The Singles Mixer: My favorite recent baseball purchases

I started the Blast From the Packs series to talk about my experiences opening actual packs of cards and essentially reviewing the sets they come from, but over the past month or so, the majority of my “allowance money” has been going toward purchasing single cards — colloquially referred to as singles — on eBay and elsewhere. But other than a couple posts about individual cards, I haven’t written much about WHAT I’m buying, even if I have covered the HOW in a previous post.

So I decided it would be fun to grab a few of my favorites and talk about why I bought them. I’m not wealthy enough to be grabbing the true “investment-grade” cards that I wistfully scroll past as I’m shopping for cards online, but I do keep an eye toward growth potential as far as the value of the cards when I’m buying. That said, most of it is driven by my fandom of the player or players represented on the cards, with that value proposition being a secondary concern.

Since the World Series just wrapped relatively recently, we’re in a pretty good buyers’ market for baseball cards. It seems, generally speaking, that market trends tend to follow the active sports seasons, meaning we’re currently in a bit of a hot spot for football cards as demand for players’ singles will wax and wane depending on their weekly performances, but a bit of a down time for the out-of-season sports such as basketball, hockey, and baseball.

That said, there are some players who continue to attract huge demand no matter the season. As a Dallas Mavericks fan who loves Luka Doncic, for instance, I’m a little excited and a little dismayed to find that Luka is apparently most of the world’s favorite NBA player, so demand for his cards just … it’s unreal, honestly. Even his second-year cards have, in some cases, increased in value 10- or 20-fold since the start of the year. A Donruss Rated Rookie Luka I could have purchased for $40 a couple months ago is now routinely above $100, even in its base form (no special foil or short-print gimmicks), even in the NBA offseason.

So there’s no guarantees your favorite player’s cards will suddenly get more affordable just because they’re not currently playing games, but it’s still a good guideline to follow. Admittedly, though, I bought a lot of these cards while the playoffs were still going on, so I’m not the best at following the best practice. And with that caveat, let’s take a look at a few of my favorite baseball card purchases of the last few months:

2019 and 2020 Donruss Jersey Kings Frank Thomas

Purchase date: Oct. 1 and Oct. 20 (or thereabouts, it’s complicated)
Purchase price (including shipping): $12.99 and, uh, free (about $5 for postage … I’ll explain)

Current estimated value: $8 to $20 each

This is a very eBay, very online marketplace sort of story. I ordered the 2019 edition of this card (the white/gray/black one) at the beginning of October for about $8 shipped. I’d never purchased a “piece of authentic” card (one that has a piece of a game- or event-worn jersey, ball, bat, glove, shin protector, etc., attached) before, mainly because they tend to be expensive. But for this kind of card, featuring a no-longer-active player, the supply is there and the demand just isn’t as high. So I thought it would be a nice, cheap way to add to my collection of one of my favorite baseball players of all time.

But then it never came. I waited about a week past its expected arrival date before reaching out to the eBay seller to ask if they had any tracking info or a shipping date. I wasn’t to the point of wanting to request a refund yet, because this was around the time post office slowdowns were in the news, and I just wanted to touch base with the seller to see what he could tell me. But he didn’t respond, he just gave me my money back. OK.

So I ordered the same card from a different seller. It was a couple bucks more, but still very affordable. A few days later, I had a notification that my money had once again been refunded, this time with a message from the seller, apologizing because his house had been broken into, and the card I’d purchased was among the stolen goods. Holy crap, right? I wrote back saying I appreciated his message and wishing him well as he negotiates with insurance and picking up the pieces.

At this point, I decided I’d give it one more try, and placed an order for another card for $12.99 shipped. This one arrived promptly, and I was happy. But the next day, I received a note in my mailbox that said there was a package for me at the post office with about $5 postage due. And the last name of the sender, well, it was the seller of the original card! Apparently the card had just been stuck in the mail without proper postage for a few weeks.

So I went to the post office, paid the postage due and collected what I thought was my second identical Frank Thomas Jersey Kings card. As I opened the package, I was thinking what to do: Should I sell the second one? Keep it? I briefly considered reaching back out to the seller to offer him the money for the card, but he’d apparently written it off without a word, and besides, I did have to pay almost as much for the postage as the card originally cost.

When I pried the card from the envelope, though, I realized: This is a different card. It’s the black and red 2020 version. Donruss produced Frank Thomas Jersey King cards in consecutive years. I don’t know why, exactly, but they did. And now I have both!

1989 Topps Traded Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie and the Topps Project 2020 Keith Shore version

Purchase date: Oct. 17 and Oct. 16
Purchase price: $11.56 and $6.40
Current estimated value: $8 to $30, and unchanged

Growing up, I loved Ken Griffey Jr., but his rookie cards always eluded me. Trading for one was a tall task, because he was among my friends’ favorite players as well, and because I started collecting in earnest in the early ’90s, I missed the chance to pull any of his rookie cards from 1989 packs. And because Griffey was like THE hot player at that time, his cards were pretty expensive as singles. If I remember correctly, his famous Upper Deck rookie was going for about $100 mint back in ’93-’96, and you can still find them for about that same price (of course, as is the case with every card, the gem-mint 10-graded examples go for much more). In any case, these cards were out of reach for 12-year-old me.

As an adult, being able to buy one of his Topps rookie cards, which are iconic in their own right, was satisfying down deep in my soul. Less satisfying, however, was receiving the card and noticing how offcenter it is (notice how much thicker the white border is at the top of the card compared to the Project 2020 version). The eBay auction I purchased it from offered several of these cards, so clearly the specific one they sent me was not pictured. I can’t even be super mad, though, because of the excellent price.

And speaking of excellent prices, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Keith Shore’s extremely popular Project 2020 Griffey going for $5 on eBay. As I’ve discussed before, the Topps Project 2020 cards are released and offered for purchase direct from Topps for 48 hours at a time. The more orders there are (at $20.20, ‘natch), the more cards will be produced. At the time this card came out, it was by far the most-purchased Project 2020 piece; somewhere near a million dang people bought this thing. And nearly all of them were reacting to the high resale prices of some of the early Project 2020 cards, which were going for hundreds of dollars a pop at auction in the weeks after their production. I think the thinking was, “this cool, cartoony card of a super popular player will SURELY pay off with frantic eBay buyers down the line!”

Well, the card’s production run was so high it gummed up the whole works for Project 2020 printing for months, and because there are so many of the damn things, and because so many people bought them to flip them, they’re basically worthless. Fantastic! I’m not sure what would drive a person who purchased a card for $20 a few months ago to be so desperate to move them that they’re letting them go for a quarter of that (just, I don’t know, hang onto it for a while?), but I was all too happy to grab this neat piece of pop art at a cut-rate price. And it arrived in the mail on the same day as the card that inspired it. Kismet.

2020 Bowman “Paper” and Bowman Chrome Mojo Refractor Jasson Dominguez “1st” prospect cards

Purchase date: Oct. 13 and Oct. 20
Purchase price: $9.62 and $25.34
Current estimated value: $15 (ungraded) to $300 (for gem-mint), and $10 to $40 (not seeing any graded options sold recently)

Due to its extensive “farm system” of minor league affiliates, employing thousands of baseball prospects at any given time, baseball is driven by a high degree of speculation about tomorrow’s stars.

It’s certainly the case when it comes to card collecting. Topps uses its Bowman imprint to produce cards for the top couple hundred prospects in the game each year: players who have either never played in the major leagues, or perhaps have had the proverbial “cup of coffee” call-up, and are now back down in the minors for more seasoning. For any player currently in the league winning MVPs and Golden Gloves, you can go back and find a Bowman “1st” card, like the first appearance of a superhero in the comics, a sort of ur-rookie card.

Because what is a “rookie card,” really? That question has become a lot more complicated for baseball cards, it seems, in the last bunch of years with this increased focus on producing cards for prospects. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s incredibly smart that Topps uses Bowman like this. It makes Bowman, an otherwise fairly unremarkable second-tier brand, a very sought-after product for the first appearances of star players. But it does make for some fairly confusing calls as to which cards are truly rookies.

All that said, I’ve heard a lot over the last few months about a 17-year-old wunderkind from the Dominican Republic named Jasson Dominguez who is built more or less like Paul Bunyan and is already one of the top 40 prospects in all of baseball. He’s signed to the Yankees, and although it could take him at least a couple of years to make it to the majors, clips of him doing superhuman feats on a baseball diamond have been circulating online for a while, and he’s being compared favorably to all of the game’s best hitters.

This isn’t my first rodeo: I remember as a kid hearing about a pitcher who was just otherworldly, a can’t-miss prospect who would certainly lead the Yankees to multiple World Series rings once he made the show. His name was Brien Taylor, and I did end up with one of his prospect cards. But then he got injured and was never the same. I also had rookie/prospect cards for Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher, two Mets pitching prospects who were being favorably compared to Greg Maddux and John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves. Neither of them really amounted to much, either. So I know these guys sometimes end up missing the mark.

But I also have a couple of the very first Derek Jeter cards ever made. And I got a couple of Alex Rodriguez cards when he had just barely put on his first Mariners uniform. So I also know that sometimes the kids live up to the hype.

So, remembering the Jeters and trying to forget the Taylors, I made sure I got the “1st” Bowman “Paper” (meaning not shiny and foiled-up like the Chrome and refractor versions) card of this Dominican folk hero. I can’t quite justify spending the hundreds and thousands of dollars the more rare versions of this card go for, but from what I’m seeing on eBay, the demand for this version is steady as well, particularly for graded versions (I’ll probably send it in to get graded at some point). And the following week, I noticed a copy of this shiny “Mojo Refractor” Dominguez card from the Chrome parallel set going for what seemed like a reasonable price at $25, so I pounced. The Chrome cards always seem to be more desirable at market than the “Paper” ones, so it felt like a good purchase.

So far, though, this card seems less sought-after than the Paper card. It doesn’t have the red “1st” insignia on it. It’s not the “alternate photo” rare version of the card, which I only recently learned about. But it is an attractive card, and I like his pose on it better than the one on the 1st (which kinda looks like a Photoshop of a kid’s head on a giant man’s body, but that’s apparently pretty accurate in real life), and I think over a long enough timeline, assuming the *knocks wood* best outcome, it will also grow in value. I’m not in any hurry to sell, though.

2020 Topps Chrome Luis Robert Rookie

Purchase date: Oct. 4
Purchase price: $20.54
Current estimated value: $12 to $50

I haven’t watched a lot of baseball the last several years, but now that I’m re-engaging in the sport, I’m realizing there are a glut of exciting young players right now. I could list at least a dozen off the top of my head, but the two that have caught my attention the most are the fearless and unapologetic Padres infielder Fernando Tatis Jr. (I remember watching his dad play … how old am I, again?) and the Golden Glove-winning White Sox centerfielder Luis Robert.

Robert lights up the same part of my animal brain that was drawn to other athletic, defensively talented centerfielders such as Griffey, Andruw Jones, Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds, and Mike Cameron over the years. He’s got an easy-looking swing, he’s got a hell of a glove, and he’s got wheels. You don’t need much else to make me a fan.

This Topps Chrome Rookie (and it’s definitely a rookie card, Beckett even says so) started me on a path of buying a few other Robert rookie and prospect cards. Yes, I also got his Bowman Paper 1st card. I was rooting for him to win AL Rookie of the Year, an honor he missed out on largely due to a horrendous slump he suffered over the course of about a month during this pandemic-shortened season, but he’s a player I expect big things from over the course of his career.

So that’s it for this little show-and-tell. As you can see, I didn’t drop big money on any of these cards, but I love having them in my collection, even the offcenter Griffey.

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