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Collecting more than memories

Frank and Cathy Roach are serious Lightning fans. Very serious. No, their house in Carrollwood isn't painted in Lightning silver, blue, black and white. Nor are their cars. One is white, but that doesn't count. Nor do the Lightning license plate frames.

The Lightning votive candle-holders, watches, jewelry (some of it handmade just for them), key chains, Lightning-uniformed Santa Clauses that's a different matter.

"You name it, we've got it," said Cathy, a registered nurse. "It's just a personal thing we enjoy, something we can do together. A lot of the stuff brings back memories. We don't spend beyond our means. We're just fans who love the Lightning."

Jeff and Kandy McKenney's St. Pete Beach house and cars aren't Devil Ray green, blue, black and white. Inside the house, though, are more than 100 baseballs, one with owner Vince Naimoli's autograph, one with general manager Chuck LaMar's and each of the rest with the signature of every player who has ever worn a Rays uniform during a regular-season game.

That's just the start, said McKenney, print shop owner and a founder of the 142 Crew in the rightfield stands. "If it's on eBay "

Charlie and Sherry Simons split their loyalty. Their Town 'N Country home isn't painted in Storm blue, gold and white. But their official Storm key chain holds the keys to their Buccaneer pewter GMC Yukon and Buccaneer red-and-black Ford F-150.

"The Storm shirts, hats, stuff like that, we do it to show our support for the team," said Simons, owner of a sign company and a founder of the Storm Crew fan club. "The other stuff, they're just neat. I buy them just to have. What we don't have, we make."

There are fans and there are fans! One exclamation point doesn't do them justice. The word is derived from fanatic, but that doesn't quite explain it. Webster's says a fan is "enthusiastic," a fanatic is "unreasonably enthusiastic."

That would be Simons. His company used to paint the Storm field, end zones and logos. In lieu of cash he received tickets and more. He still rides the team bus on road trips, shags footballs during warmups and stands on the bench fetching clean towels and water for players. Until this year he hadn't missed a road game. "The players called me from the airport," he said, "wondering why I wasn't going to Atlanta."

They're out there, rabid fans of any team or athlete. They prowl flea markets, the Internet, memorabilia shows, team stores and specialty shops, buying and selling anything and everything worth five cents to more than $1-million.

"This is the person who buys the things nobody else would even think to buy," said Richard Kelly, retail director of Buccaneer Heaven in Tampa. "I mean, we've got something like 1,500-2,000 official Bucs items. Often, money is no object. Someone's going to buy an autographed Bucs jersey, and the Bucs display case to show it off _ that's about $600 right there _ and who knows what else. We see the same faces a lot. Some guy kept coming in last year. He ended up spending around $15,000."

Rich Klein, an analyst at, which lists the changing values of sports memorabilia, said collecting is, above all, "an individual pursuit. You can be the "I go to one game a year' guy who buys the shirt, or the one who'll pay nearly $110,000 for a Willie Mays rookie card. It's up to the individual. That's one of the beauties of collecting. We can't put any presumptions on anyone else's mind. Who knows why they collect."

To some it's "because they had them as a kid and they want to get them back," Klein said. "They're a mirror back to their youth, when life seemed so much better and simpler."

To others it's for the love of a sport or their team. "If you're a super fan, from that person's perspective, they have to own everything that relates to their team, and not just the cap or pennant," said Joe Orlando, vice president of Professional Sports Authenticator and editor of Sports Marketing Report. "Maybe it's a 7-Eleven cup, a Wheaties box, a '57 Chevy with a Devil Rays logo on it."

Gathering sports stuff can be never-ending and boundless. Orlando said he sold a Mark McGwire autographed, authenticated game-used jockstrap for a few thousand dollars a few years ago.

To fans with no emotional attachment to players or teams, their memorabilia is an investment, like stocks. "It's human nature for them to say, "Well, I'll hold on to it just a little longer. Right now it's worth $100; maybe it'll be worth $150,' " Orlando said. "Then the market drops and they can't sell it for half of what they paid to buy it."

Example: When McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 the price of McGwire-related merchandise went through the roof. Then he retired. Then Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001. The McGwire graded mint-condition rookie card worth as much as $8,000 three years ago now can be had for about $1,000; the ungraded mint McGwire has dropped to about a quarter of its earlier $250 value.

Keith Kunzig, a fitness consultant and owner of tanning salons, has adored the Bucs since their inception in 1976. The rear of his Chevy Silverado is airbrushed with a Bucs motif. He is one of several Bucs faithful inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as an NFL superfan.

"If the Bucs lose, people don't like me at work; I'm tough to deal with," said Kunzig, whose Buc-colors face paint earned him the nickname "Big Nasty." "There used to be a lot of miserable Mondays. If they win, I'm high all week."

Mood swings or not, the superfans' team colors and memorabilia are part of their persona. Their spouses are as involved as they are. Or at least they don't mind. Or they've long since packed and left.

Sherry Simons is somewhere in the middle. "I'd never pack up and leave but sometimes it gets overwhelming, like, "Charlie, where are we going to put this?' There's not enough places to put it all. It's almost like he's this big kid. Is he obsessed? Yes. Does he need to go to Sports Anonymous? Definitely. But I'm obsessed with our daughters' competitive cheerleading. So we kind of balance out."

The McKenneys' collection began innocently enough in the Rays' 1998 debut season. Their tickets were behind what used to be the team's bullpen. "After a month or so, players started recognizing the kids and started tossing them baseballs in batting practice," Jeff McKenney said. "Pretty soon we had a bunch. We figured, "Why not get a few autographs?' "

The Roaches have been buying Lightning merchandise since 1992, the team's first season. They have a paver (it reads "Bolts to Cup") in the fan walk outside the Ice Palace, a banner signed by owner Bill Davidson, a macaroni and cheese box bearing Lightning center Brian Bradley's picture "We don't get everything," Cathy said. "If we had the money, maybe." She can't imagine spending $500 or more for Lightning stuff "unless it's something like a crystal vase or crystal Stanley Cup with the Lightning logo, something tasteful."

Here's the extent of the Roaches' fanaticism. Shortly after buying a Lightning flag for their car, they were on Interstate 275 heading to a game. Cathy accidentally opened a rear window. The flag flew out. She got upset. Frank got off the highway, got back on going the other way, pulled off the road, dodged I-275 traffic and retrieved the flag. Buying a new one, she said, never entered her mind.

Kunzig is a self-proclaimed "nut case. I'm on eBay every night for things that catch my eye. Like, "Hey, I don't have that.' I get stuff for holidays; makes giving gifts easy. I've got a lot of Bucco Bruce stuff (the team's pirate logo from 1976-96). I've got a Mike Alstott A-Train whistle, Bucs money clips, mugs, a Lee Roy Selmon cup, die-cast cars, trash cans, a Warren Sapp doll, a night light, matchboxes, shot glasses, cigarette lighters "

"My wife's fine with it," Kunzig said. She must be. Debbie and Keith got engaged Oct. 10, 1996, at the Bucs' 20-17 overtime victory against the Raiders. "I've got to tell you this. Debbie and I are looking for a bigger house." He laughed. "We have a 3-2 (bedrooms and baths) in Largo. We have a daughter. We need a 4-3. We need another bathroom. But we also need more space for all this stuff."