By Chris Olds | COMMENTARY
Stephen Strasburg probably never intended to be a polarizing figure in sports. By nearly all accounts, he’s a confident, quiet superstar in the making – and the results of his first five big-league games reinforce that.
Although the 21-year-old Washington Nationals pitcher sports just a 2-2 record, he’s got a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in his first 30 or so innings of work – good for second place in the history books for the start of an MLB career. By all accounts, this is Major League Baseball’s dream story – a highly successful college power pitcher arrives in a big-market baseball town that’s had little success on the field and becomes the talk of a nation; a “national treasure” as Sports Illustrated screamed from its cover.
But among the collecting community, where many have watched thousands of dollars in Strasburg cards sold – and even more money spent on boxes and packs of 2010 Bowman baseball cards — where Strasburg made his big-league cardboard debut — the story of the year resonates quite differently, particularly online.
Strasburg’s cards have generated resentment, hatred and vast conspiracy theories.
As well as harassment.
Perhaps its human emotion showing us the best of itself at its worst – anger, greed, envy and maybe a few others – but it’s been fascinating and immensely disappointing to see how something that truly has been the biggest positive story in the hobby, and one of the biggest in baseball since now-disgraced legends were setting slugging records, devolve into hatred, mud-slinging, mock outrage and grandstanding on many a site’s message boards, on blogs and elsewhere.
While the negative sentiment is undoubtedly not shared by all collectors, it should be mentioned for posterity that baseball cards are a hobby of the 10-year-old down the street as well as the multi-millionaire — with the great equalizer being the unknown of what’s inside a wax pack. The millionaire can’t control what the kid may get – and it just might be a one-of-a-kind card the millionaire can’t live without.
What costs “too much” for one person may be next-to-nothing for another and that possibility of a market is reflective of just one reason why there are price guides – to show the range of what cards typically command across all types, all collectors in all locations regardless of some individuals’ preferences or stances on a player.
Strasburg’s arrival is perhaps the start of a re-birth of sorts for baseball cards, an industry that has been on the decline since dream seasons became tainted realities and those rarities of the boom years of the 1980s have been shown to be more commonplace than thought with the advantages of seeking out cards on the Internet.
Despite those struggles for the hobby, it’s apparent that people are latching onto Strasburg’s cards unlike those from previous years. That’s readily apparent when a standard Chrome card of his fetches as much as $60 and when prices of wax boxes are fetching twice – or even three times — as much as they should.
Strasburg’s card is perhaps symbolic of its time, a changing of directions for the hobby itself – perhaps slowly moving away from the gambling and “hits” per box mentality, though the $600 Strasburg autographs show us that aspect of the hobby is alive as ever.
No Strasburg card from 2010 Bowman is more symbolic of that than the SuperFractor, which was purchased for $16,403 on May 29 by Michigan-based accountant Robert J. Power. Critics balked at the buying price, citing hype or sheer stupidity, as the mark toppled records for previous SuperFractor sales ($7,000 and change for a signed card, $4,000 and change for one unsigned). However, Power was captivated by the story of baseball’s “Next Big Thing” and has been fortunate enough with his profession that luxuries such as that card are a possibility.
“I haven’t purchased any baseball cards or memorabilia in many years,” Power said in a previous interview with Beckett Baseball. “I bought a couple of cards here and there a few years back to fill some of my sets, but nothing like this purchase. I think there has been a lot of negativity recently in sports, so someone like Strasburg coming along is just what sports needs. And a card like this is just what the industry needs to attract both the young collectors, and hopefully to bring back some collectors who have been absent for awhile, like myself.”
While Power admitted that a 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente Rookie Card had always been on his wish list, the Strasburg captured his imagination, calling it his dream card – as it would be for anyone who found it in a pack, even the nay-sayers.
However, that “dream card” for himself as well as an industry became a personal nightmare. He got a dose of intensified negativity – and brutal reality — not long after he identified himself as the Strasburg buyer in an interview with Beckett Media, which later led to an appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” morning show.
The attention got to the point where he turned down interviews to about the card – the news value being an outrageous sum of money paid for a piece of cardboard; the ultimate novelty story for chatter-starved outlets – and it was after the television interview when the harassment intensified.
It started with threatening and negative emails and messages sent through eBay. It escalated into hate-fueled borderline-violent voicemail messages.
“I think the ESPN interview really capped it off,” said Power in Dallas Tuesday to complete the second sale of the card. “I think that put it out there to a few more people and people got ahold of my home number, my email and some of the messages were quite shocking.
“That’s very unfortunate when we’ve got soldiers dying in Afghanistan and people are throwing profanity at me for a baseball card? It was a letdown, we’ll just say that.”
Where does such sentiment from others come from? Are card collectors that negative these days – or that starved for amusement – that it comes to this?
The negativity didn’t stop there.
Power opted to have his card graded by Beckett Grading Services, a division of Beckett Media’s business operations separate from its publishing and sports data-gathering operations. BGS examines the card under magnification and places the card with a numeric grade between 1 and 10 inside a tamper-proof case.
While Power initially contacted Beckett to inquire about grading the card on June 14, he didn’t have the card in his possession when he was interviewed by ESPN on June 18 – the card was en route to BGS, which examined the card on June 22 and gave it a 9.5 grade. (The card’s obvious flaw being its centering.)
This, too, inspired more turmoil online as grading “experts” balked at the grade, saying it was too generous and a grade ultimately attributed to being a publicity stunt because it’s a high-profile card – complaints BGS often hears as it is the reputation as being the most strict of any grading service.
It also didn’t help the undercurrent of bitterness that plagued Power.
Meanwhile, on June 21, the card had been re-listed on eBay with a reserve in the ballpark of $20,000 – a move that sparked even more conspiracy theories and negative reactions, most directed at BGS. (Meanwhile, common sense says most collectors looking to capitalize on mainstream media hype in relation to a sale would wait until after a card is graded to put it on the auction block.)
The attempted re-sale of the card surprised me, given the fact that Power seemed quite sold on Strasburg in our previous discussions. However, Power wasn’t going to wait given the ugly messages and threats he had received.
Was it the money, the negativity or the stigma that led him to sell what he had said was his dream card?
“It was a combination of both,” he said. “Collectors should help each other. I dunno if it’s jealousy but it was just a lot of hatred. That shocked me.”
Power’s return to the hobby came close to an end nearly a month after it began with an auction on eBay that closed for $25,000 on June 28. However, even that sale went bad and ultimately the card was sold on Tuesday for $21,403 to Razor Entertainment’s Brian Gray, who will place the card into a forthcoming buyback product.
“I still do have high expectations for Stephen Strasburg,” Power said. I think that card is a beautiful card … my intent was not to originally sell it. I wanted to keep it for a number of years.”
Power readily admits that he had returned to the hobby, that the Strasburg card and the pitcher’s potential took him back to past years — ones he fondly remembers growing up collecting cards.
“Some of the negativity in the industry now has kind of driven me out, thus changing my opinion to sell the card.”
Initially, though, Power was fine with the purchase.
“I viewed [the purchase] as a good thing initially,” he said. “I don’t think everyone else did. A lot of negativity kind of affected my decision. I wish I could have owned it longer but it didn’t pan out that way.”
And obviously the irony here is that Power is allowed to do whatever he wants with his money – just like anyone else can. Rather than buy a lavish car or something else, he opted for a key card of a baseball player that captured his imagination.
“That’s how I viewed it,” he said. “People purchase new cars everyday and once they drive it off the lot they lose $10,000.
“I got compared to Bernie Madoff and Ponzi schemes with being an accountant,” he said of messages sent to him and things written about him. “It’s ridiculous. One email, fine. Two, three, four and you just start really thinking ‘This is sad.’”
Getting rid of the Strasburg card is bittersweet for him, though he made $5,000 for his month of misery – a month that should really have never happened given the fact that all he did was … buy … a … baseball … card.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Anyone can send an email or leave a voicemail. I do believe people overall are still positive. The industry is stronger now [with Strasburg]. I wish I still owned the card but I don’t.”
For the most part, Power said his whirlwind affair with the hobby as a result of the Strasburg card has come to an end – with one exception being a card from decades ago that he has always wanted, the Clemente Rookie Card.
“I’ve got all of his cards except that Rookie Card, so now I can take some of these funds, purchase my dream card and maybe leave the industry for another 20 years. When the next Stephen Strasburg comes by, I’ll come back.”
Personally, I’m hoping that finally landing his Clemente will change his mind.
Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
ROBERT J. POWER’S TIME WITH STRASBURG
May 29 — Purchases card for $16,403
June 8 — Strasburg’s first start (Power hadn’t yet received card)
June 15 — Power becomes publicly known as the buyer and is interviewed by Beckett Media
June 16 — Story on the card hits ESPN’s Page 2
June 18 — Power appears on ESPN’s “First Take” (after sending the card to BGS)
June 21 — The card is re-listed on eBay
June 22 — The card is graded by BGS
June 28 — eBay auction ends at $25,000, but top bidder backs out
July 6 — The card is sold for $21,403 to Razor Entertainment for placement in a buy-back product; Power sits down with Beckett Media to discuss it all