Monday, June 1, 2020

Orioles Victory Card Number Twenty-Two (1987 Season Edition): The One Where We Talk About Project 2020

Baltimore Orioles Victory #22: 5-4 over the Oakland Athletics

2020 Topps Project 2020 Cal Ripken, Jr. #50 by Gregory Siff

With the sporting world on hold due to the novel coronavirus shutting down the world for a few months we here at The Hopeful Chase are going to our rain delay programming. For the last two seasons we've posted a baseball card following every Baltimore Orioles victory (I know, talk about the minimum commitment required). It's fun and keeps us writing about baseball and collecting. Rather than sit back and stare forlornly at the outside world we've decided to continue the series with a season from the past.  The season of choice - 1987. Please enjoy.

Ah, the latest elephant in the card collecting living room - Topps Project 2020. From derision to delight, from overpriced to overwhelming profit, the ongoing on-line release from Topps has definitely generated a ton of publicity. 

For those not familiar with the project, earlier this year Topps announced that they would take 20 iconic rookie cards and have 20 different artists produce an original design based on each of the cards. The cards would be released every business day (two per day) and would be open for purchase for 48 hours. The print run would be however many cards were purchased in those 48 hours. Each card would also have an Artist's Proof version limited to 20 - we'll get back to the Artist's Proofs in a minute.

Personally I was intrigued and was intending to only buy the Cal Ripken, Jr. cards that I liked. Once I saw the price point ($19.99 per card or $34.99 for both of the days cards) I was a little put off. That seemed like a pretty steep investment for a personal collection card.

The initial response was...mixed, but leaning a little heavily to the negative. Each day Topps would post the two cards that were being released and the response on social media tended to go along the lines of:

"Oh my god, this is so ugly"

"How could they destroy a classic card like that?"

"Topps is ruining the hobby!"

"F*CK Topps"

"Where is the Mantle rookie?"

"Eh...I kind of like it."

Sales weren't overly impressive.  Card number one - a 2001 Ichiro rookie by Ben Baller had a print run of only 1,334. For the first few weeks the print runs stayed around that number. Of the first 20 cards released, only three had print runs about 2,000 cards.  The first card to really pop was the first Derek Jeter card to hit the mix - card number 29. Designed by King Saladeen, the Yankee icon hit a then record print run of 9,873 cards. Not bad. 

On the secondary market there wasn't much movement. If you missed a card you could still pick it up for a minimal mark-up, or in some cases, a discount. In mid-April, when it was initially released, the Jeter card was routinely closing on eBay for around $25.00. A little mark-up for the flippers, but not much.

A few days later, a Mike Trout by Andrew Thiele cracked the 10,000 barrier by having a print run of 13,200. Still, it was a bit of an outlier, but it seemed like a little traction was being made. More cards were topping 2,000 in their print runs and pricing was starting to pick up on the secondary market.

Then, two cards were released that made this project catch fire. First was #51 - a Mike Trout by Ben Baller that looked phenomenal. It blew away previous sales by hitting 34,950. Not only were collectors coming around, but it seemed like fans of the artists themselves were starting to get on board. 

The other card that helped blow things up came a few days later. Keith Shore, who had already released a few other cards had his interpretation of Bob Gibson's 1959 card drop. Only 1,451 of these cards were produced, but it also led to a Sporting News post declaring it the "worst baseball card ever manufactured".

You know that cliche that there is no such thing as bad press? Well, here's an example of that being the case. As more and more mainstream media articles delved into the project, sales on the secondary market skyrocketed. Remember that Jeter card you could get for $25? By mid-may it was closing for closer to $125. The same goes for most of those cards. 

Attention wasn't the only factor going into the rise in interest. The artists themselves were pushing the product and fans of their work who had no previous reason to collect baseball cards were starting to get in on the action. Collectors who had been stuck at home with no new product gave in and started buying. People who hadn't had an interested in cards for decades, but rediscovered them as they were doing some COVID Cleaning got back into the hobby and bought them. Flippers, seeing the market start to climb started buying more cards. 

People who had bought the early releases for personal collections couldn't resist the prices they were seeing on-line and started to sell their copies. This thing just took off. It probably helps that a few people received their stimulus checks and tax refunds and may have had a little discretionary income to spend and no where else to spend it since many businesses were still closed. 

Whatever the reasons were, it was a perfect storm for these cards. 

I had made one purchase rather early on - the Ripken card you see above by Gregory Siff. I bought it because I liked it. I also picked up the Sandy Koufax by Andrew Thiele, figuring I could at least get some money back or trade it to a Dodger collector for a nice Orioles card.

When I did finally get them in hand, I checked eBay just to see what they were going for (assuming it would be around $20-$30). My jaw hit the floor when they were closing for $90 all day long. It was a no brainer at that point and I quickly listed the Koufax and accepted an offer a few hours later. It was one of the quickest sales I ever made and it set me up to make some purchases in the future.  In the end, if I had held onto it for another week or so I would have made a little more money, but I sold it at a price I was comfortable at and don't regret it.

Since then the prices seem to have reached a point where they've stabilized. That Jeter card was selling for almost $200 last week, but has since dropped a bit. There is still a crazy demand for the early cards, but with print runs numbering in the 20,000-40,000 range the newer cards aren't experiencing quite as dramatic of a price change. You're still making money on cards you buy, but not quite at the mark-up of some early cards.

So what o I think of overall of this project? I like it. Topps tried something new, although it's a logical progression from The Living Set series that has gone on for a couple of years. I don't like all of the cards that are released, but that's the beauty of the project. Art is subjective, what I think is bad, plenty of people may really, really like. The reverse is true, what I think is awesome may be shat upon by millions.

I did have to stop looking at the comments on social media when Topps announces their daily releases because of comments such as the ones I listed above. As is in most cases, reading the comments is a dumb thing to do in the first place, but I just don't get the hate and the vitriol that some people have. If you don't like it, fine, that's great, don't buy it.

There are collectors out there that act like Topps is forcing everyone to buy every product out there. The beauty of this hobby is that there are so many different ways to approach it, so many different products to buy. Not everything released will appeal to everyone out there. For instance I don't have any interest whatsoever in the current version of Topps Total cards. So I ignore it. There is no need for me to get bent out of shape and post comments on social media every time they release a new wave. What good does that do anyway? Not everything in this hobby needs my comment on it.

For the "ruining the hobby" crowd. Hell, if anything it's probably keeping them in business right now. It's a mystery as to what their costs are to produce these cards, but based on the sales they are definitely generating revenue. Since it's a print on demand product they're also not wasting any cards. Everything they've made, they've sold. In a time when new releases are a bit scarce or on hold, it has to be comforting for them to know that they have a consistent stream of revenue coming in with this product.

There are some valid complaints. Remember those Artist's Proofs I talked about? It seems getting those directly from Topps (at a cost of $199.99 per card) is nigh on impossible. Could Topps distribute those in a more fair manner than first come, first serve? Probably, but in the end does Topps care - probably not. They are a business and selling 40 cards at $200 a shot for five days a week is what they care about. 

The lag time in production is a problem as well. It does take weeks for these cards to actually ship and receive in hand. Some of it is demand (there are persistent rumors that Topps has problems keeping te  one-touch cases that these cards ship in  in stock) and some of it may be related to the virus shutting things down. I doubt Topps is operating with a full staff, and the increased number of cards being bought hasn't made things easy.

I also wonder how the resale value of these cards will hold up once the project is over or once baseball and other diversions return. Will this product become out-of-sight, out-of-mind once it's over or once Topps come up with another project? Should I sell my Ripken now and gamble that prices will drop if this is the latest passing fad?

I remember selling a Shohei Ohtani Topps Living Set for almost $70 when that was a hot product. Now I could buy it for $3 on eBay. Will there be a similar burst in this bubble or will the very nature of this product help keep some if it's value? There are a couple of difference between this and the Living Set cards.

For one, this is a limited set. There will only be 400 cards made and they will all be different. That appeals to set collectors, player collectors, and art collectors. Theoretically, The Living Set could go on forever. As long as major league baseball is played, Topps can drop two cards a week for the rest of eternity. That's an exhausting thought. 

Also, as nice as the cards look in The Living Set, they are all pretty much the same since they are based on the 1953 set. Part of the fun of Project 2020 is the variety of the cards. It is fun looking forward to each card as it's released, even the ones I personally don't care for. Even the cards that individual artists produce are unique. Keith Shore has 20 cards and while they are done in the same style, since they are of 20 players on them they are all different in their own way. I think that will have them hold some value even as time moves past this project.

So what are your thoughts? If Topps does another version of this, what cards or artists would you like to see represented?

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