The 1994 Collector’s Choice Alex Rodriguez is a product of timing, with maybe a touch of irony washed in for good measure.
See, from 1989 through 1991 or so, Upper Deck was busy upsetting the other manufacturers’ apple carts and disrupting the whole industry.
When they swooped onto the playing field in ‘89, they brought with them such “innovations” as premium card stock, stellar photography front and back, tamper-proof packs, and onboard holograms to guard against counterfeits.
Truth was, other companies had already brought most of those elements to bear in some form or another, but Upper Deck was the first to whip everything up into one magic cardboard concoction, and they did most of it better than their predecessors had. And, to be fair, they did at least some of it first (holograms, probably).
Yes, Upper Deck was in the business of producing premium baseball cards … at a premium price.
Setting their initial retail price in 1989 at 99 cents a pack when the rest of the card makers were still in the 40-cent range set off a firestorm of controversy and a flurry of market activity that helped drive packs even higher — $2, $3, and up.
So what does all this have to do with young A-Rod?
It didn’t take long to realize that Upper Deck had a hit on their hands with that debut set of theirs, helped in no small part by making Ken Griffey, Jr., the first card they ever released into the wild.
That Junior rookie card became an instant classic and today stands as one of the landmark pieces in the hobby.
One consequence of that wildly successful marriage — UD and Griffey — was that collectors started to realize they could do better than what they’d had before. I mean, why did Darryl Strawberry have to settle for mushy-brown Topps RC when Junior had a veritable work of art?
And, so, expectations rose.
Old-timers grumbled about the state of the hobby (surprise!), but Topps, Fleer, and Donruss had seen a glimpse of the future, and it included flashy, high-quality cards with big price tags.
They didn’t want to be left behind with the grumblers.
So they adjusted, adding card lines here, improving quality there, lacing their packs with chase cards. Soon, we had premium sets and super premium sets and autograph cards and relic cards and disco-3D cards and one-of-ones out the wazoo.
It was exhausting, and by 1994, we were losing our focus as a hobby, and our appetite for the next, bigger, more expensive thing.
And so, after all the other manufacturers had joined them in the Emerald City, and after pack prices had risen to the point that many younger collectors really couldn’t afford to buy new cards, Upper Deck took a step back.
Enter Collector’s Choice, a big, new Upper Deck set designed to be attainable by all, to be kid-friendly, at a trend-buckingly affordable 99 cents for a 12-card pack.
The question was … would anybody even care about “cheap” cards? And … wasn’t it slick how UD had tipped the narrative on its head in five years?
In 1989, their 6.6-cents-per-card price point had spurred outrage. In 1994, their 8.25-cents-per-card inspired … well, yawns, mostly, and a low-rent feel.
But one of those eight-and-a-quarter-cent dudes you could pull from Series 2 packs that strike-torn summer was a young shortstop named Alex Rodriguez, all of 18 years old when he made his Major League debut that July.
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The Seattle Mariners had made Rodriguez the number-one pick of the June Draft just weeks before, though, and were anxious to get him in front of their long-suffering fans before The Strike took hold.
To give them a glimpse of the future — a future the M’s hoped would include A-Rod and Griffey in the same lineup, tearing up opposing pitchers while Randy Johnson (and who?) shredded opposing lineups.
The Mariners did fulfill much of that vision over the next several seasons, though they never did make it to the World Series.
And all three gents put up Hall of Fame careers, though it remains to be seen whether Rodriguez will eventually join teammates Griffey, Johnson, and Edgar Martinez in the Hall of Fame.
And, while Rodriguez appeared on nearly 5000 cards during his long career, many of them with hefty price tags right from the very beginning, his Collector’s Choice rookie card pretty much always lived up to its promise as an affordable alternative in the avalanche of overwhelm.
Today, you can usually find this modest A-Rod RC for a few bucks (or less) in nice raw condition, with graded cards ranging from about $10 in PSA 8 to $25 or so for a “9” and well into three figures for a perfect “10.”
Even if Rodriguez never makes the Hall of Fame cut, this modest rookie card will always stand as a mile marker, hailing the changes that lie ahead for the M’s, for the game, and for the hobby.
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