How a Nationals fan decided to sell Juan Soto’s baseball card


This is a story about fandom, loyalty and money, how the business of sports often clashes with simple pleasures.

In some ways it’s about love. In many ways it is about Juan Soto. But mostly about a A man named Bryce Onaran and a baseball card. It will start in 2018.

Everything that happens after that – Onaran opens a package; He promised not to immediately sell what was his prized possession; A winding emotional journey to break that convention, it leads to a windowless room in northern New Jersey, somewhere between a thrift store and a nail salon – starting with a little plastic and off-road.

And a very expensive piece of plastic.

How much is it worth? That remains the golden question after Onaran bids Soto’s rookie card this spring. Because what does “worth it,” a tricky word, even mean to someone who was once interested in attending games, spending money on beer and parking, until he can’t afford it? Onaran was first diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2001. For more than a decade, he has balanced his health issues with work and his love of watching DC sports in person. So when he needed another fix, when chemo and back pain made it difficult to leave the house in northwest Washington, let alone stand in line or spend hours in stadium seats, Onaran turned to cards.

He did not discriminate. A case under his basement stairs is filled with NBA rookie cards. Everything in a box or three-ring binder is listed in spreadsheets on his laptop. It’s part pre-retirement project, part coping mechanism, part way to avoid feeling isolated while staring at stacks of medical bills. He promised not to make money. He was after a little fun.

That’s why he kept looking out the window in October 2018, waiting for a shipment from Blowout Cards, a trading card store in Northern Virginia.

After Soto debuted that year, Topps was rolling out the first Soto starters in an updated series for 2018. Impatient that week, Onara bought a few single packs hoping to land any Soto cards before sending them off Blowout. But none were found. Onaran thought the same old luck, until the package arrived, he tore open one of the 24 packages, caught a glimpse of Soto and…

yes. It was there. One of only 10 in the world.

“It’s not for sale,” Onaran said shortly after, sharing a photo of Soto’s rookie on Blowout’s online forum. “I’m a DC native and die-hard Nats fan. I’m glad I can cry.

This is the story of that card.

‘I have lost all faith in Nats’

When he first opened the package, Onara could not have predicted that they would win the World Series in 2019. Or that Soto, still in his early 20s, would be a full-fledged star in a title run. Or an epidemic that shut down the world but had the opposite effect on the market, causing madness online and in Onaran’s basement. Or the team traded away eight players last summer to begin a rebuild, making it all about the Soto starter.

Or for that matter, the National Field trade this month for the 23-year-old Soto.

“I lost all faith in the Nats,” Onaran, 47, said of his January change of heart. “I don’t think Soto will last. I was sitting on this whole Trea Turner thing… seeing all these Trea Turner cards. I don’t want to go through this with Soto.

Juan Soto was surprised the Nats would trade him. Trea Turner knows the feeling.

So after the 2021 trade deadline sale, Onaran thought about the card the way a front office thinks about a player. If he stays, Soto hopes to sign long-term in Washington, where his collection will be highlighted by a rare find on his favorite team in the city where he grew up. And if Soto stays on the Hall of Fame track. , the value of the card may explode.

But if Soto leaves in the coming years, from the age of 19, his front leg with lightning-quick swing early, a card with the nationals – it will not be the same. Are you looking at memorabilia and immediately thinking of the New York Yankees? What about the Los Angeles Dodgers? Oh my god, the New York Mets? Onaran already learned this with the Turner, Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer cards. Plus, he figured he could use the money now to pay off medical bills and credit card debt.

What happened next shows how quickly one can get frustrated with the smart business of sports. Onaran was placing the card on the market. He had no clue where to begin.

Juan Soto and the evolution of pressure

“Keyhole Through Keyhole”

Onaran is a bit of a concern. His worries about the card included, but were not limited to: the basement flooding, the burglar finding it wrapped in an unmarked plastic bag, a glass of water being spilled and placed in the hard plastic case, insuring it or finding a safe.

Onaran says a man approached him in the parking lot with $10,000 in cash before he figured out the logistics of the sale. The man was trying out a set of Soto starter cards. Onaran’s clear card, one of 10, was the third rarest, making it even cooler to pull out of the $2 pack. So Onaran naturally went to that parking lot and thought he might be robbed.

“I’m the type of person who makes up my mind, and that’s it, that’s where I’m going,” said Karen Onaran, Bryce’s wife of 13 years. “Bryce is the type of person who makes a decision and then gets upset… a lot. He should at least consider what could go wrong and tick that box in his head.”

One debate in Onaran’s head is whether to sell the card itself on eBay or work with an auction house. Another is not being able to graduate the card at all, because as he explains, “a card that has graduated nine will never be 10 mint condition.” On the other hand, an ungraded card can always be a 10 to the untrained eye. But when Onaran realized that the auction house could get him to the front of the score line, the choice was clear.

Card rating for these transactions is imprecise but critical. 10, determined by experts in remote locations, is in about mint condition only. The difference between a 10 and a nine can be significant for card value. The difference between nine and eight can be very deep. Students look at the corners of the cards, the edges, the edges, and how the pictures are centered. Among casual, one-time sellers like Onaran, auction houses and professional collectors may feel they get preferential treatment from grading companies. Partnering with Leland’s, an auction house in Mattawan, NJ, has been one way Onaran has reduced its risk.

“The eBay shipping guys didn’t seem too excited, but these auction house guys seemed pretty excited,” Onaran explained after deciding on Leland. “But someone, he kind of rubbed me the wrong way, he closed the email with ‘let’s do it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, this is a big deal!’ If you’re buying a Lexus, the salesperson isn’t going, ‘Let’s fix it!’ I do not know. I also understand that I am ridiculous.”

This meant a lot to Onaran, even though he was never out for the life-changing money. In fact, he was very interested in the process and in their spare time stole a glimpse behind the curtain. But beyond the emotional hedge against Soto’s departure, there is the possibility of more financial relief.

Onaran was diagnosed with leukemia on August 6, 2001 – the date is tattooed on his right arm – and has struggled ever since. In May 2020, he and Karen had to change their routines when he faced long-term disability due to back problems. Onaran traded his Lexus coupe for a Mazda SUV, which was half the price and easier to get in and out of. Karen Onara often jokes that he could have chosen a cheaper hobby than baseball cards, but he’s happy to have something to occupy his time. Some of his friends told him that he would never win the $10,000 cash offer, which he turned down.

Maybe you’re looking for it, or maybe it’s true. Soon he could recognize Onara.

“You have a 1,178 chance of seeing a clear card, and then you have to see Soto out of 100,” he said of the waning excitement of the Nationals in recent years. “So it was like a keyhole through a keyhole to find him.”

When Onaran arrived in New Jersey in mid-March, he had little trouble finding Leland and preventing thieves. In a quiet suburban mall, Lelands draws less traffic than salons, a thrift store and a uniform company. A liquor store and Dollar Tree are also nearby.

Svrluga: Not all of Juan Soto’s peers are stars. They are the greatest people of all time.

But when Onaran walked in, the logos were on, the team’s colors were draped floor to ceiling, and an employee unloaded NFL caps from a cart. He signed a contract giving Lands 10 percent of the final sale. Onaran couldn’t remember the last time he’d driven a few hours to visit an auction house, let alone seven. His mind was busy both ways.

“Indeed, the minute I stepped out I was overwhelmed with doubt,” Onaran wrote, recounting the day. “If this kind of auction house format doesn’t bring out as many bidders as eBay, what am I used to? What if the point comes back? What if I’m always wrong about the expected value? I know that’s all nonsense, it’s the right time to sell and this place knows what they’re doing. But I was surprised how quickly the regret set in.

With the card out of his hand – and underground – all Onara could do was wait. He was relieved when Lelands told him he was ranked 9th. When the online auction started on May 20, he was excited to check bids first thing in the morning. And while Soto struggled to start the year, Onaran looked for a few more homers to raise the outfielder’s already massive profile.

Bidders were slow to come in. No matter how prepared he was for that, he needed a spike on demand. But when the auction closed on a mid-June morning, one person bid $10,466. In less than thirty seconds, Leland’s tracker hit a new high of $10,968. Then came $11,516… $13,332… $13,999… $14,699… and $15,434, the final bid before the auction closed at 9:54 p.m.

Svrluga: Juan Soto is in the middle of a baseball rotation. That’s not going away anytime soon.

Onaran and his wife were watching “strange things” to distract him. But Onaran ended up sticking to his phone and snapping a photo of $18,520.80, the price including the buyer’s and seller’s premiums to Leland. Onara’s final deduction will be $13,590. He told his wife he felt better. She can tell that it’s a white lie in some way.

Yes, Onaran won the $10,000 offer, confirming his feelings. He was happy about that and the upcoming credit card payments. But what if he sold it on eBay and didn’t lose a tenth of the cut? What if Leland’s included the card in its latest catalog, giving it more exposure to high-spending collectors? What if Soto had a better start to the season? What if the Nationals weren’t in last place?

What if he could root for a team that often harbors home-grown stars? Or what if the nearly four-year journey never ends?

“Those were my 15 minutes of fame, and they’re over,” Onaran said. “When I hit 400, I feel like I hit .280 in the World Series. It’s really bittersweet.”

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