As a kid growing up in Chicago, Rick Hubata liked to go to Wrigley Field and get autographs from his favorite baseball players. One highlight of his youth was when Ernie Banks signed his program. "I must have been 7 or 8," recalled Hubata. "I'm sure I was awestruck."
He still has that program. But now, he has hundreds of thousands of other sports cards and signed items at the DugoutZone, the Ellicott City store he owns with his wife, Dianne.
The Hubatas opened the DugoutZone in 1990, when Chatham Shopping Center was an enclosed mall. In 1999, when the mall closed, they moved to a storefront on the site. Now, a Sears Grand is set to open where the Kmart used to be, a change that Hubata thinks will boost his business.
In the early days, the store was mostly devoted to sports cards. Now, DuguoutZone sells signed footballs, baseballs, posters and jerseys, as well as cards for games such as Warhammer and Lord of the Rings, and Yu-Gi-Oh. Comic books, collector supplies, such as glass cases for balls, and sports-themed figurines and holiday ornaments round out the offerings.
These days, ballplayers ask for big bucks for their autographs. Hubata said his signed items come from the players or from a small handful of reputable companies.
On Saturday, fans will be able to collect their own autographs from Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson of the Orioles and Harmon Killebrew, who played with the Senators, Twins and Royals. The two former players will be at the store for signings from 12:30 to 2 p.m. that day. The cost will range from $35 to $175, depending on what is signed. (A bat is the most expensive.)
Habata said his relationship with Robinson goes back at least 10 years. "He's such a great guy," he said. "Everybody always leaves with a smile on his face."
One customer, Doug Jeruzal of Bel Air, will not be able to attend the signing, so he visited the store this week to bring in a couple of items to be signed: a seat back from Memorial Stadium and an Orioles banner.
"I've always been a big sport fan," Jeruzal said. Collecting signatures, he said, "is just a hobby. A very expensive hobby."
Hubata said he holds such signings two or three times a year. On Dec. 2, the store will offer an auction of memorabilia, to be held at the Best Western in Elkridge.
The sports card business has evolved a great deal from the days when cards were included in packs of gum. It is big business now, and the swapping that takes place on the Internet makes it more so, Hubata said.
Around the time the DugoutZone first opened, the Wall Street Journal had promoted the cards as an investment, and customers snapped them up by the box. Manufacturers responded by making more cards, which decreased their value, Hubata said.
Now, it is specialty cards that fetch the big bucks. Hubata said he offers one pack of three cards that sells for $500, and it flies out of the store as soon as it is available. The cards, offered for basketball, football and hockey, contain such coveted items as pieces of a player's jersey, he said, but customers don't know what they got until they open the pack.
Behind the counter of his crowded store - a paradise for sports lovers - rows and rows of cards are offered. Hubata says he believes it is the most extensive collection in Maryland and perhaps in the United States. The boxes are arranged by sport and range in price from $1 to $125 a pack, and $35 to $300 for a box.
Single cards are in glass cases near the cash register, and in boxes in the back room. Hubata said the store has about 350,000 unique cards and about 1 million total. These can be found online, and are shipped all over the country, he said.
The signed stuff is behind glass: baseballs autographed by Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson and others; a football signed by Johnny Unitas, a Ravens jersey signed by Ray Lewis. A bat signed by 39 Hall of Famers when they were inducted in 2002 is listed at $2,999. "That'll sell eventually," Hubata said.
Another valuable item is a poster signed by Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicholson, priced at $2,500.
Steve Sandoval of Fort Meade said he enjoys wandering the store on his days off. "I collect cards here and there," he said, scanning the sale table. He does not know of other stores like it nearby, he said.
At one time, Hubata had a store in Eldersburg, but sold it to an employee. It is now called the Arena, he said.
Big chains and franchises have not made inroads in the business, he said. Local ownership seems to work best because proprietors have to know what sells in their areas.
But Hubata acknowledges that he is a Chicagoan at heart. If the Ravens play the Bears, he says, he will gladly wear purple and support the local team. But if, by some chance, the Orioles and the Cubs were to play, "I'll be bleeding Cubby blue," he said.
The DugoutZone is at 9210 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. 410-461-8664.