Mark Grace or Gregg Jefferies?
Once upon a time, that was a mildly heated hobby question, and it led to a mostly unstated but still hotly contested campaign.
Yes, it was the race to be the “Face of the Hobby, 1988.”
And the two dudes running the race just so happened to be working from the same platform: 1998 Donruss baseball cards.
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Back in those days, Jefferies was probably the hottest name in the game and the hobby by virtue of …
- his stellar minor league track record
- the high profile of his team, the New York Mets
- his young age (20 as the season started)
- his do-everything offensive profile
- the general explosion of rookie cards in the hobby
Jefferies was the next Bobby Murcer, who had been the next Mickey Mantle, except Jefferies wasn’t a centerfielder.
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Grace had a lot of that same sort of prospect swagger, except …
- The Cubs weren’t *quite* as high-profile as the Mets.
- Grace didn’t run much.
- He was “old,” turning 24 before July 1.
- He was a first baseman.
Put that all together, and both guys were hyped, with Jefferies generally generating a lot more excitement, but with Grace still finding plenty of speculators willing to drop money into his rookie cards.
And so it went all summer long …
One ad in Sports Collectors Digest showed the Jefferies RC, and the next showed the Grace RC.
Grace and Jefferies appeared side-by-side in dealer cases, each wrapped in those blue and red and black Donruss borders, each tempting collectors to reach for their folding money.
Little kids in Flushing shrieked when they pulled a Jefferies from a Donruss wax pack, while tykes in Gary cooed over their shiny new Grace RCs.
By the end of the summer, Jefferies was back in Shea Stadium (he had debuted late in 1987) after spending another season in the minors. In 118 plate appearances down the stretch for the Amazin’s, Jefferies hit .321 with six home runs and 17 RBI, more than enough to stoke the hobby fires heading into the winter.
Grace, meanwhile, made his MLB debut on May 2 … and never looked back.
By season’s end, he had logged 134 appearances, batting a solid .296 with seven homers and 57 RBI.
It was a strong showing, good enough to land Grace a second-place finish in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting (behind Chris Sabo), but it wasn’t super exciting.
After all, Grace was a first baseman, and first base was supposed to be a fountain of power, right?
And then, while the Little Hurt and his Cubbies teammates slid into their winter hibernation, Jefferies kept right on swinging in October. During a seven-game classic in the NLCS against the Dodgers, Jefferies went 9-for-27 in a losing effort.
As the offseason loomed, then, Jefferies and his rookie cards — Donruss, Fleer, Score — took the lead in the clubhouse and sparked the imaginations of fans and collectors … just how good could this kid become?
But, in the end, Grace was even better, to the tune of 2445 hits for a .303 average in 16 big league seasons. Heck, Grace even outhomered Jefferies, 173 to 126.
That realization, though — that Grace won the battle of the 1988 Donruss phenoms (with apologies to Roberto Alomar and Tom Glavine) — took us a while to come by.
Jefferies showed flashes of brilliance, and full seasons that came close (1993, e.g.).
But he never *quite* pushed through to the all-time level we imagined back when we were ogling those black-and-white ads in SCD … but we thought he’d get there, for a long, long time.
Until, one day, we woke up to find that 31-year-old Jefferies was hitting .200 for the 1999 Detroit Tigers.
Mark Grace, meanwhile, just kept plugging along — nine seasons of .300 or better, 10 seasons with more than 160 hits but never touching 200, eight seasons with double-digit homers, a .298 average and 15 homers at age 37 for the 2001 World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
Well, somewhere along the way, the hobby script flipped, too.
For one thing, we now realize that there are enough 1988 Donruss cards out there to keep us awash in Jefferies and Grace rookies for generations to come.
And for another, the Grace RC eventually won the battle with Jefferies, at least when it comes to card prices — but not by all that much.
You can usually find either card raw for a buck or so on eBay these days (affiliate link), but Grace surges ahead when you move to high-end graded specimens. If you check out PSA’s Auction Prices Realized tool, for example, you’ll find that PSA 10 copies of Grace garner 5-6 times more market activity than top-of-the-line Jefferies, but trade just a few dollars higher.
All evidence that hype doesn’t necessarily translate into results on the filed, but also that strong initial build-up can cling to the hobby for decades.
If Grace ever gets a call from the Hall of Fame, maybe his Donruss RC will pull away from Jefferies a bit more. For now, and for an eternity in this cardboard world of ours, the two RCs are inextricably linked.
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End Date: Tuesday 01/02/2024 16:35:45 EST
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