On Deck Sportscards & Collectibles owner Rick Paul remembers when a young, extremely talented center fielder hit the big leagues for the Atlanta Braves in 1996.
Andruw Jones had it all: youthful energy since he was just a teenager, a great bat, exceptional range in the outfield and a cannon for an arm.
Nearly a quarter century later, Braves fans are spoiled again with the rise of another golden boy center fielder: Ronald Acuna Jr.
The 2018 National League Rookie of the Year followed up his freshman campaign by collecting 41 home runs and driving in 101 runs in 2019. He narrowly missed entering the 40/40 club, getting shut down by his manager late in the season to prepare for the playoffs and finishing with 37 stolen bases.
“Twenty-one years old and he’s already dominating,” Orlando Sports Cards South owner Kendall Loyd said before Acuna turned 22 in December.
Acuna’s value as a player has skyrocketed in the past year, just like his baseball cards. But unlike Jones’ cards from the mid-‘90s, there are plenty more options for Acuna rookie cards.
Before making his Major League Baseball debut April 25, 2018, Acuna was highly touted as the top-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America. The last Braves player to be ranked No. 1? You guessed it, Mr. Jones.
Prospectors knew Acuna’s name during his quick rise through the minors, and collectors sought out his cards.
“He’s by far the hottest thing, as you can imagine,” said Bob Pressley, who owns B.P. Sports Collectibles in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, Ga. “From the longtime collectors to the kids, he’s the hot commodity.”
Bowman jumped on the bandwagon with Acuna’s first officially licensed product in the 2017 Bowman Chrome Prospects where he has base, autograph and color refractor variations. When Acuna hit the bigs in the 2018 season, Topps added him to its Series 2, but in a super short print (SSP) run. Known as the “bat down” version of his Topps rookie, the short print is a favorite of collectors. The 2018 Topps complete set features a different image of Acuna, “bat up,” which is less valuable.
Pressley has collectors entering his shop daily looking for Acuna cards.
“The kids are more interested in the cards because they’re more reasonable per say,” Pressley said. “If there’s a dad or a collector of autographs, they’re looking for the baseballs and bats. All of a sudden you jump out of a $10-$20 price range to $100-plus or $200. They’re looking for anything premium -- the rookie cards just keep skyrocketing. Anything with the insert cards that have been autographed.”
As Acuna’s popularity continues to climb, so do his card prices. A 2018 Bowman Chrome Prospects auto gold refractor /50 graded 9.5 by BGS was listed on eBay for $29,999.99 at the end of October. An orange refractor /25 was posted at the same time on eBay for $15,000.
For Acuna’s base rookie, the 2018 Topps Series 2 super short print “bat down” card has exploded. One seller had an eye-popping price tag of $2,999.95 on eBay for a PSA 10. The lowest price for that same card in a PSA gem mint 10 was $900.
“It’s almost like nowadays if you didn’t jump on the bandwagon a year or two ago then it’s tough for a dealer to go out and bring in more stuff and be able to possibly sell it because nobody’s really wholesaling it or parting with it because they all know how well it’s selling retail-wise,” Pressley said.
Paul, whose On Deck Sportscards & Collectibles shop is located in the Atlanta suburb Lawrenceville, isn’t surprised by how much the Acuna rookie cards have spiked in price.
“Honestly since (Mike) Trout, every year people go after, they’ll pick a certain three or four guys,” Paul said. “Everybody’s looking for the next Trout. I don’t think there will be another Trout, but that just seems like it’s been going the last three or four years.”
When the Braves used to hold spring training in Orlando, Loyd would have Braves fans in daily looking for everything related to Acuna. Now that the Braves have moved starting next season, Loyd doesn’t see as many diehard Braves fans. However, the average baseball card collector wants a piece of Acuna.
“He’s about as good as it gets for young players,” Loyd said. “Trout is always the best, but I don’t think people even try for him anymore because no one has Trout rookies. They don’t ask for them much because nobody has them. I never have them, maybe once or twice a year. Acuna’s at least a guy that I do have, and I do have a lot of them and they all sell.”
Pressley, who has been in the business for over 30 years, is a little shocked by the extraordinary prices for Acuna.
“That’s the problem sometimes when you talk to some of us old-timers, all of us are surprised with the pricing – whether it’s that, whether it’s autographs,” Pressley said.
Pressley recalls when it was easy to pick up Chipper Jones rookie cards in 1991 for a quarter. The shop owner had the future Hall of Famer in for signings three or four times before the young third baseman hit it big.
“Heck, look at what you can get for some of these graded cards or an autograph card of Acuna that was an insert,” Pressley said. “You and I might be able to buy a ’59 Mickey Mantle for that price or a ’65 Mantle for that price, and the Acuna’s already selling at that price. It’s an interesting business now.”
For collectors who are interested in Acuna cards but don’t want to pay a fortune, there are affordable options on the market, Paul said. The 2018 Bowman Hi Tek autograph card can be picked up for around $100.
“The Topps Heritage is pretty popular for a base rookie that’s not too crazy expensive for him,” Paul said.
Paul tries to keep up with demand and carry as many Acuna cards in his shop as possible. But he generally has to go on eBay to stock up on the Braves sensation.
“Nobody here in Atlanta is going to pull an Acuna card and sell it back,” Paul joked. “Not going to happen.”
Oftentimes Paul can buy Acuna cards for a little cheaper online and sell them in the high-demand Atlanta market.
“You still have to be smart,” Paul said. “You have to pick up a good deal or a ‘buy it now’ or something online. In today’s world, if you’re a shop, you can’t mark it up too much for what it’s going to sell for online. Most of the buyers are pretty educated these days.”
Acuna caught some slack this year for his attitude on the diamond – e.g. not fully running out what he perceives as a home run which turns into a long single. His hustle was called into question in his second season.
Loyd calls Acuna somewhat of a “hotdog.”
“That’s going to have to change or he’s going to turn some people off,” Loyd said.
But if Acuna keeps producing big numbers in the years to come, he could be the future face of the sport.
“He’s got a chance,” Loyd said. “He’s on a good, young team. Everything’s lined up perfect: you’ve got to have a combination of power and speed, and he has it.”
Acuna and Washington Nationals fellow 21-year-old Juan Soto are drawing comparisons to Trout and Bryce Harper nearly a decade ago.
Card dealers emphasize anyone looking to buy Acuna cards should act during the sport’s offseason. Prices are at the best – at least they should stay stagnant -- when people aren’t watching Acuna at the plate every day.
So, what does the future hold for Acuna cards?
“If only my crystal ball was operational today,” Paul joked. “That’s all up to him.”
Said Pressley: “Maybe the best answer is, nothing surprises me. If you told a lot of us five years ago some of these prices on rookies are where they are now, we just wouldn’t believe it. I guess as long as our business and hobby stay hot, yes, I could see Acuna cards keep climbing.”