There have been scandals in sports that have had ripple effects on the hobby before. But this one seems different.
In a matter of a week, a Twitter/X post, a mid-game disappearance from the Tampa Bay Rays dugout and the announcement of an investigation by Major League Baseball have mothballed most activity for baseball cards of a player who was the most widely invested rookie to ever enter the game.
Nothing has ever hit the sports card industry quite like the predicament that Wander Franco finds himself in. The few graded rookie cards that have been listed on eBay last week were selling for prices below the cost of grading.
Never before has the hobby seen a mass-exodus from a red-hot star who has been in the news and portrayed in a negative light quite like this. People still collect cards and memorabilia of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose despite gambling ties. Dozens of NFL players have been under investigation or arrested for domestic violence, and Cleveland Browns star quarterback DeShaun Watson had 22 civil lawsuits in front of him, many involving sexual misconduct and assault. All but one have been settled. But some collectors still want their cards.
Michael Vick, who drove the hobby in 2001, remained popular early in his career, though he did not measure up to Payton Manning, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees in the collectibles market. Then Vick was arrested and sent to prison in a dog fighting scandal, missing two seasons. Even though he came back and continued his career, Vick was not nearly as sought after in the hobby, but he still had an audience.
Then there are the steroid scandals. The hobby saw a drop in interest of Fernando Tatis Jr. cards during his suspension, but he is slowly climbing out of the hobby dog house. There will always be some demand for Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Alex Rodriguez cards, despite their ties to performance enhancing drugs. Their card values have always been lower because they are from an era when steroid use was rampant, and the overproduction of cards was even more rampant. But no collector would ever turn down a chance to meet any of those baseball legends and get an autographed ball.
Twenty years ago, Kobe Bryant was accused of committing rape. That case was a much higher profile case than what Franco is going through, but it is similar in the way that both were at the top of hobby hot lists when the incidents allegedly occurred. Bryant was never found guilty, his wife publicly forgave him, and within a few seasons all was forgotten and his cards today are as popular as ever.
And let’s not forget that even OJ Simpson was sitting in prison signing autographs for Signature Rookies in the mid-90s.
But Wander Franco’s situation is unchartered territory, and it seems like no one in the hobby wants to be a part of it for now, and most are just waiting to see what happens before they make any decisions about buying or selling his cards.
The entire situation began with a social media post of Franco pictured with a girl believed to be 14 years old. On Sunday, Aug. 13, Franco was not in the line-up for Tampa’s game against Cleveland. He left the Rays’ dugout in the middle of the game.
After the game, the Rays released a statement regarding the situation.
“We were made aware of the social media posts that are circulating regarding Wander Franco. We take the situation seriously and are in close contact with Major League Baseball as it conducts its due diligence,” the statement read.
On Monday, Aug. 14, the Dominican Republic attorney general’s office confirmed that Franco was under investigation for an alleged relationship with a minor. The age of consent in the Dominican Republic is 18. Last week, the Associated Press reported that the investigation into Franco is open under The National Agency for Boys, Girls, Adolescents and Family and Gender Violence Unit.
On Tuesday morning of this week, MLB in conjunction with its players, placed Franco on administrative leave “until further notice as MLB continues its ongoing investigation.” The move is not considered disciplinary. Franco will be paid and accrue service time.
Franco is married with two sons. His oldest son was born in 2018 when Franco was 17 and his now wife was 16. They had another son in 2022.
The age of consent in the Dominican Republic is 18. If Franco is charged and found guilty, he will likely never play baseball again.
Everybody’s Favorite Prospect
Before Wander Franco made it to the Major Leagues, he was considered the top prospect in baseball. He was the first player ever in the FanGraphs era to receive a score of 80. Franco was a five-tool projected superstar and generational talent.
Franco made his Major League debut June 22, 2021. After a walk and a long fly ball to the warning track center, Franco hit a three-run bomb to left to send the already excited Tropicana Field crowd into a frenzy. At 20 years and 113 days old, he became the eighth youngest player to homer in his debut since 1901. The Rays wasted no time in signing him to an 11-year, $182 million extension.
While all eyes were already on him, the reaction was predictable and immediate. The Topps Now card of his MLB debut recorded the fastest sell-out ever for the program. While there is no stat or comparison for this, it’s hard to imagine that there is a player with a higher percentage of his existing cards in the market being graded than Franco. As of August 1, there were well over 25,000 graded Franco cards out there.
This season, Franco is coming into his own. In is second full Major League season, he made it to the All-Star Game. He is hitting .281 with 17 home runs and an OPS of .819 while being one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball.
All Over The Map
By looking at what is happening regarding auctions, it is a completely different terrain than it was a month ago for Franco baseball cards. Some are just getting rid of them, while many buyers and sellers are taking a wait and see what happens approach. Some are scooping them up at discount prices in case this entire thing blows over and he keeps playing. The concern there is that the public opinion of Franco will be tarnished. If history repeats itself, you have to consider that many athletes, including Bryant, have had their popularity and collector demand recover from scandal over time.
There were actually more Franco cards sold on eBay in the seven-day period after Franco was pulled from the lineup than in the week before but prices have dipped.
The first item that comes up in a search of eBay is a buy-it-now for PSA 10 2021 Bowman’s Best Refractor RCs. The cards are selling for just $38.50.
Another buy-it-now listing is a PSA/DNA Gem Mint 10 2021 Topps Now autographed card selling for $54.99.
The Card Ladder index for Franco over the past week tells the tale even without the numbers.
There are some cards that are still commanding some big dollars, but the days of a PSA 10 2019 Bowman Chrome Refractor autograph selling for well over $10,000 are gone, at least for now. Over 35 Franco cards have sold for $10,000 or more on eBay alone since the beginning of last year. Those who invested and held have to be second guessing their move.
It’s clear that everyone is distancing themselves from the star. In addition to the hobby just putting anything and everything, including demand, on hold, the Rays are also stepping back.
Bally Sports televises Rays games locally. They have a popular Rays Up commercial that has been running throughout the year. It features Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats providing play-by-play of many great Rays moments. The highlight of the commercial was Franco making a barehanded catch in center field while the narrator talked about “Wander Magic”. As he made the catch, Staats excitedly asks, “Is he for real?” The Franco clip was edited out of the commercial this week.
Franco has denied all allegations against him. One of the reasons the hobby was drawn to him was because he was so personable and likeable. People are hoping he is innocent, and that this will all go away. Even if it does, it will take time before we see Franco on the field again.
What this has taught the hobby is that we collect and invest in projected superstars based on their talent and potential. But the players on these cards are human, and sometimes they make mistakes or have character flaws. They are people, not statistics.