SPORTS COLLECTIBLES Despite scandal, market for keepsakes stays juiced

TOLEDO (AP) -- Sellers of baseball cards and autographs say the sport's steroids scandal hasn't hurt the multimillion-dollar memorabilia market because collectors still focus on hits and home runs.
Yet there is concern among both groups about what the future holds.
"People collect their heroes," said Kevin Savage, one of the nation's biggest card dealers. "It will be interesting to see down road if they're still going to be their heroes."
Those who track prices inside the industry say sales and prices have remained steady in the month since Congress held hearings on steroids in baseball -- even for stars such as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds who have been at the center of the issue.
"It comes down to the on-field performance," said Rich Klein, a price guide analyst for Beckett magazine, considered by many collectors and dealers to be the official source of baseball card values.
Bonds' baseball cards have held their value because "he had another great year" last season, Klein said.
Mark McGwire's cards have slipped in recent years not because of steroids but because he has become an "out of sight, out of mind player" since his 2001 retirement, Klein said.
The former St. Louis slugger refused to answer whether he used illegal steroids during the congressional hearing that has centered the public's attention on steroids in baseball.
Hard to figure
Estimates vary on how much is spent on baseball memorabilia.
Beckett's marketing research group surveyed dealers and hobby experts three years ago and estimated that wholesale sales of new sports cards totaled $350 million to $400 million a year. But that doesn't include sales of older cards at trade shows and hobby shows or sales of autographs and game-used jerseys and bats.
The steroid issue also didn't stop the Topps Co. from signing Bonds to a two-year deal last December that gave the company exclusive rights to his trading cards.
Savage, who sells mostly vintage cards and collectibles through auctions and the Internet from his business in Maumee in northwest Ohio, said he's been a little surprised there hasn't been more fallout.
"It's hard to figure why people collect what they do," he said.
Randall Hahn, who has filled his house in Horsham, Pa., with McGwire collectibles, including jerseys and home run balls, said he's been watching prices online and has not spotted any downward trends.
"People aren't going to unload their stuff because it was still exciting to watch him," he said. "Prices are not any bit lower."
Plus, he said, "people who follow baseball know steroids were there."
Still popular
Rick Fondrick, who sells sports cards at a flea market near St. Louis, said he still has no trouble selling McGwire items. But nearly all of his customers ask whether the value of the slugger's rookie card will fall.
"It just depends on what the fans think," he said. "If they decide they don't like this, the prices are going to drop like a brick."
John Bloom, author of the book "House of Cards" about baseball card collecting, said the hobby and the sport have survived a number of crises over the years.
"Baseball has never been innocent," said Bloom, a history professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. "It isn't always dependent on the player being a nice guy or an admirable person."
He said he wouldn't be surprised if the steroid scandal provided an intrigue that could make some cards more collectible.
"People really involved in sports collecting are hard-core fans anyway," he said. "They have so much invested in it. They're not going to give it up and throw it out the window."

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