This Company's Stars And Dollars Are All In The Cards -- Pacific Carves An Innovative Niche

LYNNWOOD - Trading cards have been around since the 1870s. Their popularity goes in cycles, like the athletes and sports they celebrate, and right now they are batting a thousand.

Taking full advantage of this latest revival is innovative Pacific Trading Cards Inc., which produces cards in this community just north of Seattle.

"They keep the amount of cards they make limited, price them fairly and go for quality of design," says collector Dennis Clark of Redmond, who has more than 500,000 cards.

"It's still fun to open their packs," says Clark, who has been collecting since 1980.

That's just what Pacific had in mind - perhaps because Mike Cramer, its owner, chief executive, president and staff photographer (he takes about half the photos Pacific uses) is a collector himself.

"The ultimate dream of a kid is to play sports or make the cards. I've gotten to make my hobby my business," he says.

Cramer, 43, got interested in cards in the 1960s. His private collection contains more than a million cards, including childhood favorites the Green Bay Packers, Frank Howard of baseball's old Washington Senators and Gail Goodrich of basketball's Phoenix Suns.

His first card? A 1960 Fleer Babe Ruth 3.

Cramer was a sophomore at a Phoenix, Ariz., high school when he started a mail-order trading-card business in his bedroom in 1968. After graduation, he worked on his uncle's crab-fishing boat in the Bering Sea. He invested his earnings in cards, selling out when the market got hot in the 1970s to finance his company. His wife, Cheryl, kept the business going while he was at sea.

By the mid-1970s, they had the nation's largest mail-order baseball card business, Cramer Sports Productions. The name was changed when they relocated to the Northwest in 1977. A Twisp native, Cramer says he chose this area because he likes being near the boats and thought he might need a backstop livelihood.

But Pacific has earned a reputation for quality, and he's never had to go back to fishing.

All Pacific's designs are done in-house. The company spent $1 million in 1995 on film output and computer design upgrades. With 60 employees, Pacific controls the entire pre-press operation - only the actual printing is done outside.

Ahead of the rest

Cramer says his company is "pushing the envelope.

"Right now we're 18 months ahead of other companies. Everyone wants to know how we come up with ideas but we just do. The trick is we actually implement them," he said.

Example: the Pure NFL Gridiron set, which offers oversized cards - 3 1/2 by 5 inches - that allow much more detail than the standard 2 1/2 by 3 1/2-inch cards.

"We're not afraid of anything. If we think we can do it and it's never been done, then we figure out how to do it. Every piece has to work or the quality suffers," Cramer said.

"The appeal to the collector is Pacific's new product designs, like the picture cel,"said Ken Bartells, 52, owner of The Goal Line, a hobby shop in Puyallup, near Tacoma. These cards feature a clear acetate photo insert, with a head shot and an action picture.

"Their cards are unique and they hold their value," said Bartells, a long-time collector who is partial to the Cleveland Browns.

"Their pricing of individual packs is very comparable, if not less than other brands," he said. A Pacific pack costs $1.79 to $1.99, well below the norm of $2.49.

Pacific uses a formula to choose the players featured on cards. First to be shot are impact players - the top 15 from each team. But the company also offers bonus sets that include cards for 150 to 200 less-known players.

Pacific also takes requests and might a feature a player whose wife, parents or fan club lobby for him.

Example: Dale Hellastrae had been a long snapper with the Dallas Cowboys for 11 years and had never had a card. He was featured by Pacific this year after he called personally to request a card.

"We try to accommodate as many players as possible," said Pacific spokesman Mike Monson.

"Often, the community is interested in a player and hasn't seen their card," like the Seattle Seahawks' Joe Nash, a low-profile hometown favorite featured on a Pacific card this year.

In addition, 20 players are featured on limited cards. A trading card's value is determined partly by how likely a collector is to find it in a pack.

Example: Chicago Bears' running back Rashaan Salaam's 1995 Pacific Prisms Red Hot Rookies card can be found in just one of every 81 packs.

Latinos and owners

Pacific introduced a set of Spanish-language baseball cards in 1993, another industry first. That venture highlighted top Major League Baseball players such as Roberto Alomar of the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners' Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez.

Pacific also was the first to include a card featuring an owner - the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones.

A popular Northwest niche product was a 50-card box of Mariners Memories, which chronicled the Seattle baseball club through its come-from-behind 1995 season and beyond to the American League Championship Series. That set featured 32 player cards with stats, cards for manager Lou Piniella and radio announcer Dave Niehaus, and cards representing regular-season special moments.

Bartells says about 75 percent of the collectors he sees are repeat customers - mostly adult males from 25 to 35 who enjoy the hunt.

"After all these years of collecting, the kid in me still likes the anticipation of what I might find, of getting a certain player," says collector Clark.

Lately, women and senior citizens are getting into it, too, Bartells says.

"Grandparents buy cards for their grandkids. It's a project they can share together."