TWO WEEKS AFTER New Year's, there was a bidding war over a baseball card at collectibles marketplace Goldin. Bidding opened at $30,000 and rose to $101,000 by the next day, accruing 14 bids by midnight. A high-end collector, who goes by Shyne150, had unloaded $474,000 on a 2020 Bowman Chrome Prospect Autographs Superfractor, a literal one-of-a-kind rookie card, of a minor league prospect -- believed to be the most ever for a card featuring a player yet to appear in Double-A.
The prospect was years from The Show. The card was serial numbered one-of-one featuring Jasson Dominguez, the New York Yankees' then-Low-A switch-hitting teenager who had played 57 games of minor league ball at the time of the sale.
The card collecting world was stunned: by the total, the name on the card and the brazenness of Shyne's prospecting -- a term for investing in cards of unproven players before they bloom or bust. The practice had become de rigueur, but the investment is usually more conservative.
Shyne didn't see Dominguez as inexperienced or his investment risky; he saw potential waiting to be fulfilled and a profit margin to be reckoned with. After all, baseball provides a lengthier runway for prospects to succeed than football or basketball.
"Even if you tried to buy the Dominguez from me for $200,000 more than I paid for it," Shyne, 40, says now, "I wouldn't even consider it. ... Dominguez is not mature yet, like a bond. You just gotta wait."
The expectations surrounding Dominguez have been near-unprecedented ("He's like Mike Trout," one general manager told ESPN's Jeff Passan when he was signed in 2019); the comparisons equally high (a skill set "like Mickey Mantle," an international scouting director told Passan) and the nickname ("The Martian," or El Marciano, coined in his native Dominican Republic) unforgettable. The Yankees gave him a franchise-record-setting $5.1 million signing bonus, using 95% of their international bonus pool for 2019-20 on the 16-year-old free agent.
Dominguez's debut in 2021 -- after COVID canceled the 2020 minor league season -- was lukewarm. In those 57 games, between Rookie ball and Low-A, he hit .252 with five homers. He was no longer the Yankees' top prospect. Still, Dominguez was promoted to High-A ahead of the 2022 MLB Futures Game (his second appearance) and emerged as the focal point of hypothetical trades for superstar outfielder Soto or ace Luis Castillo.
The promise of stardom -- his MLB debut is projected in 2024 -- was apparent in his trade value, but Dominguez's team won't reap the rewards for years, if at all.
Big league teams have long taken on that risk. But to sports card collectors investing hundreds of thousands -- even with the hobby's shocking unpredictability and a recession looming -- was something new. Dominguez, who doesn't turn 20 until February, would need to become, at least, a multiple-time MLB All-Star for Shyne's bet to pay off. That's a big gamble.
Could it actually happen?
"Timing is everything," PWCC Marketplace director of business development Jesse Craig says. "Some people prospect as short-term gambling, some long-term ...
"And some really think their guy's going to be the next big thing."
SHYNE'S REAL NAME is Matt Allen, but that's not something you'll see on his manicured social media. About four years ago, Allen invested money he made from private equity into cards. ("That's something I really don't want to get into," Allen says when asked about his background. "A lot of people want to know the story.") "I parlayed my profits into my passion," he says now, wielding a sports card collection, by his own estimate, worth more than $100 million.
He sold a Luka Doncic rookie patch autograph (called an RPA, which includes an embedded piece of a jersey) reportedly for $4.6 million, which briefly held the record for most expensive basketball card of all time. On Instagram last December, he showed off a LeBron James RPA he says he ponied up $2.4 million for. His one-of-one Justin Herbert rookie card, for which he says he paid $550,000, just sold for $1.8 million at a Goldin auction. Allen says he bought a red Bowman Chrome refractor (numbered out of five) of Julio Rodriguez's for $50,000 a year and a half ago; it just sold at auction in early August for $276,000.
He also owns a Triple Logoman boasting James, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, which one industry headliner told ESPN is the greatest modern card in existence.
Allen, who began collecting at 7, is a tentpole of the hobby's entrepreneurial evolution -- one that has allowed him to rub elbows with some of the world's most famous people. He breaks boxes with Drake, can tell you where the bathroom is at a Kardashian's house (OK, it's Rob's) and is friends with Logan Paul.
The perpetually aviator-clad Allen is known for his big bets and bigger splashes. So when industry experts say that a half-million on Dominguez is a prospecting outlier and not the new normal, Allen demurs.
"What seems expensive today seems cheap tomorrow," he says. "... I'm not even paying attention to [the card's day-to-day worth]. I'm so long on it that it doesn't even matter. If you said, 'Hey, I'll give you X for the card right now,' it's not even an option.
"I'm not trying to make money now."
Instead of waiting to see if Dominguez is the second coming of Mickey Mantle -- or Roy White ... or Kevin Maas, for that matter -- Allen overpaid now rather than risk not being able to acquire it when (or if) Dominguez starts launching moonshots into Monument Park.
"[Other collectors] wouldn't pay $120,000 today for a card that sold for $100,000 yesterday; they would feel foolish," Allen says. But according to Goldin, there's a growing group of collectors who, armed with better-than-average sports knowledge, are taking a calculated risk -- for better or worse.
"It's common that people are prospecting, but the Dominguez case is prospecting -- and I know this is a bad word -- on steroids," Goldin says. "He's a Yankee, Yankee fans and collectors are clamoring for a young draft pick to be their next superstar. If he is, the card's going to be in the millions."
Bob Means, who oversees eBay's sports card category, says, "At these initial stages, I don't know if [prospectors are] thinking about the downside. I think it's part of the hunt."
Allen says that while others in the hobby were deciding whether paying future prices was a good strategy, he was actually doing it. "I pushed the private market in the past 3½ years greatly," he says. "Myself and Ken [Goldin]."
Craig notes that, pre-pandemic, margins for success weren't so thin. "Prices on prospecting are way more expensive than three years ago because everybody already understands what could potentially be the finish line."
Recent multimillion-dollar sales, high demand from an influx of collectors and the uber-rarity of a one-of-one card justifies Allen betting big on Dominguez. Despite that, he admits that the sale was met with wide eyes. (One shocked hobby mainstay called Allen after the sale finalized, saying: "Bit of stretch, Matt?")
Sure, Allen says he paid $100,000 for a Wander Franco Superfractor in 2019, two years before the former top prospect debuted with the Tampa Bay Rays. But Dominguez was far riskier; there was less of a sample size to work off. Allen could try to capitalize on that unrealized potential any time but, if Dominguez is as good as billed, that return-on-investment could soar.
"Then later on, [flippers, or prospectors who cash in at the earliest opportunity] are kicking themselves because it's worth $1,000,000," says Allen, who claims to have rejected a $1.8 million offer for the aforementioned Franco recently. "So it's the people who just make that small percent margin ... or people who can afford to hold it. I've spent like $9 million on cards in the past three weeks and I haven't even released any of this stuff."
Craig notes an example: A friend has an autographed one-of-one Superfractor of Seattle Mariners rookie sensation Julio Rodriguez, a 2022 MLB All-Star and likely AL Rookie of the Year. Following his Home Run Derby heroics, he was offered $1,000,000 for it. He turned it down.
"Prospecting, in general, is gambling," Craig says. "Some people can actually look at a player, see he's a five-tool guy, in the right organization and situation, and make an educated bet that he's going to be a superstar."
When Mike Trout's 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor sold for $3.94 million in August of 2020, he was already a three-time AL MVP. Goldin rattled off names of the supposed next big things of yesteryear, all hyped before their first MLB Opening Day. There was Bryce Harper and Ichiro on one hand, and Stephen Strasburg and Gregg Jefferies on the other.
Then he stopped.
"Oh, actually," he said. "This is the single most obvious one ..."
A light went off in his head.
"'89 Ken Griffey Jr."
COMPARING DOMINGUEZ TO Ken Griffey Jr. is, at once, astounding and fitting. Within the hobby, Griffey's iconic Upper Deck rookie card -- the first card in its 1989 debut release -- is the most famous example of prospecting, both from a manufacturing and collecting standpoint.
It's the reason that modern prospecting is what it is. It also nearly killed the hobby.
In the late 1980s, sports cards were a billion-dollar business. A hobby shop called The Upper Deck partnered with businessmen breaking into the industry, with lofty aspirations: Start creating superior baseball cards.
Topps' half-century monopoly on baseball cards ended in 1980, allowing new companies to compete in the space. But card technology was rudimentary and Upper Deck knew collectors wanted upscale products: higher quality cardstock, foil pack wrappers instead of wax, hologram technology dissuading fraud, all which would motivate consumers to devour a product that cost double, per pack, what Topps cost. Even their credo was decades ahead of its time: "Upper Deck: For the kid on the street and the Wall Street investor."
But they wanted their debut release to kick off with a wunderkind, rather than the conventional established star.
In 1988, Griffey was raking at High-A San Bernardino, which played home games 7 miles from the school attended by an Upper Deck employee; he'd eventually choose him as the debut set's face. Junior finished the season at Double-A Vermont and had never been photographed in a Seattle Mariners uniform, so Upper Deck superimposed Seattle regalia over a Sports Illustrated photo of him in San Bernardino garb, despite even bullish estimates pegging him as a midseason call-up.
When "The Kid" hit .397 in spring training and made the Opening Day roster, collectors went hunting for Griffey's rookie en masse, which is where things went awry.
Unbeknownst to collectors at the time, Upper Deck reportedly printed more than two million Junior rookie cards. To date, it's one of the two most often graded cards of all-time. It was an era without transparency of how many of each card manufacturers produced. Baseball, always the hobby's most popular sport, was propping up the entire industry. And overproduction, coupled with the 1994 MLB strike, nearly sank it -- Junior's smiling visage the scapegoat.
Serial numbering was introduced in the early 1990s and one-of-ones debuted around 1997. Card collecting largely remained niche for the next decade, but as the economic recession of the late 2000s wreaked havoc, those with expendable income looked for investments outside the volatile stock market. Investing in cards from 2008 to 2018 proved more stable and lucrative (from a return-on-investment standpoint) than the S&P 500; the card industry was reborn as portfolio diversification.
"Chase" cards (cards collectors hunt and capitalize on) are most often one-of-one signed rookie cards. One-of-ones don't exist without that Griffey rookie.
Allen's $474,000 gamble on Dominguez -- the rarest card of a prospect billed to rewrite record books under the MLB's brightest, most famous lights -- isn't just a natural progression of the industry, but has direct lineage from Junior. It's also a perfect storm of collecting's evolution since the late 2000s.
But in 1989, with Upper Deck boxes running consumers $35, prospecting on "The Kid" wasn't a mortgage-leveraging endeavor. In 2022, with a high-end card market producing boxes costing thousands, risky prospecting could decimate a savings account, another temptation as legalized gambling trickles about the United States.
But prospecting successfully, now more than ever, could also mean early retirement. For those who can afford it, that's a risk worth taking.
"Cards were never considered an alternate asset class [until the last five years]," Goldin says. "People are looking at [cards] kind of like the next big biotech company."
ANTHONY GIORDANO RESISTED getting his 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card graded and sold for decades, despite repeatedly being offered millions. When he finally relented and sold it for an all-time sports collectible record $12.6 million in late August, it was what a generation -- of his family and those in the industry -- had been waiting for: The first eight-figure card sale.
It's also the pie-in-the-sky denouement for Allen's Dominguez card.
But Mantle and his hallowed 1952 Topps card have long been inked into lore. Dominguez's story is not only still being written; the pen has barely touched paper.
So when Dominguez dropped a fly ball in the second inning of the 2022 Futures Game, laughed it off, then hit a prodigious home run into the bleachers at Dodger Stadium in the next half-inning, it was a reminder of the risk-reward of prospecting.
"Look, Dominguez in five years could be washed up and [prospectors] are onto the next new thing," Allen says. "Most of it is hype."
But that didn't stop him from joyfully reading Dominguez's stats as if, quite literally, off the back of his baseball card. He was watching the Futures Game when Dominguez's ferocious swing, punctuated with a helicopter finish, deposited a round-tripper in the seats at Chavez Ravine, perhaps portending his future.
Allen's first thought?
"Man," he chuckled, "Everybody's going to be going crazy for Dominguez now."
Bryce Harper, who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, was labeled a prodigy. Since arriving in the majors in 2012, he has won Rookie of the Year, collected two MVPs and was named to seven All-Star games. Pretty good, right? Several industry experts unanimously cite Harper as a hobby disappointment -- "He was supposed to catapult a franchise, be the next Mickey Mantle," says Craig -- relative to expectations.
"Modern cards are more naturally volatile. There's risk when a player's active," says Craig. "I'm a risk-averse guy, so if I were investing half a million dollars into a card, I'm going vintage."
Means also thinks vintage is more reliable: "When you're looking at Willie Mays, there's no new story -- Willie Mays is Willie Mays. It's done. ... [But] we've seen people stumble, where someone lays an egg during a playoff series. People can have slumps.
"Next thing you know, you're seeing 20%, 30%, 50% drops in their card values."
With all eyes on Dominguez in the Futures Game, Yankees center fielder Aaron Judge was set to play in the same stadium, in the All-Star Game itself, three days later. Judge, amid one of the best seasons in baseball history, was chasing the American League single-season home run record. And yet, in May, his 2013 rookie Superfractor sold for $150,000 less than what Allen paid for Dominguez's.
What about reigning AL MVP and two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, doing things in professional baseball not seen since Babe Ruth? His autographed 2018 Superfractor went for roughly 39% of Dominguez's sum.
Dominguez, for his part, wasn't yet challenging hallowed records or making an MVP push. He had been playing for the Hudson Valley Renegades. He debuted July 22 by hitting a game-tying, ninth-inning blast against the Wilmington Blue Rocks, sending shockwaves through social media. Two days later, as the MLB trade deadline closed in, Twitter nearly combusted when Renegades manager Tyson Blaser removed Dominguez from a game after six innings.
Was Dominguez getting traded? Nope. His Renegades had a comfortable lead, and Blaser felt his star had earned a rest. The deadline passed, too, and Dominguez remained unmoved.
The Yankees did make several moves -- but they weren't for Soto, who went to the San Diego Padres, or Castillo, who was dealt to the Mariners.
Time will tell if that's a good thing for the Yankees -- and for Allen. One thing's certain: The value of Dominguez's card is higher with him in pinstripes.
"The market matters and the Yankees are the epicenter of baseball markets," says Craig. Allen says that epicenter is why he bought the card.
He knows Dominguez is a work in progress. But he also oozes rare five-tool talent that made him a scout darling through grainy YouTube clips of batting practice.
As Dominguez's competition improved, so did his play; he had 16 extra-base hits and 17 steals, while hitting .306 with an on-base percentage at nearly .400, in his 40 games with the Renegades. In his last game in High-A, he hit two home runs, one from each side of the plate.
Allen was ecstatic when Dominguez graduated in September to Double-A Somerset -- his second promotion in 61 days -- following his South Atlantic League Player of the Week honor. After some growing pains -- he went 2-for-23 in his first six games as a Patriot -- he racked up a .563 batting average and a 1.838 OPS in his last four.
Better yet? He slugged two homers in Somerset's final game of the season, a series-clinching win to vault the Patriots to their first Eastern League title, and first title since becoming the Double-A Yankees affiliate.
"I'm getting phone calls," Allen says cheekily, "saying he's more or less the hottest Yankee in their farm system."
In fact, Allen said, one of his buddies wants the card, an interest symbolic of the market's ever-evolving clientele. He's a minority owner of an MLB team, who texted Allen from his yacht, off the Amalfi Coast.
Though Allen says he's not concerned with the ebbs and flows of it all, he estimates he could get at least $600,000 for the Dominguez card if he wanted to. But he's holding out for more.
"That card can break a million dollars," he says, "before he even makes it to the major leagues."