Last year, pitcher Stephen Strasburg emerged as the second coming of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson all rolled into one.
This kid was going to put the Washington Nationals on the baseball map. Movie producers were already commissioning scripts to be written. Matt Damon was already contacted. Spielberg was going to direct. It was all so perfect.
Collectors were paying thousands for signed rookie cards. Bowman, normally a slightly above-cost performer when first live and then possibly a winner depending on which rookie pops out in a year or two, went insane. Collectors and dealers alike were jockeying for position to buy and overpay for Bowman Jumbos. All was great in the cardboard world.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Investors succumbed to one of T.J.’s Golden Rules: Never invest in rookie stars before they prove they can last at least a full season, and especially not pitchers.
When the kid first felt a twinge and went on the disabled list, I said out loud, “Shut him down!” The only race the Nats were in was to end the season so they could get Bryce Harper and Strasburg in the same room and drool at the 2011 season prospect of having two phenoms in the same battery. So what did the Nats do? They pitched the kid right to the operating table and a minimum of a season and a half lost. Genius!
Meanwhile, dealers and collectors were getting their financial butts handed to them. The wax started to die. The singles started to crash and burn, as did any interest in the kid. The 1-of-1 Superfractor that sold three times with a final bid of $25,000 to a very prominent player in the hobby was all of a sudden a very bad investment. I know the card’s owner very well, and he is about as sharp as they get, but he was burned on this one.
OK, live and learn. Never mind Brien Taylor, Kerry Wood, Sam Horn, Kevin Maas, Greg Oden, Matt Leinart and Ryan Leaf – investing in young rookies is a great idea! As the saying goes, “Those that don’t believe in history are doomed to repeat it!”
So after all that pain last year, let’s move Blake Griffin. Yes, he won the slam dunk contest at this year’s NBA All-Star Game after dunking over a car. Yes, he is on the ESPN highlight reel every night. Yes, his dunks are unbelievable. Yes, he is without a doubt a great player. However, he is a great player in a league that has a lot of greater players.
Can he get to the Top 10 or Top 5? Sure he can. Of course, he does play for the lowly Clippers, a team where a great player will shine more so than if he was on the Spurs or Lakers. Oh, and there’s one more very important fact. He got hurt in his rookie season, actually before it really began and missed the entire year. Greg Oden, anyone? Because of that, he is considered a rookie this year and has all but locked up the Rookie of the Year award, much to the chagrin of John Wall and his collectors.
A few months ago, I decided to go on eBay and pick up a few dozen of Griffin’s rookie cards for my store. I’m in L.A and was getting asked every day for his cards. I was shocked when I saw that every card was two to three times price guide values on eBay. Signed cards were $300-$1,000, and this was before the slam dunk competition and All-Star game. Even his Topps basic rookie that booked for $5 at the time was fetching $15-plus. “Wow,” I thought.” So, I passed. Yes, I know that was probably a bad move in the short term. My problem is that when a young, fit and solid-as-a-rock athlete gets hurt out of the gate and misses an entire season, I worry that it could easily happen again. Greg Oden, anyone?
So, on March 12 of this year, some person with obviously way too much money on his or her hands paid – wait for it – $18,800 for the 2009-10 National Treasures Blake Griffin signed NBA Logoman 1-of-1 card on eBay. That’s right sports fans, almost $19,000 for a new card of an almost one-season veteran. Now I don’t care if he was averaging a double-double. Oh yeah, Kevin Love is, and his cards aren’t even in the same time zone as Griffin’s. But Love is awesome and plays on a very bad team. He can dunk. He can play. He didn’t miss an entire rookie season. What’s up?
But hey, the seller of the Griffin card did provide free shipping.
Since I write for SCD now, I am talking to more serious, vintage collectors than I have ever before, which is exactly what this 57-year-old is. Anytime I see a sale like this, I like to compare to what else we could have bought with the money and see which would be the best investment. I do recognize that for the moment, this card can be resold at a profit and possibly sold again, but eventually it will settle.
So let’s see, how about we buy a really nice and creamy white fully certified Babe Ruth signed baseball, some PSA 8 T206 HOFers, a PSA 7-8 1933 Goudey Ruth – you get the idea.
If Griffin stays healthy his entire career, gets freed from the Clippers to head toward a winner, wins a MVP award or two, lands on an NBA Championship team and he wins a Finals MVP, I think this card might be worth what it sold for. And if all that happens, I’ll eat an NBA ball! Give me that Ruth ball any time. It’s not going to go down in value, ever.
Behind the counter
I’ve been a store owner since 1988, and I have a few million Retail Tales in my mental files. I like to share one or two regularly so collectors won’t think that life is peachy . . . Behind The Counter.
Last week, a random guy walks into the joint looking like a regular customer. I’m in the back and immediately come out to greet the gentleman with my standard, “How ya doing today? You looking for something particular?” He looks at me with a straight face and says, “Can you loan me $5 and I’ll pay you back next week?” I am puzzled at the request and respond with a casual, “Do I know you?” He immediately responds, “No.” I say, “OK, then why would I loan you $5?” His response is, “Uh, OK.” And off he goes to the next store. All righty then!
The following is this month’s Behind the Counter special. An old woman comes into the joint with a box of old Hollywood photos. She says she had these in her house and had no need for them and asked for $100. I don’t deal in them, but I have an extensive Hollywood collection. I counter with $75, and she accepts. Quick, fun buy – I thought.
I pay her, and she asks if she could take one last look at the photos. They were original photo of some 1960s and ’70s TV shows like Marcus Welby MD. As she thumbs through them, she mutters to herself so I can hear, “Oh I remember this one. I think I’ll keep it. Oh yeah, this one, too.” This goes on and on.
The whole time I’m biting my lip. After all, she came in, asked if I would buy them, agreed on a price and accepted my money.
So as she takes back the sixth photo, she begins to slump on the stool she’s sitting on across the counter. I ask her if she’s OK, and she says yes. Next she rests her head on the counter, and I say I’m calling 911. “Don’t, I’m fine!” she says. A minute later, she slides off the stool onto the floor. I grab the phone and dial as I run to her side. As I’m talking to 911, she does not respond and starts to gurgle. I’m thinking she’s dying right here!
The 911 operator tells me to rest her head flat on the floor. This is all in five minutes. The color immediately comes back to her face, and she starts to talk to me. The 911 operator stays with me as I tend to her, and five minutes later, the paramedics are here and take over.
Long story short, they cart her away and she is 100 percent the same as when she walked in within minutes. Turns out she had given blood an hour ago. Genius. My wife gives blood every month, and the Red Cross always tells her to rest for four hours. OK, crisis averted.
When they took her to the hospital, I made sure she had the $75 and the photos she wanted to keep with her in the bin she brought in. The paramedics took it for her. Hours later I get a call from her in the hospital. She is fine and asks if she could give me my money back and retain the photos. What could I say but yes? She shows up the next day and I give them all back. She goes through them and gives me four of them to be nice. OK, all is well that ends well. Uh, no.
The next day she returns and asks me if I still had a Marcus Welby photo, as she thought it was missing. I told her that I gave her everything and had no interest in that photo anyway. I tell her politely that I don’t steal and that I had given her everything back.
“I’m not accusing you of stealing,” she said. “OK, then why are you asking me more than once,” I ask. She leaves and returns yet again the next day, looking for the same $10 photo. Now I’m insulted.
“I did everything I could to save your life while you were gurgling on my floor. I let you take photos back even after you sold them. I then let you unwind the whole deal with a smile, and you’re still accusing me of stealing a $10 photo?”
She claimed she was not accusing me of anything, as she left for the last time.
You know, I felt great that I kept my cool and handled something I’ve never had to deal with before in my 23 years of business. My daughter even thought I was some kind of hero. But the rest of it just took the edge off as she made my Behind the Counter Hall of Fame. No hero here at all, just a cardboard retailer enjoying another interesting day Behind the Counter.
Until next month, I remain . . . On Your Side.