Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Babe Ruth Marks a Super Debut Baseball Vinyl Figure for Upper Deck

Upper Deck recently released photos of their upcoming Babe Ruth All Star Vinyl figure and I'm giving it a big thumbs up.
For player choice in a baseball product line, you can't find someone better than Ruth - especially for larger-than-life figures like the All-Star Vinyls. Even better, Ruth starts a new line of figures called "Best of the Bronx" that will include legendary Yankees. I'm not a dedicated Yankees fan but you can't dispute that no other team has a legacy for legends like New York does. Think about a series of figures that includes Yankee greats - I'm hoping to see Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra . . . THAT is a powerful series that would be fun to collect. Larger than life player, larger than life team - a perfect match for the vinyl figures.
The concept artwork that was previously released looked promising and the photos did not disappoint. Ruth is shown with bat in hand, tipping his hat to the crowd. The pose offers a nice contrast to the "just standing there" look we've seen in the NHL figures. An alternative to this might have been the "called shot" pose; that's been done quite a bit but it would have been a worthy choice as well. The facial sculpt itself is probably the weakest aspect of the figure; Ruth ended up with a somewhat piggish nose that doesn't look very good. The rest of the sculpt looks just fine, however.
The regular figure shows Ruth in home pinstripes, always a popular choice. Rather than going with the away gray flannel uniform for the alternate version figure, Upper Deck gave the limited edition figure a sepia finish. Another winning choice. Hopefully all the alternate version figures in the Bronx line will have the sepia finish.
Great selection, great pose, great uniform selection . . . all in all, a great figure. I collect very little baseball stuff but I am seriously considering getting this one, with the intent of buying all the figures in the Best of the Bronx line. I'll give this figure an A- . . . fix the pig snout and it bumps up to an A!

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Here's Where I'm Coming From . . .

For you to understand my reasoning when I review different products, it would be very helpful if you had an explanation of what my priorities are and what kind of collector I am. For that reason, in today's blog post I'll categorize myself in a few different ways so you know where I'm coming from.

By Sport

In the 1980s and 1990s I was almost exclusively a baseball collector. I had very little in the way of cards or other collectibles of NBA, NFL or NHL players or teams. At that time I was not a toy collector; about all that was available was Starting Lineup and those figures were never good enough for me to be interested in. I stepped away from collecting for several years, returning to the fold in 2005. What brought me back was the McFarlane NFL Sports Picks. They were so cool and so accurate that I got motivated to return to collecting just so I could get them.

The accuracy, relatively now price point and cool factor of the Sports Picks brought me back, and I've been a rabid collector ever since. I collect 90% football, 8% baseball and 2% hockey right now, give or take a few points on each. The non-football figures just aren't accurate enough for me, they haven't been able to get the faces right. The exceptions to that are the hockey goalies, and I have a decent assortment of goalie figures because they are very well done. I also have some baseball figures of players I really like, mostly the Cooperstown figures, even though the faces just quite there.

All that's to say, I'll cover the hockey and basketball figures but won't have the detailed opinions of them because I'm not a big fan of either sport. I know quite a bit about baseball and I have some of those figures, so I probably will be inclined to address them periodically. NFL is the big deal for me and I'll focus on them quite a bit.

Investor vs. Collector

This categorization is the one that separates me from most collectors and will probably piss off the most readers. It affects my views in many ways.

I am completely a collector. In my closet are about 70,000 baseball cards that frequently remind me not to view sports action figures as investments. I have star and rookie cards, errors, wax packs and rack packs, all cloistered away in boxes where they're safe and ready to subsidize my retirement. I keep watching for their value to rise on Ebay so I can cash in and traipse off to Bermuda for my golden years. My investment scheme isn't working out, however. That must-have Pete Incaviglia card from 1986, the Sandy Alomar rookies that were going to put my son through college . . . they just never really panned out.

That just isn't a hobby to me. If I want to focus on their investment value, wouldn't I be better served by putting the money into stocks or something more reliable?

Sports action figures are collectible toys. I believe in buying them for fun, as a way of deriving some enjoyment as I separate myself from my disposable income. Not as investments.

Because I'm a collector and not an investor, I really don't care about "value" other than how it affects what I pay for a figure, or how it helps or hurts me in getting the figures I really want. I'm going on the assumption that the new chase that costs $40 on Ebay right now will probably not be worth near that amount in 10 years. Look at most of the chases and how they sell on Ebay. They go up higher, then after several months they tend to drop in price and stay there. There are some exceptions, but that's the general rule you can expect. So value means very little to me because it's 98% hype with only 2% historical precedent.

Likewise, I really don't give a damn about exclusives or limited edition figures - I don't define the success of my collection by whether or not I have things that others can't have. For that reason, I don't like exclusives, small edition sizes or chase figures in their current implementation.

That's why Upper Decks black edition figures irritate the hell out of me. They only produce 250 of each one, and then 233 of those end up in the hands of dealers and scalpers who will just jack up the price and hawk them at Ebay. I think there's a difference between free market trade and shameless opportunism, you know? If you're going to do an event exclusive, at least produce enough so that they won't cost an arm and a leg three days after they're released. McFarlane produces 3000 event exclusives - that is too many for a figure priced at $100, but there should be more than just 250. With a larger edition size I don't have that much of a problem with event exclusives, but I'd prefer a collector club or website-only exclusive instead so that they're available to the most avid collectors at all locations.

I'd prefer larger edition sizes on the regular All-Star Vinyls as well. Right now they have 1500 home and 500 away figures at $50 each. If they doubled that to 3000 / 1000 figures they could sell them for $25 or $30 each. Right now the figures are selling out in three hours or less - doubling the edition size and dropping the price wouldn't cause the figures to be left on the shelves gathering dust, I believe.

It sounds as though I'm picking on Upper Deck but McFarlane isn't blameless here. The limited number of chase figures means that store employees or flea market dealers will grab 90% of them before they make it to store shelves, and then off to Ebay they scamper to jack up the prices artificially. I don't think that serves the hobby, ultimately. I love the idea of having alternate versions of figures, but they're under-produced. McFarlane could sell more figures by creating home and away versions in closer to a 50/50 split - maybe 75/25 or 60/40. A lot of people would buy both versions in this scenario, rather than just buying one and getting irritated because some Hot Wheels dealer paid a clerk to hoard the chase version for him to sell online. That means fewer regular edition peg-warmers ending up in clearance bins, and that's a good thing for the line.

Along those lines, super chases mean nothing to me. I like how McFarlane does them though; they make the super chase different in a way that isn't too significant. It's not like making the only version of a player's figure a super chase. Leaving off a helmet, putting snow on the ground, coloring a glove gold, those are inconsequential differences that still offer something different to the guys who still believe these figures will have enduring monetary value. In this way McFarlane caters to exclusionary collectors ("I only want it if you can't have one too") and the hobbyist collectors as well. Thumbs up to McFarlane for the way they handle super chase figures.

Two more aspects of being a collector vs. an investor bear mentioning.

First, I have little interest in variants. (Not to be confused with chases - read this article for an explanation of the difference between variants and chases.) I don't care if Tiki Barber's socks are red or blue, or whether Vinitieri's face mask has two bars or three. I'll take either one and be happy with it.

Second, I'm an opener, as opposed to the MOMC collector (who leaves the figures in packages, and considers the condition of the package when evaluating the worth of a figure itself). If you collect as an investor, you can't be an opener - you are "devaluing" the figures by 50 - 75% if you remove them from their packaging. That would be like winning a gold medal and having it bronzed - kinda self-defeating.

I collect figures, not boxes or clamshell packages. Many of the figures are unassembled in their packaging, so you can't even enjoy looking at those figures without removing them from their clamshells. In most cases I think MOMC fans just squirrel away the majority of their figures in boxes to keep the packing in pristine condition; what's the point of that? Some MOMC fans hang their figures up. Personally, I don't think the packaged figures display well - hang them up around the room and your display looks like an aisle at Toys R Us. I love how they look, on display as they were designed to be displayed, outside of the packages. I love to go into my room and see the rows of figures all lined up, it's very cool.

Upper Deck has created packaging that displays well. You can also take a figure out and put it back without destroying the packaging, so Upper Deck wins out in this category. McFarlane has issued a few of their figures in boxes and those look ok. Some of them, like the Mickey Mantle Collector Edition, isn't assembled; that defeats the purpose, to me. McFarlane has also changed their clamshells such that they have built-in bases so they stand up well on a shelf. I thought that was very, very smart even though it didn't appeal to me personally.

The whole opener issue has been tough for me. Every time I open a figure I know I'm reducing its value. When I've paid $50 or more for a figure off Ebay, that can be tough to do! I made a conscious decision when I started collecting again in 2005 that I would NOT get caught up in the hype or the investment mania, and I force myself to do it. I do understand the thinking of people who don't open their figures; I just try to stick with my original mandate of being a hobbyist, and enjoying the figures as much as I can. That means I liberate the little guys from of their plastic prisons and let 'em breathe!

Anyway, that's where I'm coming from. . . Chances are, you're going to disagree with some or all of the points I made here. That's cool - it just means you are a different kind of collector than I am. You don't have to agree with me . . . but it does help if you understand my way of thinking so you recognize what I base my reviews and opinions on.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

All-Star Vinyls: Very Cool, But Get Them Moving!

I don't know about you, but I really enjoy the Upper Deck All-Star Vinyls. It took awhile to get used to them, to let go of my focus on realism and accuracy, I admit. But once I got past that I started looking forward to every new release.

Here are some of the aspects to All-Star Vinyls figures that appeal to me:

They're BIG - I started collecting McFarlanes because I wanted to get the 12" figures. The larger figures are naturally more appealing to me. At 11" tall the All-Star Vinyls tower over Sports Picks and most other sports toys.

Player Selection - So far I think Upper Deck has done well with player selection, although it hasn't been too tough given the limited number of editions they produce.

Mixed Uniforms - I like the fact that most figures are released in home and away uniforms. I don't really care for the fact that they issue 500 of one and 1500 of the other; they could produce 3000 of each and it would be fine with me.

Collector Club - Dave with Upper Deck says there will be a collector club and that's great news. I want to throttle Todd McFarlane or whoever has ignored the whole club concept with Sports Picks. That will be the subject of a whole blog post some day . . . but for now, the promise of a club for All-Star Vinyls earns them brownie points.

Excellent Packaging - The packages are designed so that you can remove the figures and display them, then put them back in the box if you want. Very, very good idea.

Quality Construction - These things are solid, very well built. Good paint, good grade of plastic to make them. A couple of them (Favre, for example) don't stand up very well but other than that, the quality is great.

They're Fun - Well, they are. Sports Picks are cool and impressive, All-Star Vinyls are cartoonish and fun. I mean, I'm not dancing them around my coffee table or playing Barbies with them, not fun in that way. They capture the whole larger-than-life aspect of sports heroes and they don't take things seriously, and that offers a nice change of pace from Sports Picks.

That said, some day when I'm feeling particularly ornery I'm going to take some figures to a sports bar and recreate plays with them as I watch a game, just to see the looks I get from the other patrons. Some old geezer with a grey beard playing with toy men in a bar . . . a video of the other people's reactions to that would be perfect for Utube . . .

But I digress.

Those are some of the things I really enjoy about All-Star Vinyls. There are some aspects to these figures I don't like, however. Some of them are serious enough to where I think they undermine the long term success of this product line.

Immobile Poses - I understand that All-Star Vinyls are all about attitude, I get it. That said, after a few figures of guys just standing there, looking at me with a smart-ass look on their face, I'm ready for something different in the way of poses. Enough with the sideline poses! They aren't called "inaction figures." Kobe Bryant's figure was a refreshing change. At least he was dribbling the ball. And of course, Ben Roethlisberger was passing the ball. But the rest of them . . . they look like cocky Oscar statues, for crying out loud. I'll buy a figure of a player I don't care about if it's cool, and conversely I may pass on a player I like if the pose is lame. So far I've passed on Ovechkin, Wade, Iverson, Crosby and I'm about to pass on Sakic as well. I'll get Brodeur but that's a unique pose - the samurai pose is very, very cool. I really think this has contributed to some guys giving up on the vinyls and selling off what they've bought, along with a couple other factors. Cmon Upper Deck, get them moving!

Black Figures - No, I'm not being racially insensitive here. Upper Deck has started putting out a home and away version on release day, then selling a black and gold (sometimes called Raw) version at some trade show. I like the black edition figures, they're very cool. I just don't like how they're marketed, for a couple reasons. First, if a collector wants these things he has to 1) find people all over Canada and the U.S. who will trek over to the trade shows and buy them for him or 2) get hosed on Ebay. They already cost $100, which is bad enough, but then to have to pay scalper costs on top of that just sucks. Yes, McFarlane puts out event exclusives, but they release 3,000 exclusive figures, not 250. That's the second problem with black edition figures. The edition size is too small, the price is really high and they alienate collectors from around the country who can't get them. Upper Deck needs to get that club going and let their collectors - the guys who have been with them from Day One - buy the exclusives that way. They're breeding ill will this way.

More, More, More - The current release schedule of two players per month is too slow. They started this line with great hype and fanfare, got a lot of people talking about them. It's tough to sustain that buzz when the figures come out so infrequently, however. This is another reason why some guys are dumping their collections - not enough figures to keep the buzz up, not enough information to keep the discussion forum going, just not enough.

Price and Edition Size - At $50 each for the regulars and $100 for the exclusives, the figures are just too expensive. I'm very devoted to the hobby but I can't see dropping that kind of cash to get all the figures so I have to pick and choose. Upper Deck could put out more figures, sell them at a lower price and accomplish the same thing.

Two Packs - On release day, you can buy the regular figure or you can buy a two pack of the regular and alternate uniform figures. You can't buy just the alternate figure. I don't like the two packs. I don't want to have to buy two figures just to get one. The alternate jersey figures on release day should be available individually . . . increasing the edition size as I've mentioned above would help this to work as well.

That's it for now - Lots of pros and cons to the Upper Deck All-Star Vinyl line. The bottom line is that I really enjoy these figures and hope Upper Deck makes a few changes so the line will last for a long, long time.

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