USA Baseball cards.
The dedicated prospectors who are fans of baseball — moreso than just Chrome and dollar signs — know their value, their place in the collecting game.
But on Monday evening the USA Baseball devotees like me who have an affinity for a player’s first baseball card — period — had something to point back at others who eschew the red, white and blue classics as being more minor-league material when it comes to cardboard.
Eight of the top 10 picks in the 2010 MLB Draft were USA Baseball alumni. After that, there were seven more USA Baseball alums taken as first-round or first-round supplemental picks.
And for the ninth year out of the last 10, the No. 1 pick has donned the red, white and blue with many having a baseball card well before making the bigs.
Let’s look at this year’s early picks …
No. 1? Bryce Harper, who has appeared in USA Baseball sets the last two years. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
No. 2? Texas high school pitcher Jameson Taillon, who appears in this year’s set.
No. 3? Florida high school shortstop Manny Machado. Yep, this year’s USA set.
No. 4? Christian Colon from Cal State Fullerton. Get out the DeLorean — he appeared in the 2006-07 USA Baseball set.
No. 5? Ole Miss pitcher Drew Pomeranz. Yep, another in this year’s set.
No. 7? North Carolina Tar Beels ace Matt Harvey. Dr. Emmitt Brown would be proud once again — Harvey had cards in the 2006-07 set.
No. 9? Florida high school pitcher Karsten Whitson. Yep. This year’s set.
No. 10? Texas-Arlington outfielder Michael Choice, yet another from this year’s USA set.
Now, I’m not blindly devoted enough to insist that any of these cards will trump a player’s first card in an MLB uniform to come later on, but the lure of the USA Baseball boxed sets — with upwards of 10 autographed or memorabilia cards in many years’ editions — should be obvious around draft time.
Literally, USA Baseball cards are the only cards of these players for sometimes years before they have a new uniform and a new set of fans with hunting them. When it comes draft time, these are the only cards for their new teams’ fans to chase. While they have been relatively plentiful in recent years — and often pricey when it’s one of those can’t miss names and there’s ink attached — there are also countless bargains to be found as well as a shelf-life that really goes beyond that of some other prospect-laden products.
The 24 Harper cards that aren’t too rare for Beckett Baseball to price are worth a total of $5,032 — or $209.67 apiece. Although Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg has a few non-USA cards in the mix, his total value of those that are priced is a mere $6,590 — or $199.70 a card.
These are the exceptions as the often-overlooked USA cards aren’t typically as expensive — and demand will undoubtedly falter some once those new MLB threads start showing up on players’ backs on players’ cards — but it shows that the potential is there with these earliest cards.
The collecting landscape has changed mightily since we remember the first USA Baseball set in 1985 Topps — you know, the one with a hard-hitting USC star named Mark McGwire — but the collecting intensity for early cards hasn’t changed. In fact, some might argue that it’s even more intense given the technological advances that make finding, buying and selling cards easier than ever before and the ways that we can follow the game at almost any level of play.
There’s a reason that Topps has turned its attention back to one of its 1980s staples, and there’s a reason that USA Baseball players have a place in red-hot products like Bowman Chrome.
It’s not patriotism that they are tapping into — it’s more like the love of the game.
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.