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Feb. 22, 2004, 10:38PM

History in a package Collector mixes generations of players by reselling trading cards By DAVID BARRON Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

In the billion-dollar business of sports collectibles, Todd Nelkin is Fred G. Sanford, television's wisecracking sultan of salvage.

Nelkin, however, is also an alchemist, turning the cardboard equivalent of junk into gold through a process as prosaic as stuffing sausages.

By flipping one trading card at a time into a series of plastic bins at his family's southwest Houston collectibles store, Nelkin by year's end will have sorted through 5 million to 6 million cards, most of them with a wholesale value of a penny per card.

He will process them into tens of thousands of 50-card packs for shipment to the 84 NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball teams with which he does business. Franchises set their own retail prices, but most big-league clubs sell Nelkin's packs for $10 or less.

You do the math. And imagine the possible combinations -- and the memories they inspire among fans of all ages.

"In one pack, you can get generations of baseball players," said Todd Grizzle, the Texas Rangers' assistant vice president for merchandising. "Our fans could buy a pack and get cards of Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro, but they'd also get Jim Sundberg and Buddy Bell and Pudge Rodriguez."

Franchises love the concept Repackaging baseball cards is not a new idea. But Nelkin and his family -- brother Ted and parents Harold and Lillian, who own HLT&T Sports -- have taken their business nationwide since they started repackaging Astros cards at the Astrodome gift shop in 1998.

"People would come in and ask `Do you have a big stack of cards from throughout the team's history?' " Todd Nelkin said. "We tried it, even though there were certain executives (with the Astros) who never thought the idea would fly."

It flew. The idea worked so well that the Nelkins shopped it to other big-league teams, beginning with the Oakland Athletics. This year, they will sell product directly or through concession companies to 25 MLB, 23 NFL, 26 NBA and 10 NHL franchises.

Like making sausage, the trick is in the mix. A random Astros pack pulled from Nelkin's stash included cards of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Mike Scott, Jose Cruz, Alan Ashby, Art Howe and Jim Deshaies along with lesser-known players like Bill Dawley, Mark Bailey, Casey Candaele, Frank DiPino and Steve Lombardozzi.

A Phillies pack pulled from another shelf included a similar mix of well-knowns and unknowns, but with a different mix of card manufacturers, designs and years represented.

As with any pack of cards, sometimes you get Mickey Mantle. Sometimes you get Mickey Morandini.

Another key to repackaging is knowing how to put your hands on 50,000 San Diego Padres cards at a moment's notice.

"Maybe a guy in New Jersey has Randy Jones and Nate Colbert cards, and a guy in Iowa has Padres commons (the industry phrase for non-star, run-of-the-mill trading cards)," Nelkin said. "I've get a network of people around the country, and it all comes together here.

"You've got to have the quantity, and you've got to get it fast. When the Mariners call up for a thousand packs, that's 50,000 cards. And that might last for one homestand. Then you've got to come back in two weeks with another 50,000 Mariners cards."

The Nelkins hire friends and acquaintances around Houston to sort cards by players and by teams. Todd Nelkin, however, assembles most of the packs himself.

Nelkin labors over two plastic trays, each with 25 slots, and assembles 50 sets at a time by hand. Assembling 50 packs, he said, takes about 30 minutes. He wraps each stack with a label in loose plastic then runs them through a shrink-wrap machine that bears a fiendish similarity to an overblown EZ-Bake Oven.

Don't expect a Jordan rookie No two packages are alike. Indeed, what goes into the packages depends on what comes through the door from Nelkin's suppliers. 2004 cards go in with cards from 1994, 1984 and occasionally 1974, and even cards from such famous issues as the 1986 Fleer basketball set -- minus Michael Jordan, whose 1986 Fleer card retails for as much as $1,500.

"I'm nice," Nelkin said. "I'm not stupid."

While some dealers specialize in team sets of current players, Nelkin's packs run the gamut.

"My Tiger packs have Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and Dmitri Young," he said. "Every New York Yankees pack has a Babe Ruth card. Every Cincinnati Reds pack has a Pete Rose card. Every Chicago Bulls pack has at least two or three Michael Jordan cards. And every Cavaliers pack this year has a Lebron James card."

The mix of old and new, famous and obscure, is what attracted Drew Bruno, the A's director of merchandising, to the Nelkins' product.

"I leafed through a pack and found Dennis Eckersley and Mark McGwire along with guys who only a true Oakland A's fan would know about," Bruno said. "The kids loved them because they were affordable and because they included guys who weren't popular nationally but were local guys that they knew.

"Is there real value there if you try to resell the cards? Probably not. (A random pack had included cards with a retail value of about $1.70). But there's a lot of nostalgia value."

Fan of reprint sets Although he'll repackage practically anything that comes through the door, Nelkin's favorite cards are the Topps Archives sets, which reproduce cards from the 1950s and '60s, and the 1990s-era Conlon Collection sets, which depict photographer Charles Martin Conlon's classic photos from the post-World War I era of baseball into the 1930s.

Trades and franchise shifts and legal complexities can create problems and challenges. The Carolina Panthers, for example, understandably don't want Rae Carruth cards. Because of production deadlines, it wasn't until late last year that Astros fans could buy packs at Minute Maid Park that included Jeff Kent in an Astros uniform. That likely will be the case this year with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte cards.

In Baltimore, Ravens fans can buy a pack with 38 Ravens cards and 12 Baltimore Colts cards, with Johnny Unitas on one side and Ray Lewis on the other. Utah fans can buy cards of the old Utah Stars along with cards from the Jazz.

The only exception, oddly enough, involves the Oilers. In Nashville, the Titans want only players who accompanied the franchise to Tennessee. In Houston, Aramark's buyers at Reliant Park limit their purchases to cards depicting the current Texans.

"It's a team that no one wants," Nelkin said. "We offered to do packs with Earl Campbell on one side and David Carr on the other, but they said nobody wanted Earl Campbell or Dan Pastorini or Elvin Bethea or (Billy) White Shoes Johnson.

"You call it interesting. I call it a shame."

Everything else in the store flies through the front door, into the sorting bins and onto the UPS trucks. Eight teams last year sold more than 3,000 of the Nelkins' packs, accounting for 1.2 million cards alone. Every day brings another order and another delivery deadline.

"But I love it," Nelkin said. "It's always something different. It sounds like a line, but I can honestly say that I put every pack together like I'm the kid asking his mom for 10 bucks to buy cards."