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Is there a fortune in those cards?

The first set of Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball cards are hitting area stores, and collectors say they might double or triple in value over a year's time.

Or not. It's not easy to predict which cards will become valuable. Their value could go down as easily as up. And even if the cards increase in value, consider that a set of 15 only costs about $5 to start with.

For many fans, the cards are simply a way to follow their team. But for collectors, there's always the hope that a card might someday be worth thousands of dollars.

The chances of that are slim; the best chance is if the card is for a young player who later makes it big. So if a rookie like Rich Butler or Miguel Cairo goes on to become a Hall of Famer, some Rays fans might end up holding extremely valuable cards.

Featuring 15 of the top Devil Rays players, the cards are part of the season's second series, released by major card manufacturers such as Topps and Upper Deck. They're available now in many baseball card stores, and they will be on sale at Tropicana Field in a couple of weeks.

Store owners say people are interested simply because it's the first year for the hometown team.

"The inaugural sets will be very popular," said George Cramer, owner of Sportsmasters of West Florida, a St. Petersburg store.

Topps offers 15 of the top Devil Rays, though Wade Boggs isn't yet available in a Rays uniform. Collectors can find some retail outlets with the series already assembled; other outlets will sell individual cards.

Baseball cards are a big business. Sports trading card sales take in $1-billion a year, with baseball cards representing about 40 percent of that.

A collector since childhood, Cramer, 53, has seen the collecting phenomenon continue to grow.

"You pretty much know who the good players are and you know what sets have done well in the past. That's a good starting point," he said. A monthly price guide lists the going rate for cards.

A few cards sell for thousands of dollars. A Honus Wagner card sold for about $460,000 at auction a few years ago, while a Mickey Mantle card from the slugger's 1952 season lists for $23,000.

Collectors often gamble on which rookies will soar in skills and value. "All of a sudden, the public jumps on somebody and starts buying him," Cramer said. "No rhyme or reason for it. He either lives up to expectations or falls on his nose and the card goes that way."

Some collectors choose to put together their own sets of cards. For example, they can buy a box of 36 packs of Topps cards, with 11 cards to a pack, all randomly boxed. The price is $55, said Dominic Rocco of AAA Baseball Cards in Dunedin. The box may or may not include Rays players.

Collectors shouldn't assume Rays cards will skyrocket in value, Rocco said. Consider the Florida Marlins, who started playing in 1993. "The first year, everyone wanted the set and many packed it away," Rocco said. "Most of the cards have gone down in value since then, though. Most of the players aren't there anymore."

Still, some area collectors will take the risk. "I've ordered everything I can possibly get," said Jim Hoch of St. Petersburg. "They're going to be in big demand."

Hoch, who says he's been collecting sports memorabilia for 15 years, estimates the value of his collection at $80,000, with an emphasis on basketball in general and Michael Jordan in particular.

And what about the missing Wade Boggs? Photos for baseball cards are taken in team uniform early in spring training, but for some reason Boggs' card was not included in the current series of cards.

In Topps' second series, there are some players in last year's uniforms. If fans want Boggs, for now they'll have to accept him in a Yankee uniform.

Boggs as a Devil Ray should be out in the next Topps series, expected in about three weeks.

- Times researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report.

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