By Ryan Petzar
Intrigued reporter and loyal Stew reader Ryan Petzar took in the country’s biggest baseball card convention, held in Maryland this past week, in part to see the possible impact Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg(notes) might be having on the industry’s budding revival.
BALTIMORE — Chaz Gray traveled about 1,800 miles from his Colorado home to the National Sports Collectibles Convention.
And it was all for Stephen Strasburg.
"I’ve been collecting cards my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like it," Gray said. "It was a literal stampede for this card. It was madness."
Gray was one of the first 100 lucky attendees to obtain the limited edition Topps Heritage Stephen Strasburg rookie card that the trading-card giant was giving out. In exchange for 10 wrappers of any Topps product, a convention-goer could receive a card of which only 999 were made. All but one were to be distributed at the convention over the course of the five-day event this past week. Meanwhile, the remaining card was numbered #1 and just fetched $870 at a charity auction for Juvenile Diabetes on eBay.
Far away from the hustle and bustle of the show floor, Gray sat cross-legged holding his iPad with a laptop on the floor in front of him, as his friend and business partner Chris Lamb paced nervously behind him. Like most collectors to receive one, the pair had just posted their special Strasburg cards on eBay.
"I’m hoping for $300," Chaz said. "That would pretty much pay off this trip for me."
Fetching that much for a card that was being given away less than an hour earlier might seem pretty strange — and for most promotional cards it is — but it’s par for the course when it comes to the Washington Nationals pitcher.
Over the past few months, Strasburg has become the impetus for a sea of change within the trading-card business. Suddenly people are talking about baseball cards again.
And more importantly for the industry, people are buying baseball cards again.
"It’s been Strasburg madness this season," said Mike Mader, who runs ToppsBlog.com and is the face of Topps on Twitter and Facebook. "It’s all anybody asks me about these days."
Chris Gilmore, owner of FreedomCardboard.com, says Strasburg is the biggest thing in cards in at least two decades.
"Strasburg has been a breath of fresh air to an industry that has seen better days," Gilmore said. "It hasn’t been since Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) that we’ve seen this kind of action and excitement for a rookie."
Consider the enormous amount of publicity generated when Strasburg’s one-of-a-kind "superfractor" — a version of his Topps’ 2010 Bowman card that sold on eBay for just under $16,500. The card, which was pulled from a $2 pack, wasn’t purchased by a high-end collector or even a professional speculator, but instead by an accountant who didn’t even collect baseball cards.
Brian Gray, president of the newly reborn Leaf Trading Cards (and no relation to Chaz Gray), later bought it for $21,403. He has big plans for the superfractor: It’s set to become the marquee card in Leaf’s "Rookie Retro" line of cards, in which the buyer will receive an actual rookie card of a star athlete in any of the four major sports.
"Stephen Strasburg is responsible for capturing the imagination of the industry again," Gray said at Leaf’s convention booth. "It’s the most important headline this industry has had in the last 20 years. It’s bringing people back into collecting cards again."
But why now? And why him? The 2010 season has seen its share of spectacular rookie debuts, including ones by Jason Heyward(notes), Buster Posey(notes), Drew Storen(notes), Mike Leake(notes) and Domonic Brown(notes). What is it about Strasburg that has made such an impact in the collective consciousness of both the veteran and greenhorn collector alike?
He happens to be the right face at the right time.
Baseball history is full of players who haven’t lived up to their hype. Most notably is the saga of Brien Taylor, 1991’s first overall draft pick. As a high school senior, Taylor was given an unheard of signing bonus of $1.55 million dollars by the Yankees.
The card market, which was in its biggest growth period in its history, produced his cards by the truckload. The most famous version was the 1992 Topps, which sold for as much as $25. Autographed ones sold for as much as 10 times that amount.
However, after suffering a torn labrum in a bar fight, Taylor retired from baseball without ever pitching a single inning in the majors. The values of his cards, of course, plummeted down to nothing.
Unlike Taylor, Strasburg is already in the majors not only living up to but even exceeding the hype around him, making many collectors and investors see him as a sure thing.
That he’s been on the disabled list worries some, but not enough — yet — to drag prices dramatically.
Brian Gray, who is known as a risk taker in the industry, isn’t concerned about his investment, "Even if Strasburg falls flat on his face like Brien Taylor, it’ll still be good for the industry. We all win because Strasburg is hot."
Also contributing to the phenomenon: 2010 is the first year of a partnership that has made Topps the sole company allowed to produce baseball cards licensed by MLB and its teams. While other companies, such as Upper Deck, are still able to produce baseball cards, they cannot use the names or logos of any of the 30 major league clubs.
Additionally, Topps inked an exclusive deal with Strasburg directly where it is the only company that can market his game-used memorabilia and autographed cards, which are the two most desirable types of cards to collectors today.
These kinds of factors help reduce the glut of products on the market and drive up interest in what’s left.
But the free market remains unpredictable. Chaz Gray’s promotional Strasburg card, the freebie he hoped would cover his travel expenses to Baltimore, didn’t quite fetch $300. Regardless, he was all smiles about the end-price: $98 for a card he had paid nothing for.
"I’ll take that any day, baby," Gray said.
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