By Greg Bates
Scott Hocevar has a prime business location right now.
Located in Portage, Mich., Hocevar owns Scott’s Sports Cards. Less than 12 miles away is Kalamazoo Central High School and the baseball diamond named after Derek Jeter – the place where the shortstop honed his exceptional skills.
Hocevar has been tracking Jeter’s career since 1992 when the New York Yankees used the No. 6 overall pick to draft the scrawny infielder.
After announcing in February his intention to retire from Major League Baseball at the end of the season after 20 remarkable years, Jeter cards, memorabilia and merchandise have been hot sellers around Kalamazoo and throughout the country.
People have been flocking to Hocevar’s store looking for any kind of Jeter-related items. Scott’s Sports Cards features a rotating rack full of Jeter cards, along with collectibles such as pennants and pictures. In early September, Hocevar had about a dozen autograph pieces for sale.
However, cards are Hocevar’s best-selling Jeter products. Most notably, Jeter rookies, the 1993 Upper Deck SP, are flying off the shelf.
“The card market in general is pretty soft, but Jeter’s stuff is very, very strong,” Hocevar said. “It’s been strong for 20 years, but I put the strength in his retirement, somewhat like it was in 1996.”
Hocevar, who is on the resource council of Jeter’s charitable organization, Turn 2 Foundation, started to see a spike in Jeter sales at the start of 2014. By the time spring training began, locals wanted a piece of Jeter memorabilia.
“I didn’t realize that it was going to have a surge again,” Hocevar said. “I knew the stuff would still be good, but I didn’t know we’d have a surge of people looking for his older cards, some of his signed cards. Some of the memorabilia cards are quite popular.”
At The Hot Corner in Brooklyn, not even 20 miles from Yankee Stadium, shop owner Mat Eisenstadt isn’t having much luck selling Jeter products. He has Jeter Topps and Upper Deck rookies priced at $10 and a couple of game-used jersey cards for $15. In the last year, Eisenstadt figures he’s only sold $10 worth of Jeter items. Eisenstadt doesn’t carry any Jeter memorabilia or autographed pieces.
“To be honest, Jeter stuff right now is priced ridiculous, so we don’t deal in it,” Eisenstadt said. “So I tell people to buy Mariano (Rivera) this year and Jeter next year.”
The market is so hot right now, the Jeter phenomenon has hit the most unlikely of places: Boston.
Rival Red Sox backers and baseball fans in general have been stopping into Kenmore Collectibles near Fenway Park.
“I think we all have a soft spot for a player who is a good player that doesn’t cause issues and trouble,” shop co-owner Peter Leventhal said. “He’s kind of like an ambassador to baseball, kind of like Cal Ripken (Jr.).”
In a shop prominently displaying its Red Sox memorabilia and cards, Leventhal has about six Jeter rookies in stock in a small area of his display case.
“It’s not a shrine or anything, but I make sure to have some Jeter rookie cards to sell,” Leventhal said. “People ask me for autographed cards of Jeter, and I just don’t have any.”
“I wish I had some autographed items, I really do,” Leventhal said. “I don’t want to say they would fly off the shelf, but they’d really be desirable. It’s up there with (Mickey) Mantle. If people ask for Mantle, they ask for Jeter.”
Over the years, Jeter became the next Yankee legend who wore pinstripes. He may not have the mystique yet of say Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig or Mantle, but Jeter memorabilia prices are certainly high for a player who has just wrapped up his professional career.
“I compare him in a sense to LeBron James and Michael Jordan when he played, because they’re autographed items were astronomically high and they’re the pinnacle players in their sport,” said Howard Schwartz, who is the president and owner of Grandstand Sports & Memorabilia Inc. in New York City. “While Jeter may not be the best shortstop in Major League Baseball today, he’s certainly a sure-fire Hall of Famer and certainly sought after by all fans, not just Yankees fans. For an active player, he’s not a cheap autograph. To me, he’s deservingly expensive.”
Hocevar agrees that Jeter has a ways to get to Ruth’s standard.
“It’s hard to compare it to Ruth and those guys because there’s so little of it,” Hocevar said. “I think he’s got the most desirable cards of the modern day guys. It’s kind of got that (Michael) Jordan feel to it, if you will. Jordan stuff was just so popular.”
Licensing a legend
It’s not just Jeter cards and memorabilia in hot demand, but also merchandise: T-shirts, jerseys, caps – anything fans can get their hands on.
“From a license prospective, there’s a lot of product in the marketplace,” said Howard Smith, MLB senior vice president of licensing. “The fans want to be a part of this thing. If you come to New York City to sightsee, you want to see the Empire State Building, you want to see a lot of the landmarks and you want to go to Yankee Stadium and see Derek Jeter.”
Smith isn’t surprised there is so much Jeter merchandise and memorabilia out on the market.
“This is the most significant player that I’ve ever seen from start to finish that meant so much to baseball,” Smith said. “It’s not blowing us away that there’s so much product out there. We have licensees that are very good at hot markets in terms of making product. Nobody’s flooding the market. They sell the product and when the retailers want more, when the consumer wants more, they make more product. They’re reacting to this thing much as anything else. This is really about the fans. I think a lot of fans see this guy as a generational player that they might never see again.”
MLB brass in the commissioner’s office try to do as much as they can to recognize players who are retiring after serving as de facto ambassadors of the game (e.g. Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and Chipper Jones).
Prior to the season, Jeter and his business confidants worked with MLB representatives to create a logo that would pay homage to Jeter’s final season and be a distinguishing mark on all MLB-licensed Jeter products. The circular logo displays “Derek NY Jeter” across the top with a replica of the back of a Jeter pinstriped jersey with the number “2.” At the bottom, the logo says, “New York * Captain * Yankees” – a perfect, but simple tribute to the 14-time All-Star and future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Jeter was very cognizant about the MLB retirement product line in relation to licensing. He made sure a portion of the proceeds go toward the Turn 2 Foundation.
Jeter memorabilia in high demand
When collectors think memorabilia, one of the first companies that pops into mind is Steiner Sports. Brandon Steiner, owner of the leading sports memorabilia company in New York (see photo above), has had a personal and professional relationship with Jeter since 1996.
Steiner Sports, which has an exclusive contract with Jeter to conduct multiple autograph signings per year, knew it had an opportunity to bombard the market with Jeter memorabilia when Jeter announced his retirement. However, Steiner just wanted to be tactful and offer collectors a better presentation of Jeter items from what his company has produced in the past.
“When I took a step back and I thought, ‘What do we really want to do this year that will be spectacular?’ ” Steiner said. “I was like, ‘You know something, I want to do nothing. Why would go out and invent something and hope that somebody likes it?’
“What I decided to do is I went back and looked at everything we’ve ever done in 18 years we’ve been with him and I upgraded everything. I put the photos on better paper, I had him sign the photos differently. We did more stuff from an artistic standpoint, on canvas. We dug into this guy’s moments, we just put those forward.”
Steiner also wanted to provide collectors with a special opportunity. Fans have been able to send Steiner Sports a personal memento or collectible for Jeter to sign, inscribe or personalize, and the company will mail back the item to the collector. So many people having been sending in their favorite Jeter items, Steiner wasn’t able to get as much Jeter memorabilia autographed for selling to the general public. However, Steiner Sports still has a solid, diverse selection to choose from on its website.
As of mid-September, Steiner Sports had a bit more than 250 items for sale in its “Final Season Collection” of Jeter products. The memorabilia ranged in price from $19.99 for a 5-by-7 photo of Jeter’s first home run with a small sample of dirt from Yankee Stadium to $35,010 for Jeter game-used jersey and pants from when he recorded this 3,319th and 3,320th career hits in Toronto.
Oh, how prices of Jeter items have changed over the years. Steiner recalls selling Jeter autographed baseballs back in 1996 and ’97 for $30-$35. Now, prices are 20 times that, hovering around $700.
Some unique Jeter items that have been top sellers for Steiner Sports include retro limited-edition jerseys from the years Jeter helped the Yankees win the World Series and commemorative Jeter baseballs with blue and white pinstripe stitching.
Steiner Sports is also offering a number of items in a “Derek Jeter Farewell Auction” that runs until Oct. 19. The main attraction is a pair of specially made cleats by Jordan Brand. The “Jeter Lux 2.0” are 1 of 1 and in the colors of Kalamazoo Central High School’s, maroon and gold.
At Grandstand Sports in New York, Schwartz doubled his Jeter inventory heading into the season, anticipating high demand from his customers. He wanted to offer fans unique items: Signed World Series baseballs instead of regular baseballs, and jerseys and multi-signed items with Jeter and his former teammates Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte.
In fact, one of Grandstand Sports’ best-selling items is a picture from last season when Jeter and Pettitte approached the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium to take Rivera out of his final game. The 20-by-24-inch limited-edition color print is signed by all three Yankee legends and sells for $1,495.
Schwartz draws a lot of comparison’s to Jeter’s final season memorabilia push to Rivera’s last year.
“Jeter items are more expensive then Mariano’s,” Schwartz said, “but the demand has probably been fairly similar.”
With Jeter’s career just coming to a close, it remains to be seen if the high demand will continue for his products. Schwartz believes Jeter items will stay high for quite some time – especially for autographs since Jeter doesn’t sign too often.
“I think they’re going to retain their value pretty healthy for years to come,” Schwartz said. “In my opinion, I don’t foresee him becoming one of the Whitey Fords of the world.”
At Hocevar’s store in Michigan, Jeter memorabilia will never waver. The hometown boy who made it big time in the Big Apple will always be a hot item.
“It’s been strong all the way through his career,” Hocevar said. “I think we’ll have one more real big surge when he goes into the Hall of Fame.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.