I was in a card store recently, when a kid walked in who was not searching for the latest packs of Pokemon. He was looking, believe it or not, to buy a few packs of 1999-2000 basketball, and he had about four dollars to burn. He chose one pack of Topps and one pack of Fleer. He tore open the first pack, quickly rifled through, and then set it aside. He ripped open the second pack and did the same. A look of disappointment crept over his face and he said, "I didn't get anything." He walked out of the store, leaving the cards on the counter.
The unsurprised storeowner took the cards and placed them in a stack next to the register.
"Does that happen often?" I asked.
"About thirty bucks worth per week," he replied.
The kid may have only pulled commons, but it's a shame that he thought his cards were worthless. Many collectors have unfortunately adopted a lottery mentality when it comes to opening packs. The idea that "nothing is better than nothing" is what has caused the hobby to fall out of favor for some. Collectors obviously want top rookies, nice inserts, and cards of their favorite players. And the card manufacturers try to make sure that collectors get value from the packs they open. But sometimes, the value just isn't that obvious.
Collectors can do a number of things with their commons. First, collectors can use the commons as they're meant to be used -- as pieces of a set. As short-printed cards become more prevalent, set collation is turning into the hobby's lost art. (As a side note, the card manufacturers could help to build this facet of the hobby back up by designing competitions -- wrapper redemptions, trading networks organized on their Web sites, and so on -- aimed at rewarding young collectors who put sets together.)
Collectors can also use the commons to get autographs. Although the superstar cards are more desirable, the common players are the ones the players more likely to sign for fans. You may have poor luck putting together a collection of new cards, but your initial misfortune may turn into a long-term autograph collecting success.
Finally, collectors can donate their commons to a local children's charity. You may not get any joy from the cards stuffed away in boxes in your house, but that doesn't mean that less fortunate kids won't.
Collectors also have to keep in mind that today's common may be tomorrow's superstar. Mark Brunell rookie cards from 1993 Upper Deck SP sat in common boxes for a few years, before the Jags QB became an All-Pro. And nobody needs to be reminded about Kurt Warner's hobby impact. I doubt that Pacific truly knew what they had when they included him in their checklist.
Collectors aren't going to pull a winner every time that they open a pack. But that doesn't mean the cards are useless. Sometimes, hobbyists need a reminder of what collecting is all about.