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At FanFest, adult kids play cards right


Charlie Murphy, a paint company owner from Greensboro, N.C., turned into a little boy yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center.

There he was, flipping through a thick folder of vintage baseball cards . . . searching, searching, searching -- an aging Baby Boomer trying to recover a piece of his youth that his mother threw out.

Suddenly, Mr. Murphy looked up and grinned the grin of a lucky 8-year-old. The object of his desires was there. Bob Kennedy. The last card he needed to complete his collection of Orioles players from their inaugural year of 1954. Only $12.

Mom, little Charlie forgives you.

Mr. Murphy was one of thousands of former little boys and girls who poured into Major League Baseball's All-Star FanFest yesterday, many of them towing their own little boys and girls for an extravagant antidote to adulthood.

Yesterday's turnout of more than 15,000 was so heavy that the sponsor, the Upper Deck Co., decided last night to bump up ticket sales from 2,500 an hour to 3,000 an hour for the rest of the festival's run, which continues through Tuesday, the day of baseball's All-Star Game in Baltimore. Early estimates of 80,000 visitors are being revised upward.

"Star Trek's" Mr. Spock -- whose Leonard Nimoy-autographed Federation uniform shirt was on sale at FanFest for $110 -- wouldn't have understood anything about this carnival of consumption. Nothing was logical, particularly the prices. But disposable income was being disposed of left and right.

Just about anything connected with baseball is for sale at FanFest. There are bats, mitts, score cards, jackets, jerseys and box seats from vanished stadiums.

And everywhere there are baseballs, orbs of horsehide autographed by the great and not-so-great. Signed Brooks Robinson balls were a modest $55, but a Ted Williams autograph bumped the price to $170. And in ghoulish tribute, the collectibles marketplace has pushed the price of Don Drysdale-signed balls from about $15 to $75 since the former Dodgers pitcher died last week.

The possibilities for profligacy are virtually endless: a vintage Red Sox Jersey, signed by Ted Williams, for only $735; a complete 1973 uniform worn by Earl Weaver, with the former Orioles' manager's autograph and some of the original stains, $950; a Joe DiMaggio rookie-year baseball card, $2,800.

Will people actually pay that much for a baseball card? "They wouldn't be here if they weren't selling. We aren't a museum," growled Phil Spector, director of hobby marketing for Score Board Inc., a company with $90 million in annual sales and a listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

The DiMaggio card was small change compared with some of the items on display. Probably the priciest item at the show was a rare 1909 Honus Wagner, on sale for $95,000 at the Mark Jordan Inc. booth.

The only reason it's that cheap, Mr. Jordan said, is that it has a little crease in it. Hockey star Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall paid a record $451,000 for the same card in mint condition.

But it's not the rare collectibles that are truly enticing. It's the just-barely affordable items that can really kill the family budget.

Bill Smith, a sheriff's deputy in Carroll County, was staring at an autographed set of Don Mattingly memorabilia -- jersey, warm-up shirt, certificate of authenticity -- in a handsome glass display box at the Gallery of Sports booth. Mr. Smith was teetering on the brink of plunking down $550 for a birthday gift for his son, a devotee of the Yankees slugger.

Mr. Smith was being frugal as die-hard Mattingly fans go. He wasn't planning to buy the $1,500 Mattingly memorabilia set or the autographed game-worn spikes, which cost $600.

For Bonnie and William Rogers, the item that grabbed them was a fully functional replica of a box seat from Oriole Park at Camden Yards for $250. One's on its way to their club basement in Kingsville.

It wasn't all baseball. There were Michael Jordan-signed basketball jerseys and Mario Lemieux pucks, and every kind of trading card imaginable. There were dinosaur cards, Elvis cards, "All My Children" cards and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cards.

And somehow, despite the hype, the commercialism, the $12 ticket price and the hour-and-a-half wait to take five swings in the video batting cage, people were having a ball.

"It gives a lot of the common folks a chance to feel like they're a part of everything," said Charlie Murphy. "I personally feel I'm part of the All-Star game."

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