, as well. Now you have game-used jerseys, concert-used guitars. More people are getting into the act. I like to think our company has been a cornerstone to getting fans a lot closer to these great players and these great teams."

What's hot: "Today there certainly is a lot of coveted game-used memorabilia when you talk about a Babe Ruth ball and some of that crème de la crème. We have team items with 40 to 50 signatures. We do a lot of championship team signings, with 25 to 40 signings on those pieces. That's very hard to duplicate, let alone get these guys together. We're real proud of those collections. And when you talk about game-used, you can't not mention a guy like Derek Jeter, who has been there since the very beginning, and the collection we've done around him has been amazing. His memorabilia has been highly coveted for a long time. I've never seen a guy who's held up as long as him, and people collect as much for him as they do."

Jeff Rosenberg, president, TRISTAR
Shop
| Auction

To appreciate how long TRISTAR Productions has been around, consider that they started in Houston when Nolan Ryan was still wearing Astros colors and another local talent named Roger Clemens had just become a 20-game winner in the Majors. TRISTAR began in 1987 by putting on trade shows and morphed into the memorabilia business, now with more than 300 player signings annually and exclusive autograph-agent deals with people like The Rocket.

"We found that we were sort of the manufacturer, if you will -- the first point of signing," Rosenberg said. "Players will come to a signing, and we can offer those to people around the world."

About the industry: "I've been in Cleveland the last few days, meeting with people at an industry convention, and I've been trying to describe a trade show for people. I've said it's kind of like going to the Hall of Fame, except that everything is for sale. I analogize that to MLB.com -- you can take a piece of the game with you. 'Roger actually held this glove and now you can own it.'"

Why people buy: "Basically we're chronicling history and making that available to people. ... At the MLB.com Shop, our Hidden Treasures line gives you a chance at finding a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle -- or maybe by Bob Feller or an active player like Dontrelle Willis. At the MLB.com Auction, we have the one-of-a-kinds. We did signings with players like [David] Eckstein, so you might find a game-used base or a ball signed by the World Series MVP. We've found those to be very successful. If you look at TRISTAR's offering now, you'll see a lot of Cardinals, and that's because that's who's hot. For a collector, it's valuable because you get to name your price. Within just a few days it shows up on your doorstep."

What's hot: "We just had a show in Houston where Craig Biggio and other current and former players signed. People will be looking for his memorabilia in this coming year, because once he joins that exclusive 3,000-hit club, his memorabilia will be hot. If you came to the show in Houston, you were fortunate to meet Biggio. But there's this entire worldwide audience who would love to own an authenticated Craig Biggio autographed item. We have bats and jerseys. And we'll be on MLB.com with it."

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