Buying into Streak Week


In Robert Urban's two-car garage in Sykesville, automobiles take a back seat to cereal boxes and soda bottles.

Urban is not a grocer; he is a sports memorabilia dealer hoping to cash in on Cal Ripken.

So are many other Baltimoreans, who are stockpiling Ripken Wheaties boxes, Coca-Cola bottles, baseballs, newspapers and programs. But, according to several dealers and avid Ripken collectors, most Streak Week souvenirs will not be moneymaking collectibles.

"It gives an opportunity for everybody to participate," said Bill Haelig, a longtime Ripken collector who lives near Reading, Pa. "As far as putting the kids through college, no way, it'll never happen."

The 50 cases of Wheaties and 40 cases of Coca-Cola in Urban's garage represent an investment of several thousand dollars.

"I don't know if I've lost my mind or I'm doing the wrong thing," Urban said. "I figure I'll have enough Coke to last through the winter."

Urban, who calls himself "Mr. Memorabilia," may have enough cereal and soda to last a lifetime.

The long-term value of collectibles, according to dealers and collectors, is determined by scarcity. The best time to sell Ripken merchandise is at the height of the current hysteria, not in five or 10 years.

"The things that end up being worth something aren't meant to be," said Haelig, who since 1983 has collected more than 4,000 pieces of Ripken memorabilia.

Dealers and collectors agree that some Streak Week items will retain value: ticket stubs from Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, posters and other limited giveaways on those days and anything autographed by Ripken.

But not what people are buying off supermarket shelves.

Wheaties boxes with Ripken are a big hit in Baltimore, but they are not scarce. More than 1 million boxes are being distributed nationally, said Kathryn Newton, General Mills' public relations manager.

There are, however, two types of boxes. One, distributed locally and nationally, features Ripken in his Orioles uniform. The other, distributed only locally before General Mills received permission from Major League Baseball to use the Orioles' logo, has Ripken in an airbrushed black jersey.

Urban, who said 18 of his 50 cases are filled with no-logo boxes, expects to profit most from these items. There are reports of dealers selling no-logo boxes through mail order for as much as $75 each.

"Lots of luck to that guy, because there's an awful lot of them out there," said Newton, who placed the number at "tens of thousands."

Some local dealers do not recommend that Ripken fans invest in Wheaties boxes.

"Historically, Wheaties boxes haven't increased a lot over the years," said Joe Bosley, owner of the Old Ball Game collectibles store in Reisterstown.

In 1990, Wheaties locally distributed Jim Palmer boxes in honor of his Hall of Fame induction. Those boxes, about as scarce as no-logo Ripken boxes, have not increased in value, Bosley said.

Ripken Coke bottles, marketed from south central Pennsylvania to northern Virginia, are more plentiful than Wheaties boxes. More than 2.4 million bottles, or 100,000 cases, are being sold, said Katherine Whiting, vice president of public affairs for the Coca-Cola Enterprises Capital Division.

The only quirk about the Coke bottles is the picture on the six-pack carrying cases that portrays Ripken in the famous diving pose of Brooks Robinson in the 1970 World Series.

Bosley said that he is selling the bottles for $2 each but saw them at a Washington card show last week for $40 a six-pack. "And people were buying them," Bosley said. "It was a shock to me."

Shocking because the bottles, like Wheaties boxes and several other Streak items, are so plentiful.

For the same reason, many dealers have shied away from the official Rawlings, orange-stitched, Ripken baseballs. They were in great demand at the Sept. 5 and Sept. 6 games. But the balls, which have been selling for about $20, are "not sold as numbered collectibles," said Scott Smith, Rawlings' director of marketing services.

Basically, the supply of baseballs is unlimited. Smith placed the figure at "multiple thousands of dozens."

The Orioles have printed 180,000 Ripken commemorative books and have pledged to meet the needs of every buyer. The Baltimore Sun sold an additional 387,000 newspapers on Sept. 6 and Sept. 7 and has marketed T-shirts, posters and press plates. None of these things figures to be valued collectibles, only mementos.

"It's the same as the Wheaties boxes and the Coke bottles," said Chuck Williams, a Ripken memorabilia collector from Philadelphia. "People think they have a collector's item, but so does your neighbor. The real key to a collector's item is that nobody's got it."

Collectors, such as Williams and Haelig, and dealers, such as Bosley, acknowledged that there will be a short-term windfall for dealers in Ripken merchandise.

That's what Urban has capitalized on, making several thousand dollars on out-of-town requests for Wheaties boxes and Coke bottles and pouring that money back into the inventory in his garage.

Urban placed an advertisement in Sports Collectors Digest, a national publication, selling Coke bottles for $5 and six-packs for $20, Wheaties boxes with Orioles logos for $10 and without logos for $20 and Sept. 6 and Sept. 7 copies of The Sun for $10.

Other dealers, such as Robbie Davis, are holding on to their no-logo Wheaties boxes until the market settles. Davis said he's doing well on other items. "At my store, it's like Opening Day," said Davis, the owner of Robbie's First Base in Timonium. "It's like Christmas week because of Cal."

There certainly isn't a dearth of items to buy. Ira Rainess, head of Ripken's management organization, the Tufton Group, said Ripken has agreed to lend his name and likeness to more than 50 licensed products.

Die-hard Ripken collectors, such as Williams and Haelig, watch for Ripken memorabilia practically every night on QVC. They are selective about what they buy, do not hang out in supermarkets and do not have garages full of cereal and soda.

"I wish Bob Urban the best," Williams said. "In the short term, he's going to make a little money. In the long run, the bugs are going to be at the Wheaties."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 8:05

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Felipe Lira (9-12, 4.22) vs. Orioles' Kevin Brown (9-9, 3.80)

Tickets: 1,900 remain

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