So, in 2018, I took a mostly random trip to Target to pick up some Bowman cards looking for a valuable Shohei Ohtani card. I mean, I struck out and all and I’m still not entirely sure what I was looking for. Nevertheless, it was kind of entertaining for this vintage collector that mostly stays out of the modern card market.
With warmer-than-normal weather over the weekend, I had an itch. Aside from the grilling I did, I had a particular desire for some cardboard. Typically, said itch is scratched by heading to eBay and picking up a tobacco or caramel card.
This weekend, it was something else.
See, I’d been hearing about this thing called Optic a lot on Twitter lately. Let me be clear, I did not really know what Optic is. At least I didn’t until this weekend. Turns out Optic is a brand under the Donruss label, which is of course under Panini. All kinds of chatter has been happening surrounding Donruss Optic basketball, mostly because of Zion Williamson rookies. I think.
Yes, if you’re a collector of current cards, I realize you now think I live under a rock.
The weather was nice and Target was conveniently located next to my regular car wash, which my filthy car desperately needed. Why not? Let’s go buy some of this Optic and see what the fuss is all about!
Problem is, there was none to be had. There was last year’s Optic baseball and football along with a gaggle of other boxes that were unfamiliar to me. But this Optic basketball stuff, as I was forewarned would likely be the case, was nowhere to be found.
So I’m not really the kind of guy to go to a store and not buy anything. I mean, that’s just sort of a waste. So I was determined to buy something and buy something I did. I picked up two $20 boxes of wrasslin’ cards and Star Wars cards and was on my way. But before I did, there were a few things about the modern cards on display that I noticed as a guy that almost exclusively collects vintage.
Now, the price of modern cards has not been lost on me. I don’t really collect much of it but I don’t live under a rock, either. I try to keep up with prices of cards out there and have an idea where the market is.
But seeing all of those shiny boxes reinforced one thing — it’s got to be hard as a younger collector these days than it was when I was growing up in the junk wax era. Back then, I could buy cards for $.50-$1 a pack pretty easily. Many of the packs I spotted in the card section at Target were of the jumbo-sized variety and in the $5-$10 range with some boxes a bit more affordable. Sure, you could get some boxes for about $20 but the “blasters” contained fewer than ten packs with a modest number of cards in them. 1987 Topps they were not.
Now, $20 isn’t a ton of money by today’s standards. But for younger kids trying to collect, you just get the sense that many have to be priced out. Even for many adults trying to feed families, $20 is not something to be taken all that lightly in terms of disposable income to spend on baseball cards. Plus, even assuming kids can play ball at that level, again, you’re talking about the most basic of products available. Stuff gets significantly more expensive from there or, like in the case of Optic basketball, you may not even be able to find it.
Conversely, these higher-priced cards are what have attracted many adults to the hobby. Spending hundreds of dollars on boxes is commonplace and the overwhelming since seems to be that the hobby is doing quite well — it just appeals to a different audience these days.
The Thrill of the Rip
Aside from being a Star Wars and WWE fan, I had two main motivations for selecting the boxes I did. First, each box had ten packs of cards in it with a bonus pack with some sort of ‘prize card.’ That was a bit more than 7-8 I’d seen advertised for the more major sports.
Second, I wanted to see if I could score an autograph. I’m hardly an autograph collector but pulling an autograph from a pack would provide some degree of thrill.
In hindsight, looking at the somewhat astronomical odds of securing an autograph, I would have been wise to rethink that strategy. Pulling one seemed akin to winning a virtual lottery. But getting at least ten packs of each one with the bonus pack, I still felt like that wasn’t a ridiculous price. That was until I realized these were basically non-sport cards and still cost about $2 a pack.
After I got home, I gave it more thought. I had really bought the cards based on securing an autograph or a valuable insert. This wasn’t necessarily about trying to make money, though. Rather, I just wanted the feeling that I got over on the man by finding a rare card with little effort. Yep, make no mistake about it. This entire purchase was driven, almost entirely, by trying to find a chase card. I didn’t care about the base cards because these weren’t sets I had any interest in collecting. And I didn’t even care about the inexpensive inserts that were too numerous to count. This was 100%, unabashedly about trying to strike gold. And if it was that way for me as a set collector spending a relatively modest sum that doesn’t even care much about this stuff, it’s got to be that way for someone spending significant money on this stuff.
This type of card buying isn’t for set collectors because I imagine you’d be far better off simply buying an entire set of something you wanted. This is all about the hits, boys and girls.
Availability, as I learned in that hunt for 2018 Bowman cards and now the Donruss Optic basketball cards, is not guaranteed as it used to be. When I was a kid, cards were mass produced that there wasn’t a shortage on much of anything.
Sure, your local card shop may not have had a particular item. But typically, they could get it. These days, though, finding hot product isn’t guaranteed in the slightest because card companies have really cut back on production. In the end, that’s a good thing as it should help the cards to retain some value. But as a collector looking for these sorts of products, it would be kind of frustrating if the only way you could get them was by buying them online at a significant markup.
As an aside to that, the trip to Target really showed me that stores like this are de facto card shops of a sort. No, there’s no trading or selling, obviously. And that Target worker named Steve with a red vest probably isn’t going to be able to give you a book value of a card you pull in the parking lot. But with brick and mortar shops not nearly as plentiful as they once were, other than buying cards online, heading to your local Target or Wal-Mart is as close as a legitimate card shop that some folks might have.
That, too, is kind of a shame. When I was a kid, going to card shops was how you met other collectors, caught up on what’s hot, sold some of your cards or made trades. It’s just a much more distant hobby these days for most people, with much of our business conducted online.
Last Year’s News is Old News
Another thought that came to me was that cards, even just a year old, seem to be basically treated like the plague. Much of that, I suppose, depends on the rookies that can be found. After all, barring some kind of an injury or dramatic sophomore slump, Zion rookies should continue to be hot next year. But the promise of most of those rookies evaporates quicker than you can say, well, Shohei Ohtani.
While the 2020 stuff was in short supply, loads of 2019 packs were there, accounted for, and just waiting to be opened. It’s amazing how short the shelf life is for this kind of stuff and flippers in this game to make a buck must have to unload this cards incredibly quickly before the next big thing comes out.
It goes without saying but vintage collectors simply don’t have that problem. Card values do go up and down based on demand but most pre-war baseball cards have been on a steady rise for decades now. That’s not to say it’s necessarily better or worse but you simply don’t experience the kind of swings you see with modern issues because player careers have long since been settled.
What I Found
So the most important question – what’d I get? Nothing of any great importance, I’m afraid.
The inserts I got were all pretty common and, scoring an average of more than one per pack, they just didn’t feel all that special. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the cards of Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing, Charlotte Flair, or Anakin Skywalker turning full heel into Darth Vader under Order 66. But did I like them enough that I would have purchased singles of them otherwise? Nah.
The cards in those special packs? Well, I got a mat-used card for EC3, who is basically at jobber level in the WWE right now, and some kind of patch card for Princess Leia. A quick scan on eBay shows a combined value of somewhere in the neighborhood of $10. Maybe. Woof.
In the end, I spent $40 on cards, a little on gas, and wound up with not too much to show for my efforts. By contrast, I got this small lot of 1930s Goudey cards a few weeks ago for about the same price, including Hall of Famer Joe Cronin that should grade nicely.
The opening of the packs was fun but fleeting. Meanwhile, the low-grade Goudey cards will go towards filling holes in building some of the most iconic baseball card sets of the 1930s. I don’t think I need to tell you which I enjoy more.
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