The Washington Times - June 8, 2008, 03:27AM

By JAY LeBLANC
June 8, 2008

Back when I was a kid - the ‘80s weren’t all that long ago, but I can still get nostalgic - baseball cards came in packs with sticks of stale gum that somehow tasted good anyway. They still felt like they were made out of cardboard, not some mysterious space-age metallic material. They featured simple, colorful designs and offered a wealth of statistical information on the backside. And they were massively overproduced.

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Around that time, collecting baseball cards was making its transition from a kids’ hobby to an adult investment, and plenty of grown men snatched up cases of unopened wax boxes, hoping to make a big score later on. By the early ‘90s it was clear there wasn’t going to be much demand - ever - for the 1988 Topps cards they’d bought. Not wanting to lose part of their target demographic, the card companies knew they’d have to do something to keep these wannabe stock traders interested.

Not surprisingly, they decided the response to overproduction would be manufacturer-induced scarcity. And  with that, a whole new genre of baseball card - the insert card - was born. These short-printed, usually flashy, sometimes serial-numbered cards were greeted with open wallets by those who’d been burned by overproduction just a few years earlier. Future Hall-of-Famer rookie cards collected dust as money-hungry collectors tore open packs of Fleer Flair searching for “Hot Gloves.”

While all this was going on, I was working part-time at a baseball card store, and the fact that I got half my pay under the table and the other half in the form of store credit allowed me to build what I thought was a pretty decent collection. But no matter how crazy the customers went in their quest for “Leaf Gold Stars” insert cards, no matter how many consecutive months Beckett magazine fueled the fire by listing cards made just weeks earlier at absurd prices, I just wasn’t buying it. My mind was made up, and I liked the vintage cards and the rookie cards better.

I could barely grasp algebra, but it wasn’t hard to see that the insert craze was mind-blowingly shortsighted from an investment standpoint. The card companies started truly focusing on “scarce” cards around 1993. People went nuts and spent crazy amounts of money, fearing that it could be their last chance to get their hands on these short-printed beauties. This went on all summer and into the fall. And you know what happened next? Time passed. It became 1994.

Thrilled with the frenzy their insert cards created the previous summer, the manufacturers offered more scarce cards to chase. The companies that hadn’t joined the fun right away made up for lost time with insert cards of their own. Collectors forgot all about the last year’s hot insert cards and pursued the shiny new ones with similar fervor. And as prices for the new insert cards shot up, the prices for the old ones plummeted. Apparently, no one took time to consider the obvious: Eventually, there would be too many “scarce” cards for scarce cards to actually be scarce anymore.

Sure, Beckett still lists the cards that truly kicked off the insert craze - 1993 Topps Finest Refractors - at prices in the triple figures, but I’d like to meet the man who would actually pay $150 for a shiny 15-year-old Bryan Harvey card instead of spending the same amount on a 1973 Mike Schmidt rookie. Take a look at the prices for pretty much any of those early- to mid-‘90s insert sets nowadays. They’re a fraction of what they were, and still, the money you’d pay for them could be spent much more wisely. Say you’re a Greg Maddux fan with $12 in your pocket. Are you going to buy his 1993 Score Select “Select Aces” card or his 1987 Donruss rookie card? The rookie card is clearly a better investment, and you’d still have $2 left over for a coffee or something off the McDonald’s value menu.

Nobody likes to obtain something of value only to watch it lose its luster. Needless to say, there are plenty of collectors - and former collectors - who don’t remember the insert craze fondly. Fortunately, I’m not one of them. My collection was built on the insert craze. I’d tear open a pack, look for a shiny card, and contemplate which future Hall-of-Famer’s rookie card I’d be adding to my collection in its place.

One memory in particular stands out; it must have been 1994 or 1995. I busted open a pack of Upper Deck SP basketball cards, and to my delight, I found that it contained a die-cut Nick Van Exel card. Die-cut cards were a new concept at this point, and all the rage. Van Exel was a young L.A. Laker with upside, not the underachieving malcontent he’d become known as later on, and a glance at the Beckett magazine in the card store where I worked revealed that the card I pulled was worth $80, or $20 more than the Cal Ripken Jr. 1982 Topps rookie card I’d been coveting.

The Ripken rookie is sitting in the display case right behind me as I type this. If the Nick Van Exel die cut card is still featured prominently in anyone’s display case, it’s his mom’s.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.