Overproduction and greed are threatening the baseball card business, a hobby that exploded into a billion-dollar investment racket in the '90s.
Frank Schnorrbusch could have predicted that the phone call would come.
On Tuesday, only three days after Wade Boggs got his 3,000th career hit, a young boy called, offering to sell his baseball card commemorating the hit to the owner of Frank's Sports Center in St. Petersburg.
In the old days, that card may have been treasured forever by its young owner as a memento. But today, many youngsters see dollar signs rather than heroes when they look at their card collections.
Schnorrbusch has youngsters coming into his shop all the time offering to sell their autographed baseball cards.
"I guess it beats cutting grass and sweating," he said.
The bottom-line attitude of kids is one of many dramatic changes in the baseball card business. Industry analysts say card overproduction, an investment mentality and greed are threatening a hobby that exploded into a billion-dollar business in the early '90s.
Baseball cards have become pricier and more high-tech. Companies market more than 50 varieties of cards a year, and many use gimmicks such as pieces of jerseys and bats _ even sprinkles of ball field dirt _ to drum up interest.
Still, sales have plummeted. Total sports card sales hit $1.2-billion in 1991. Last year, sales were less than half that.
Last season's home run race revived interest in the industry, but while cards for top stars such as Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have gained in value, dealers and analysts say the market remains deeply troubled.
"That's the whole problem with everything. Everybody's thinking money, money, money, and they are not collecting them because they like them," said Irv Pike of The Baseball Card Co. in Largo. "The new cards are extremely volatile and unpredictable. It (the price of the card) has nothing to do with how popular the player is.
"Everything's changing and it's scary," he said. "There was a time when there were card shops on almost every corner."
The shops that have survived have had to diversify their offerings. For instance, The Baseball Card Co.'s main business is selling older cards _ the Mickey Mantles and the Babe Ruths _ to people who lived through those years.
"All the old cards are holding their value and going up," Pike said.
The bulk of Schnorrbusch's St. Petersburg business is in other types of sports memorabilia, such as autographed bats and shirts. "If I depended on the newest stuff, I probably couldn't make it," he said.
The card manufacturers are partly to blame, say store owners. There are so many manufacturers flooding the market that it's hard to collect a full set anymore. "Now, there are so many cards that many buyers are confused," Schnorrbusch said.
Instead, collectors are concentrating on star player cards and those of rookies, ignoring the rest.
Companies also have created a scarcity of certain cards by releasing limited runs and, in some cases, creating just one card of a particular kind. These rare, randomly inserted "chase" cards are often far more valuable than the price of a pack of cards.
"Now the only cards that seem to have good cash value are the rare inserts, the most high-tech of the cards," said Bob Lemke, senior price guide analyst for Krause Publications Inc. in Wisconsin.
Schnorrbusch said he has customers who buy a whole box of cards, sort through and pull out the elaborately printed cards he calls "tinsel cards" and then leave the rest at the counter.
Still, cards seldom sell for what card pricing books say they will, shop owners say.
"We have a lot of cards that people leave on consignment that they get in packs, and they want only half the price in the book, and they are still sitting there," Pike said.
The fancy cards have made the price of a pack of cards rise from less than $1 each to between $5 and $7, pricing some people out of the market.
Wade Boggs cards aren't among those that have soared in value despite his recent record.
"Unbelievably, there has been very little Boggs traffic," Pike said. "We have sold a few of his rookie cards."
Schnorrbusch said $20 is probably a fair price to pay for the Boggs commemorative card _ which was issued only to those who were at Tropicana Field _ because Boggs is a local celebrity playing for a new team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
"If he had done that in Yankee Stadium, you have got a monument," he said, because of the following of the Yankees.
Harry Rinker, a collectibles analyst and head of the Rinker Enterprises research center, said the sports card industry, with enforced scarcity and investment focus, is creating a price bubble that eventually will burst.
"Nobody trades anymore, except for cash," he said. "When you teach kids to look at these as investments, you destroy the joy of owning them."
_ Information from the Los Angeles Daily News was used in this report.