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What a rare Juan Soto baseball card says about the price of fandom

How much is a baseball card worth? For one Nationals fan, it was a complicated question.

Bryce Onaran turned to card collecting when he could no longer attend live sporting events. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

This is a story about being a fan, about loyalty and money, about how the business of sports too often collides with a simple kind of joy.

In some ways, it’s about love. In a lot of ways, it’s about Juan Soto. But it’s mostly about a man named Bryce Onaran and a baseball card. It starts in 2018.

Everything that happens from there — Onaran opening a package, promising not to sell what instantly became his prized possession and then making a winding emotional journey to break that pact, leading to a windowless room in northern New Jersey that is wedged between a thrift store and nail salon — starts with a small piece of plastic and an outfielder.

A very good outfielder.

And a very valuable piece of plastic.

How valuable? That remains the golden question, only somewhat answerable after Onaran auctioned off his Soto rookie card this spring. Because what does “valuable,” a tricky word, even mean to someone who once made a hobby of attending games, of spending on beer and parking, until he couldn’t anymore? First, Onaran was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2001. Two years later, he was rear-ended in an ugly car crash. For more than a decade, he balanced his health problems with work and a passion for watching D.C. sports in person. So when he needed another fix, when the chemo and back pain made it hard to leave home in Northwest Washington, let alone stand in lines or spend hours in stadium seats, Onaran turned to cards.

He didn’t discriminate, either. A case at the bottom of his basement steps is full of NBA rookie cards. Everything in a box or three-ring binder is catalogued in spreadsheets on his laptop. It’s part early retirement project, part coping mechanism, part way to avoid feeling left out while staring at a pile of medical bills. He promises it wasn’t to make money. He was just after some fun.

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

After Soto debuted that year, Topps was distributing the first Soto rookies in its updated series for 2018. Impatient that week, in advance of his shipment from Blowout, Onaran bought a few single packs with hopes of landing any Soto card. But none turned up. Same old luck, Onaran thought, until the package arrived, he tore through one of its 24 packs, caught a glimpse of Soto and …

Yeah. There it was. One of only 10 in the world.

“Not for sale,” Onaran soon posted to Blowout’s online forum, sharing a grainy photo of the clear Soto rookie. “I am a DC native and a die-hard Nats fan. So happy I could cry.”

This is a story about that card.

‘I lost all faith in the Nats’

When he first opened the pack, Onaran couldn’t have foreseen the Nationals winning the World Series in 2019. Or Soto, still in his early 20s, becoming a full-on, generational star during the title run. Or a pandemic that closed the world but had an inverse effect on the market, sparking a frenzy online and in Onaran’s basement. Or the team trading eight players to begin a rebuild last summer, making him rethink everything with the Soto rookie.

Or for that matter, the Nationals fielding trade offers for the 23-year-old Soto this month.

The Washington Nationals may look to trade superstar outfielder Juan Soto after he turned down a 15-year, $440 million contract extension. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

“I lost all faith in the Nats,” Onaran, 47, said in January, recounting his sharp change of heart. “I don’t think Soto is going to stay. It is heartbreaking for me sitting on all this Trea Turner stuff … to see all these Trea Turner cards. I don’t want to go through that with Soto.”

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

So after the 2021 trade deadline sell-off, Onaran thought about the card in a way a front office might think about a player. If he held on, hoping Soto would sign in Washington long term, his collection would be highlighted by a rare find of his favorite player on his favorite team in the city in which he grew up. And if Soto stayed on his Hall of Fame track, the value of the card would explode.

But if Soto left in the coming years, a card showing him with the Nationals — 19 years old, his front leg lifted in advance of a lightning-quick swing — wouldn’t be the same. Looking at a keepsake and immediately thinking about the New York Yankees? The Los Angeles Dodgers? My god, the New York Mets? Onaran already learned this with Turner, Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer cards. Plus, he reasoned, he could use the money now, for medical bills and mounting credit card debt.

What happened next showed how quickly a die-hard can be disillusioned by the shrewd business of sports. Onaran was putting the card on the market. He had no clue where to start.

Juan Soto and the evolution of pressure

‘A keyhole through a keyhole’

Onaran is a bit of a worrier. His worries about the card included: that his basement might flood, that a burglar might find it wrapped in an unmarked plastic bag, that a glass of water might spill and seep in the cracks of its hard plastic case, that he should have insured it or acquired a safe.

Well before Onaran knew the logistics of selling, he says, a man offered to meet him in a parking lot with $10,000 in cash. The man was trying for the whole set of Soto rookie cards. Onaran’s clear card, one of 10, was the third rarest, making it even cooler that he had pulled it from a $2 pack. So naturally, Onaran thought he might go to that parking lot and get robbed.

“I am the kind of person who makes a decision and that’s it, that’s what I’m going with,” said Karen Onaran, Bryce’s wife of 13 years. “Bryce is the kind of person who makes a decision and then frets … a lot. He at least has to consider what could go wrong and check that box in his head.”

One debate in Onaran’s head was whether to sell the card himself on eBay or work with an auction house. Another was whether to have the card graded at all, since, as he explained, “a card graded a nine can never be a mint-condition 10.” An ungraded card, on the other hand, could always be a 10 to an untrained eye. But once Onaran realized the auction house could get him to the front of the grading line, the choice was clear.

Card grading is inexact yet critical for these transactions. A 10, decided by experts in far-flung places, is just about mint condition. The difference between a 10 and nine can be significant for a card’s value. The difference between a nine and an eight can be a cliff dive. Graders look at the corners of cards, the edges, the surfaces and how centered images are. Among casual, one-time sellers such as Onaran, it can feel like auction houses and professional collectors get preferential treatment from grading companies. Partnering with Lelands, an auction house in Matawan, N.J., became one way for Onaran to minimize the risk.

“The eBay consignment guys didn’t seem to be that excited, but these auction house guys seemed very excited,” Onaran explained after deciding on Lelands. “But one guy, this kind of rubbed me the wrong way, closed his email with ‘Let’s do it.’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, this is a big thing!’ Like if you’re buying a Lexus, the salesman doesn’t go, ‘Let’s do it!’ I don’t know. I also realize I’m being ridiculous.”

This just meant a lot to Onaran, even if he never set out for life-changing money. Really, he was most interested in the process and stealing a peek behind the curtain of his hobby. But aside from emotionally hedging on Soto’s potential departure, there was the added draw of financial relief.

Onaran was diagnosed with leukemia Aug. 6, 2001 — the date is tattooed on his right arm — and has faced complications since. When he went on long-term disability because of his back issues in May 2020, he and Karen had to shift their habits. Onaran sold his Lexus coupe for a Mazda SUV, about half the price and easier to get in and out of. Karen often jokes Bryce could have picked a cheaper fascination than baseball cards, yet is happy he found something to pour his time into. Some friends told him he would never beat the $10,000 cash offer he turned down.

Maybe they were needling him, or maybe it was the truth. Soon Onaran would find out.

“You have a one in 1,178 odds of even seeing a clear card, and then you have, like, one in 100 of seeing Soto,” he said of the joy that faded as the Nationals have in recent years. “So it was like a keyhole through a keyhole finding him.”

‘Flooded with doubt’

When Onaran made it to New Jersey in mid-March, he had trouble finding Lelands, which has a small sign and no windows to deter thieves. In the quiet suburban strip mall, Lelands draws less traffic than the salons, a thrift shop and a company that makes uniforms. A liquor store and Dollar Tree are nearby, too.

Svrluga: Juan Soto’s peers aren’t all-stars. They’re the all-time greats.

But when Onaran walked in, he was wide-eyed at the logos, at the team colors stretching floor to ceiling, and an employee unloading NFL helmets from a cart. He signed a contract granting Lelands 10 percent of the final sale. Onaran couldn’t remember the last time he drove a few hours, let alone the seven it took round-trip to visit the auction house. His mind was busy both ways.

“Of course, the minute I left I was flooded with doubt,” Onaran wrote in an email recounting the day. “What if this type of auction house format doesn’t draw as many bidders as eBay, which is what I’m used to? What if the grade comes back crappy? What if I’ve been wrong all along about the expected value? I know that’s all nonsense, it’s the perfect time to sell and this place knows what they’re doing. But I was amazed at how quickly the remorse set in.”

The card out of his hands — and out of his basement — all Onaran could do was wait. When Lelands told him it was graded a nine, he was relieved. When the online auction began May 20, he was excited, checking for bids first thing every morning. And when Soto struggled to start the year, Onaran pined for a few more homers to lift the outfielder’s already massive profile.

The bids were slow to trickle in. No matter how much he prepared for that, he wanted a spike in interest. But on a mid-June morning, with the auction closing that night, someone sprung for $10,466. Less than thirty seconds later, Lelands’ tracker showed 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 at the center of baseball’s swirl. That’s not going away soon.

Onaran and his wife were watching “Stranger Things” to distract him. But Onaran was glued to his phone at the end, snapping a photo of $18,520.80, the price including premiums the buyer and seller paid to Lelands. Onaran’s final cut would be $13,590. He told his wife he felt good. She could tell that was somewhat of a white lie.

Yes, Onaran beat the $10,000 offer, validating his instincts. He was happy about that and the upcoming credit card payments. But what if he sold on eBay and didn’t forfeit a tenth of the cut? What if Lelands included the card in its most recent catalogue, 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 rooted for a team that kept its homegrown stars around more often than not? Or what if a close-to-four-year journey didn’t have to end?

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

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