As Cal Ripken methodically has added game after game to his historic playing streak, a flock of aggressive collectors has gobbled up Ripken memorabilia like sea gulls swooping in for french fries on the boardwalk.
The collectors have devoured anything -- and everything -- from the ever-expanding, ever-more-costly mountain of memorabilia.
"It's like a frenzy," said Chuck Williams, a Ripken-memorabilia collector and surety-bond underwriter who lives in Philadelphia. "Anything associated with that man is gold. He's a cottage industry."
Tonight at Camden Yards, Ripken can tie Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 straight games. He is scheduled to break it tomorrow night -- the record can become official after 4 1/2 innings, the minimum for an official game.
Tom Galik, whose Fielder's Choice store near Columbus, Ohio, caters to collectors specializing in one player, said Ripken's memorabilia are by far the most sought-after of active baseball players. He said that Mickey Mantle's have been the most coveted from any era.
"But I think that when Cal breaks Lou Gehrig's record, he just might become the most sought-after player of all time," Galik said.
Dealers and collectors across the country have pronounced items associated with Ripken as the hottest commodities in the frenetic world of sports collectibles. "And they're getting hotter by the day," Williams said. "It's hitting a crescendo."
The closer Ripken has crept toward Gehrig's record, the greater the number of Ripken collectibles that flooded the market: cards, coins, pins, posters, Baltimore Sun vending-box inserts, autographed lithographs, magazine covers.
"It's getting crazy," said Bill Haelig, the dean of Ripken collectors, who lives near Reading, Pa.
Haelig, who owns more than 5,000 Ripken keepsakes, including hundreds of one-of-a-kind items, compiles a list of Ripken memorabilia that he mails to several hundred collectors. The list is up to 42 single-spaced pages -- and growing.
In the first six months of this year, Haelig said, Ripken appeared on the covers of more than 20 magazines. And the baseball cards, Haelig said, "after a while, you get confused; they start looking the same. . . . Do you realize there'll be more Cal cards issued this summer alone than Brooks Robinson cards issued during his entire 23-year career?"
Haelig, a 34-year-old commercial underwriter, bills himself as Ripken's biggest fan. His stationery and envelopes trumpet that. His license plates read, "CL RPKN."
A Ripken aficionado since 1983, he said nothing in his collection is for sale. He owns Ripken bats and uniforms, a Ripken paycheck from the Rochester Red Wings, nameplates from the Memorial Stadium lockers of Bill and Cal Ripken and the most valuable Ripken collectible of all -- a mint-condition, orange-bordered, 1980 Charlotte Orioles baseball card. Haelig has refused $4,000 for it.
The value of Ripken memorabilia clearly has risen with each passing game, but estimates of how much varies from dealer to dealer. One said prices doubled in the past year. Another said they tripled. Still another said that whatever they'd done in the past year, they'd double again the moment Ripken set the record.
Joe Bosley, who owns the Old Ball Game collectibles store in Reisterstown, has kept a clear head about the pricing frenzy. He offered these examples of price increases from the beginning of last season to August this year:
* Ripken's 1980 Charlotte Orioles cards: Blue-bordered, increased from $700 to $1,400. Orange-bordered, increased from $1,500 to $2,500.
* Ripken's 1981 Rochester Red Wings cards: Color, increased from $200 to $350. Black and white, increased from $250 to $450.
* Ripken's 1982 rookie cards: Topps, increased from $40 to $80. Topps traded (meaning it was issued in midseason), increased from $175 to $325. Donruss and Fleer, increased from $35 to $55.
* Ripken's 1993 Topps finest refractor card: increased from $500 to $2,500.
* The most common Ripken cards: increased from 50 cents to $1.
* Autographed baseballs: increased from $50 to $70.
* Autographed Ripken-model bats: increased from $125 to $300.
The man who creates instant collectibles with his signature, Cal Ripken, said he didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
"I don't have a great deal of understanding or knowledge about the collectibles market," Ripken said. "The way I relate to collectibles is that collecting things is personal. You know, you have a ticket from an All-Star Game, or you catch a foul ball. Maybe you get the guy to sign it, and you look at that ball on your dresser. It doesn't have a dollar figure on it. It has a memory attached to it. It captures part of your life."
As he traveled around the country this season, he said, he sensed "a certain desperation" for his auto- graph that wasn't there before. How did he sense that?
"Getting me to sign 10 or 12 times on different items with specific instructions, that kind of gives you an idea," he said. "But how that translates into trading and buying things, I don't know.
"When there's a certain value attached to it, it attracts people for the money-making aspect of it. I don't want to judge that, but if someone who's in it for the money uses kids to come up and have me sign, or they get specific items and pay kids to get them signed, that bothers me a little bit."
Ripken said he also has signed more this season for players from other teams.
"A newer generation of people look at baseball memorabilia differently from my generation," he said. "Baseball cards were something you played with. . . . You didn't preserve them in nice plastic things and lock them up in a safe-deposit box.
"So it's hard for me to relate to a lot of the stuff that's going on."
Mementos for players
Even his own teammates said they planned on asking Ripken for a personal memento of The Streak.
"I'll get a ball signed or something," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "And so will everybody else in this clubhouse, whether they'll admit it or not."
They did. The comments of second baseman Bret Barberie were typical.
"Cal's the one guy I would want something personalized from," Barberie said. "He gets hassled so much; it's hard on him. But he deals with it better than any player I've ever seen."
Phil Regan, the manager, said he turned down an offer of $500 for the lineup card on Ripken's record-breaking day. What did he plan on doing with it?
"I'm going to keep it," he said, breaking into a big smile. "Actually, there are three lineup cards. The umpire gets one. The opposing manager gets one. And I keep one. But there's only one original."
Who gets that? He pointed a thumb at himself, laughing. "I've told Cal if he wants it, he can have it," Regan said.
Bet your life that hundreds of collectors crave that original lineup card. And they'd gladly settle for either of the two copies. But their yearning is not entirely profit-motivated.
"That's not the prime purpose," said Bosley, owner of the Reisterstown store. "They just want a real nice collection of Cal Ripken stuff. They think, and I agree, that Cal Ripken is a special kind of player."
"He's one of the few good guys in the game," said Don Harrison, who owns the Tenth Inning collectibles store in Hampton, Va., and publishes a 206-page, illustrated checklist of Ripken memorabilia.
Harrison said he sold 2,200 copies of his checklist last year, but that already, in the first six months of this year, he'd sold more than 4,000.
'Like no other player'
"Cal Ripken's like no other player -- maybe ever," Harrison said. "It seems as if the Ripken collector wants anything they can find that he's on. He's the only one who commands attention for noncard goods."
Harrison said Ripken's counterpart in professional football is Dan Marino, the Miami Dolphins quarterback. Their cards are the most sought-after in their sports. Yet posters of Marino hardly ever sell, Harrison said, and posters of Ripken sell by the hundreds.
"I don't think there's a group of collectors like this out there for any player; I don't know that there's ever been," said Williams, the Philadelphia collector. "There are so many people out there looking for his stuff. And there's so much stuff. I don't think any player has as much stuff."
There are milk cartons, key chains, plastic cups, cereal boxes, computer games, McDonald's place mats, Denny's menus. American Lung Association brochures, calendars, candy bars and souvenir cards from Drake's cupcakes, Jiffy Pop popcorn, Milk-Bone dog treats and Humpty Dumpty potato chips -- not to mention the cards Fruit of the Loom stuck into its packs of underwear.
'Something for everybody'
"What's great about it is that there's something for everybody, from a 35-cent newspaper to the $2,000 refractor card," said Haelig, Ripken's No. 1 collector. "Nobody will get shut out. And no one can get everything.
"But I don't think anybody's going to get rich off what's coming out now. I'd say there's very little investment value in all this, because everybody's saving it. What's worth something is the pre-1990 stuff. And a lot of that you can't find at any price."
Ken Burton, a farmer from New Freedom, Pa., who has collected Ripken memorabilia since 1989, decided to sell about half his collection during recent weeks.
"It just got to be too much, I guess, too much money, too time-consuming," Burton said. "And if I was going to sell some of this stuff, I figure this is the time."
So what will happen to Ripken memorabilia once he holds one of the greatest records in baseball?
"I think there'll be an afterglow for a few months," said Williams, the collector from Philadelphia. "But then prices and demand will level out. But it will never again be like it is now."