By Kevin Glew
You have to earn your pinstripes to be a “true” Yankee.
Just ask A-Rod or Jason Giambi. The Bronx Bomber faithful reserve this title for a hallowed few. Of course, you can afford to be discerning when your team has won 27 championships and boasts an all-time roster that includes Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle.
To qualify for “true” Yankee status, players must demonstrate pride, passion, loyalty, class and a genuine love for the Big Apple. And a few World Series rings don’t hurt either.
Fortunately, with 20 championship rings and close to 61 seasons in pinstripes, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte – the Yankees’ Core Four – have met these stringent requirements.
“Those four guys are Yankee legends. They’re icons,” noted Brandon Steiner, founder and chairman of Steiner Sports Marketing, who has inked each Core Four member to an exclusive marketing agreement. “They have just become this core of excellence for the Yankees.”
David Thorn, former head writer at Mile High Card Co. and creator of jetercards.com, concurs.
“Those four are sacred,” said the lifelong Yankee fan. “Even if Alex Rodriguez won another two or three rings, I don’t think he’d even be mentioned in the same breath as these guys. The fact that they came up through the system is something that Yankee fans are really proud of.”
Jeter, Rivera and Posada have played together for 16 consecutive seasons, which represents the longest tenure that three teammates have toiled together in any North American team sport, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Pettitte pitched for Houston from 2004 to 2006, but has suited up for 13 seasons with the other Core Four members.
The term “Core Four” has gained momentum since this quartet captured its fifth World Series title together last November. This triumph, coupled with a recent Sports Illustrated cover story on the foursome, has resulted in increased demand for their cards and memorabilia.
“Every time you win a ring, it makes you more popular,” said Cosmo Cassetta, who has operated Cosmo’s Cards & Collectibles in the Bronx for more than 20 years, and sells tons of cards and photos of the Core Four members.
George Kruk, owner of Kruk Sports Cards in Rochester Hills, Mich., has had a similar experience.
“Winning the championship in 2009 really solidified their position in Yankee lore,” he said. “Their (the Core Four) stuff sells constantly.”
Tony Caamano, of Magnum Comics & Cards in New York City, says sales of this storied foursome have also been strong at his store.
“The Core Four members are all popular,” he said. “Those are the main Yankee players that kids ask about here.”
Core Four items are also coveted in Tampa, Fla., the spring training home of the Bombers. Skip Weintraub, owner of the Baseball Card Clubhouse in Tampa, says demand for cards of the Core Four members has picked up in the last year.
Steiner Sports has worked with Jeter and Rivera since 1996, while its relationships with Posada and Pettitte have blossomed in more recent years. His company offers autographed items that feature the Core Four, including a display showcasing a ball signed by each of them and a photo of the foursome with the World Series trophy.
“The Core Four items have been some of our best sellers,” said Steiner.
Topps has also embraced the Core Four, electing to include a card featuring them in their 2010 Heritage set (#411).
“We wanted to honor the ‘Core Four’ because what they have done as teammates is truly special,” said Topps spokesperson Clay Luraschi.
Hobbyists agree that Jeter is the most popular player in this foursome. The Yankees captain recently surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record for the most hits in franchise history and seems destined for not only 3,000 hits, but possibly 4,000.
“Jeter is a Yankee true and blue,” said Cary Crane, who owns the top Jeter Master Set on the PSA Set Registry.
“He’s been such a good ambassador for the sport. The whole steroid and drug era that came through baseball skipped over him. He was never even questioned about any of those things. He has kept an impeccable reputation.”
“Jeter has a spotless reputation and that’s part of the appeal of him from a fan’s perspective,” he said.
The respect Jeter has earned on and off the field has made his cards a hot commodity.
“In my opinion, Jeter’s material from 1992 to 1995 and his autograph stuff all throughout the ’90s, is the hottest material on the market. And the sky’s the limit for it,” said Thorn.
Tim Wiley, proud owner of the No. 4 Jeter Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, says the shortstop’s 1993 Stadium Murphy rookie (#117) has been particularly hot. He has witnessed PSA GEM MT 10 examples sell in the $250 to $300 range. Raw copies commanding around $30 last year were fetching close to $70 on eBay in April.
Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly Pricing Editor Joe Clemens explained why this has become one of Jeter’s most desirable rookies.
“It does make sense because of the way those sets were distributed compared to Pinnacle or Score or Topps,” he said. “There are certainly fewer of those than any of the other Jeter rookies besides the SP rookie.”
Wiley says the SP rookie is still the “Holy Grail” of Jeter cards. The veteran collector recently added a PSA MINT 9 copy to his collection.
“The SP Jeter is a pain in the neck because it’s a sensitive issue,” said Wiley. “There’s a lot of problems with corners and scratching on the foil.”
“The 1993 SP foil, which is the Holy Grail of the Derek Jeter cards, is going for close to $5,000 for a PSA 10,” he said.
Wiley says Rivera is likely the second-most popular Core Four member with hobbyists. With more than 500 career saves and a postseason ERA of 0.74, the Yankees closer is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.
Rivera’s 1992 Bowman rookie (#302) has overtaken the Mike Piazza, Manny Ramirez and Carlos Delgado rookies as the most valuable card in that coveted offering.
“If you’re going to get a card of Rivera, that’s where you start,” said Clemens of the 1992 Bowman single.
Jim Kramer, owner of Southpaw Cards in Roseville, Minn., agrees.
“I can sell Rivera’s rookie cards all day long,” he said.
PSA 10 copies have been selling for $120 to $150 on eBay, but Clemens and Kruk believe there’s still room for this card to rise in value.
Thorn has been selling a scarce 1990 Diamond Cards Tampa Yankees Rivera issue. With a limited print run, these minor league singles are commanding big bucks.
“I’ve been selling those for about $1,000 a piece in PSA 10,” said Thorn.
Weintraub adds that Rivera has a limited number of certified autograph issues that are highly sought-after.
“I watched his (certified) autographed cards go from $50 to $150 to $200 minimum, if you can find them on eBay,” he said. “His stuff has gone through the roof. It has probably doubled in the last 24 months.”
Demand for Rivera autographed memorabilia has also grown in recent years.
“Mariano Rivera is huge. He is certainly the greatest relief pitcher of all time and may be one of the greatest pitchers of all time and he’s now selling nationally,” said Steiner. “If you’re a baseball collector and you don’t have something of Mariano Rivera, I’d have to question your collection.”
Posada’s popularity is also on the rise. The Yankee catcher has more hits, home runs and RBIs than any other big league backstop since 2000. Until recently, demand for his items had generally been restricted to local fans and hobbyists.
Thorn says Posada’s top rookie is the 1994 Bowman’s Best Refractor (#29), but the Core Four catcher also has rookies in the regular 1994 Bowman (#38) and Bowman’s Best (#29) issues. A PSA 10 Bowman’s Best rookie sold for $85 on eBay in April.
Steiner says he’s selling more Posada items in recent months.
“I think Posada is probably a little underrated. His popularity has gone up, but not like it has for the other three (Core Four) guys, but I think it’s starting to catch on because he’s just a tremendous hitter,” he said. “He’s been consistent. He’s certainly one of the great catchers of our time. We very rarely are able to keep Posada in stock.”
Pettitte’s reputation took a hit when he was named in the Mitchell Report, but his prompt apology minimized the damage. The steady left-hander has amassed more wins than any big leaguer from 1995 to 2009 and owns the record for most postseason victories (18). His best rookie is his 1993 Bowman single (#103). A PSA 10 example sold for $75 on eBay in April.
“His clutch pitching has really earned him respect. Now we’re starting to look at him as a potential Hall of Famer. I think that his popularity is really starting to take off. It’s not quite there yet, but it went to another level last year,” said Steiner.
And if the Yankees continue to win championships, demand for Pettitte and the rest of the Core Four will continue to increase.
“If you look at the pure essence of collecting, it’s about holding on to a message or a moment that really moves you. And those four guys, they represent that, they’re inspiring,” said Steiner. “And I think it’s just the beginning. They’re getting more and more popular and more and more respected every day.”