For years, baseball card collectors have sought to test their creative limits. Before condition was so highly regarded, cards were used for dart games, inserted into the spokes of bike tires, and flipped up against walls. Some even created their own versions of a baseball simulator with their favorite cards.
In 1978, Topps created the “Play Ball – Played by Two” game on the back of their cards, where players would take turns flipping over the cards which revealed a result (i.e. groundout, home run, walk, etc.). Quick and easy to learn, this game was limited by the fact that each card only had one result. There have been various adaptations of this, but a model that truly simulated the feel of a true baseball game was hard to find.
The Birth of MLB Showdown
Fast forward to 2000, when Wizards of the Coast introduced MLB Showdown, a game that coupled the collectability of baseball cards with the game functionality of traditional dice-oriented board games.
A 462-card set was released that year, equipping each player card with a chart that corresponded to their numbers from 1999. Players like Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Pedro Martinez were some of the holofoil (foil) cards and featured some of the best charts considering their accomplishments the year prior.
Pitchers had a “control” and a corresponding chart. Hitters had an “on-base” and their own chart. A 20-sided dice was rolled to determine who gained the “advantage,” which would determine whether the pitcher/hitter chart was used for the next roll. It was a valid attempt at recreating the matchup between the pitcher and hitter, similar to a pitcher falling behind or conversely getting ahead in a count.
The pitcher’s chart heavily favored the defense, while hitter’s charts gave the offense better odds at a favorable result. But that was just the start of it—managers could steal bases, bunt, and turn double plays—pretty much anything a manger could call for in a regular baseball game. Full rulebooks came with starter sets, but if you don’t have access to one there are several sites online that detail the rules if you search “MLB Showdown rules.”
My first introduction to MLB showdown was as a wide-eyed 12-year-old walking into the Oakland Coliseum 20 years ago. One of the gate workers handed me a starter box, which was the A’s promotional giveaway for the game that day. Just another set of baseball cards I initially thought–but was I ever wrong.
As the marketing slogan MLB Showdown used goes, they were “cards that played ball.” It was the most evolved model of a collectable baseball card game that I had seen yet, and I was hooked. I needed opponents, so I recruited my brother and neighbor to build teams immediately after getting home.
We didn’t have a lot of cards yet, so whenever I was able to buy a few packs, it was like a blockbuster trade occurred or a top prospect had been called up from the minors. If a hitter in my lineup was struggling, a new pack of cards could mean the end of his Showdown career. They would then end up on the trading block, and my brother or neighbor could make offers to try to upgrade their team.
A “Pennant Run” edition came out that spring, too, with an additional group of 130 regular cards, 20 holofoil inserts and 25 strategy cards. This pattern would repeat in subsequent years.
Boxes of both 2000 sets can still be found today at around $200.
Building a Roster
The local card shop that sold Showdown cards became headquarters for our obsession. This was before you could buy them on eBay and long before Facebook groups that allowed fans to buy, sell and trade Showdown cards across the nation.
We had big market teams and small market teams in our league–all dependent on how much allowance your parents were willing to shell out. One of the great things about MLB Showdown, like baseball, was the variables that could occur on the field. Any team could win on a given day if the dice rolled your way.
The more cards you collected, the more evolved your roster could become. Some managers played within the 5,000 point limit allotted for rosters, while others built All-Star teams with no point limits. You could also play with your favorite team’s roster, which allowed owners to recreate classic or current matchups.
Strategy cards were another feature of MLB Showdown that added another dimension of game tactics for each manager. There were strategy cards for offense and defense, as well as utility cards that could be played at any time. Depending on when they were deployed, strategy cards could influence a variety of outcomes during the game.
Similar to building a winning roster, a well-constructed strategy deck could help your team win games. One of the most coveted strategy cards called “Clutch Performance” was released in 2001 and allowed managers to discard two of their strategy cards to immediately gain the advantage if their player was worth more points than the opponents. If played at the right moment, this card could be a game changer. It was comparable to giving Barry Bonds a 3-0 count with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th.
While strategy cards introduced an entirely new level of competition, the game could still be played without them. Some managers even prefer this style of play, as games are much shorter, results more pure, and the pace of play very fluid. Regardless of what side of the fence players stood on this issue, the game could still be enjoyed by either demographic.
MLB Showdown was printed from 2000-2005, releasing a base set and then an “update” type set called “Pennant Run” and “Trading Deadline” (from 2002-2005) which featured new rookies and players who had been traded to a different team.
While the base sets stuck to current players on MLB rosters, the expansion sets incorporated “Super Season” and “Cooperstown” legends that were very popular because of their name value and charts that reflected some of the great seasons in MLB history. Owners could now add the likes of Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, or Mike Schmidt to their lineup, and could finally settle the dispute of what era had the best ballplayers. Super Season cards featured a chart that was based on one the best year of that player’s career–so players could add a Rickey Henderson in his prime to steal bases, or a Barry Bonds as a Pittsburgh Pirate who boasted power, speed and defensive skills.
During the prime years of MLB Showdown, tournaments were also hosted at the local, regional and national level. Players could build a team and face other managers in a series—winners of the local level could move on to Regionals, while the best from Regionals would compete in a national tournament that pooled all of the best teams from the U.S.
James Lotito, winner of the 2005 New York (Long Island) Regionals, first was introduced to MLB Showdown after a local card shop started selling the product alongside Magic the Gathering and Pokemon.
“Being sports fans as well as gamers, we just wanted something other than Magic the Gathering to play,” said Lotito. “As the world of tournaments arose, that’s when we realized that we had found the game we were meant to play.”
“The game really appealed to our creative sides, as it was simply more than just building a deck and playing; we were managing a team,” said Lotito. “In the leagues we created, we were drafting rosters, so success was predicated mostly on player choices, with some dice luck sprinkled in as well.”
His passion for drafting turned into a serious skill—Lotito would go on to play in various regional and national tournaments and won some memorable prizes for his efforts. In 2002, Lotito went 4-0 in the Philadelphia regionals “Swiss style” format, catapulting him into the semi-finals where he won his next two games to qualify for Nationals.
Although he wouldn’t fare as well as he would have liked in the Nationals, his airfare and hotels were paid for and Lotito returned to the tournament field in 2005 stronger than ever. The rules called for a 25-man roster that had to be under 5,000 points, resembling the roster requirements of the Major Leagues at the time—minus the salary cap.
Lotito shared his winning roster formula for the 2005 Regionals—a blend of speed, timely hitting and power pitching spanning several eras of baseball. For his lineup, Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio, Barry Larkin and Richie Ashburn joined forces with future Hall of Famers like Ichiro Suzuki and other speedsters like Scott Podsednik and Chone Figgins.
Meanwhile in the rotation, opponents couldn’t have enjoyed facing the stable of Warren Spahn, Jim Palmer, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana, as Lotito assembled a pitching staff that any general manager would be envious of. Below is a look at his roster that won the 2005 Regional Tournament.
- Luis Aparicio (SS)
- Willie Harris (2B)
- Richie Ashburn (CF)
- Brian Jordan (LF)
- Ichiro Suzuki (RF)
- Scott Podsednik (1B)
- Michael Barrett (C)
- Chone Figgins (3B)
- Carlos Febles (DH)
SS Barry Larkin
OF Bobby Higginson
UTIL Mark DeRosa
UTIL Willie Bloomquist
C Henry Blanco
C Chad Moeller
C Charles Johnson
- Warren Spahn
- Johan Santana
- Jim Palmer
- Roy Halladay
A walk-off homerun by Ichiro in the semi-finals gave Lotito a 14-13 victory in one of the wildest extra-inning games he can remember. Leading 11-3, his pitching couldn’t hold and his team was down 13-12 heading to the 10th. Willie Harris started the rally and was driven home by Brian Jordan, bringing Ichiro to the plate down one with one on. You can almost hear the voice of the late Mariner’s broadcaster Dave Niehaus saying, “Fly Away” as Ichiro sent Lotito home victorious.
Lotito would go on to dominate a less dramatic one-game World Series 6-1. Aside from the nostalgia, his success in 2005 earned him an unforgettable prize: season tickets to the team of his choice. Being a Mets fan, that was an easy decision for Lotito, who also was awarded an autographed baseball signed by David Ortiz, a booster box of MLB Showdown (similar to a hobby box) and an 8×10 photo of Eric Gagne.
“They were great seats, two rows up above the field level seats (just under covering in case of poor weather) and even with first base.” From a casual player to a regional champion, Lotito still plays the game to this day whenever brave enough opponents surface, and can be found discussing the nuances of roster construction in Facebook groups like “Bring Back MLB Showdown Cards.”
The Dark Ages (2006-2019)
After Wizards of the Coast elected to stop printing MLB Showdown after the 2005 set, the game started to fade in popularity as collectors could no longer anticipate a new release. While this was frustrating for collectors, MLB Showdown had a sustainable functionality that would allow the game to outlast other annual releases like video games that were quickly replaced with the new version year after year.
Wizards of the Coast would not comment on why they stopped producing MLB Showdown, but a blog post by Douglas Snazel from 2005 illustrates why he thought the game failed. In the post, Snazel states, “MLB Showdown suffered from inflated expectations…WOTC expected huge sales numbers for MLB Showdown and while initial base set sales were arguably quite healthy, the bloated expectations surrounding Wizards at that time, made MLB Showdown a disappointment in the eyes that matter most in the company.”
Some players stuck with the game, but others moved on to something else after the last card was printed in 2005. From 2006-2019, cards were very inexpensive compared to recent sales. Most foils could be picked up for $1-10 and rarely did you have to shell out more than $20 for a card. Entire collections could be purchased for very reasonable bulk prices.
The Comeback (2020-????)
Right around the start of 2020, something strange started to happen to the MLB Showdown market. What began as a slow rise in January was inflated by COVID-19 and the fact that more people than ever were forced to stay at home. With more time at the house, many were reconnecting with old hobbies.
Since its inception, MLB Showdown cards were relatively affordable. Most booster boxes were less than $100 at most card stores and foils could be bought for $1-10 for the most part. This remained true for nearly 20 years, when suddenly the MLB Showdown market saw a significant surge alongside the continued revival of the baseball card market.
One recent sale of note was a 2003 Pennant Run Ivan Rodriguez “Super Season” foil. It began as a .99 cent no reserve auction and sold for $162.50 after 57 bids. The same card has sold for as little as $20-30, but it was the last card the winning bidder needed for his set and there were no others available at that time on eBay. It’s an interesting example of the potential upside for these cards if the demand continues to challenge the remaining supply.
The winning bidder, Allen Eckhouse, has now completed every base and expansion set released by MLB Showdown. “Knowing it was the final card I needed for the set, I probably would have gone up to $200,” Eckhouse said.
A few years ago, Eckhouse made a Top 100 bucket list and completing the master set was one he cherished because of the memories from growing up. He remembers going to the card shop with his dad, when he first was introduced to the game. “Growing up in the Cleveland area, there was a shop called Mr. Cards and Comics. At the time, they were mostly into new and old comics, traditional baseball trading cards, and Magic the Gathering,” said Eckhouse.
“We popped in one day to see MLB Showdown on sale next to the Magic the Gathering cards. “My dad bought me a starter and some boosters and the rest is history.”
Like Eckhouse, many others have found a reason to rediscover the game of MLB Showdown. This has driven the price up of some of the most coveted foils, but you can still build a formidable team on a very limited budget. The hard part is finding cards, as only a handful of booster boxes remain on eBay and even websites that were dedicated to selling MLB Showdown and similar products have dried up. A booster box now will cost you $200-500, depending on what year you buy.
You can also find cards on COMC, Showdowncards.com, and a few other select websites. There is also a Facebook group called “Bring Back MLB Showdown Cards” that has more than 700 members, and can be a great resource to find cards. But, just ask Eckhouse about how long he had to wait to find the Rodriguez foil and the rarity of some of these cards becomes evident. Whenever they do pop up online, they don’t last long online.
“I think I saw one maybe 6 or so months ago that was listed in the $50 range,” Eckhouse noted. “At that time, I was still making trades and acquiring other foils I needed, so I figured I’d get around to it at some point.” It took almost a year to find it, but he did, and now he sports the “Holy Grail” of MLB Showdown collecting and can check another item off his bucket list.
Simple, Yet Brilliant
So what caused this resurgence? For a game that is two decades old, why was there a sudden surge in interest? The fact that the pandemic allowed many to rediscover old hobbies because they had more time at home is certainly a factor. That being said, there are several other features that are unique to MLB Showdown that has made it a game that you can still play 20 years after it was first introduced.
One reason is the resemblance to an older era of baseball cards. Some who collect modern cards become irritated by the vast amount of production and seemingly endless variations. Any one given player could have 100+ variations per year between the various MLBPA-licensed products.
What was brilliant about MLB Showdown is that their sets resembled vintage Topps sets–one variation of each player per set, with foils being short-printed similar to old Topps cards that were “high numbers” and subsequently more rare. Then, right after the trading deadline when players were changing teams, MLB Showdown would release their expansion subsets that were similar to what Topps did with Series 1 and 2.
It also appears these cards weren’t overproduced like many baseball cards from that era, as Wizards of the Coast was unaware how the market would respond to this concept in 2000. It’s reasonable to conclude that print runs may have been significantly lower than most sports cards from that era, although there are no public records of these numbers.
Another variable that could also drive up value is the fact that very few collectors were conscious about the condition of these cards, thus leading to a large amount of them being in played condition and far less than mint. Population numbers for high-grade MLB Showdown cards are even lower, which can be attributed to a lower demand for grading these cards compared to traditional sports cards, but also due to a large population being damaged. Furthermore, it lends some credibility to the low print run theory.
Many Showdown cards have dice marks, scuffs, worn corners and other imperfections because of the nature of gameplay. With so few booster boxes available on the market–which would presumably be the best bet for near-mint/mint cards–it does beg the question about how many of these cards still exist in high grade form.
For example, a PSA 9 2001 Albert Pujols MLB Showdown card recently sold for $70, and currently has a population of 30 with only nine graded higher. But some other notable stars have even lower population numbers, considering a PSA 10 2004 Derek Jeter MLB Showdown card has a population of only four, with none graded higher.
The market has shown that cards don’t have to be from Topps or Bowman to be sought after, often rare and unique cards outsell their overproduced counterparts. That being said, it will be interesting to observe the evolution of the MLB Showdown grading market in the next few years. Below is a look at some of the ungraded sales over the past several months on eBay.
Top Selling MLB Showdown Singles
- 2003 MLB Showdown Barry Bonds Base Set Foil ($180)
- 2003 MLB Showdown Ivan Rodriguez “Super Season” Foil ($165)
- 2002 MLB Showdown Barry Bonds Base Set Foil ($100)
- 2002 MLB Showdown Barry Bonds Pennant Run “Super Season” Foil ($90)
- 2003 MLB Showdown Rod Carew Pennant Run “Cooperstown” Foil ($80)
- 2004 MLB Showdown Joe Morgan Trading Deadline “Cooperstown” Foil ($70)
- 2005 MLB Showdown Nolan Ryan Trading Deadline “Cooperstown” Foil ($65)
- 2004 MLB Showdown Bob Gibson Trading Deadline “Cooperstown” Foil ($65)
- 2004 MLB Showdown Mike Schmidt Trading Deadline “Cooperstown” Foil ($60)
- 2004 MLB Showdown Willie McCovey Pennant Run “Cooperstown” Foil ($60)
Honorable Mention ($40-50)
2005 Base Set Johan Santana Foil, 2005 Trading Deadline Reggie Jackson “Cooperstown” Foil, 2005 Trading Deadline Harmon Killebrew “Cooperstown” Foil, 2003 Pennant Run Harmon Killebrew “Cooperstown” Foil, 2003 Pennant Run Nolan Ryan “Cooperstown” Foil, 2004 Trading Deadline Warren Spahn “Cooperstown” Foil, 2001 Pennant Run Alex Rodriguez Foil, 2001 Base Set Barry Bonds Foil, 2003 Pennant Run Hoyt Wilhelm “Cooperstown” Foil, 2002 Pennant Run Mike Piazza “Super Season” Foil.
You can see the current list of MLB Showdown cards on eBay below.
The Future of MLB Showdown
It will be intriguing to watch if these cards continue to dry up, or if the recent market surge will bring about a large population of cards that were sitting dormant. Regardless, it’s a game that can be played today, or 20 years from now. All you need is a team, a playmat and a dice and you are ready to roll—literally.
Even if you don’t play the game itself, the cards have an appealing design and could see some crossover from the baseball card collector. Whether or not they see a price spike like Pokemon or Magic the Gathering is yet to be seen, but the debate will likely be settled by simple supply and demand.