Growing up, Daniel Tillo engaged in a pastime familiar to many kids who love sports -- card collecting. Whether it was baseball, football or basketball, nothing satisfied him more than ripping wax and adding to his sprawling stockpile.But unlike most kids, Tillo one day added something to his collection far
Growing up, Daniel Tillo engaged in a pastime familiar to many kids who love sports -- card collecting. Whether it was baseball, football or basketball, nothing satisfied him more than ripping wax and adding to his sprawling stockpile.
But unlike most kids, Tillo one day added something to his collection far more valuable than any autograph or jersey patch he could pull from a pack -- his own cards.
Tillo was scooped up by the Royals in the third round of the 2017 Draft out of Iowa Western Community College, where he played for one season after transferring from Kentucky as a freshman. He made the move for baseball reasons, but also to be closer to home -- he grew up just over an hour up the road in Sioux City and his illustrious high-school career culminated in being named Iowa's Mr. Basketball as a senior.
In Sioux City, Kansas City's No. 19 prospect also first fell in love with the art of card collecting. He would beg and plead his parents to buy him packs every time they were at Walmart or Target, and he and his brother, Nick, always found an unopened box of them from Santa underneath the Christmas tree.
"Each year for Christmas, we got a hobby box of whether it was football, basketball or baseball and [we would] see who got the best cards and 'won' each kind of Christmas based off of who had the best cards," he said. "That's kind of when it really started, way back then."
Which brother ended up with the most holiday "wins" may not be known, but Tillo's biggest individual victory came in 2008, when he pulled a rookie patch autograph card of Felix Jones, the star young running back for the Dallas Cowboys, numbered 9-of-10.
"I still have it, and it's probably not worth anything, but it's just like the card that you know, you kind of relive that experience," he said. "I'll never forget that time that Christmas, I pulled it right next to my brother and I was like, 'Dang, this is a Cowboys running back, a rookie from Arkansas.' We were stoked about it, and I was pumped. That's something I'll have in my basement forever, because that just holds so much value in my heart, and I will never be able to let that baby go."
His growth as a collector was stunted a bit by his age. He didn't have much money to "blow on cards" and was therefore at the mercy of his parents and his brother, who sometimes drove him to the store. But as he grew older and began to gain more freedom, he began to get his hands on more and more product and started to build a substantial collection.
"It was more so when I got a car, so I could drive myself there, to Walmart or Target, to get the stuff," Tillo said. "Whenever I get good rookie cards, the guys I thought were going to be really good, I would sleeve them away and keep them in a box and keep them safe. Kind of stuff like that or autographs too, whatever I pulled. I always had a safe spot for them, whether it was the top of my closet, and then some cards that I didn't think were as good but maybe some day would be [went] in those binders."
Even while he was finding tremendous success in high-school sports, Tillo never really thought about someday having his own card. After all, tens of thousands of baseball players make it to the collegiate level every year, with just a microscopic amount one day moving onto the pros.
It wasn't until the Royals selected him 90th overall and he signed the dotted line that it started to become a reality. Shortly after inking his deal with Kansas City, Tillo was asked to do a signing for Panini, one of the top card distributors in the country. That was when it really hit him that not only was he officially a pro, but he had become exactly what he looked up to as a kid.
"That was kind of a surreal experience too," he said. "It's like, 'Wow, I used to be on the other end of this where I was trying to collect autographs and rookie cards, but now I get to sign them myself. Maybe someone will collect me one day -- if I don't get those cards first.'"
Consider that a challenge. Not long after he signed Tillo tracked down his first card of himself, a parallel -- a rarer version distinguished by a slight color alteration from regular-issue cards -- from his rookie year Bowman Chrome set, another top-end line of cards. It went for "just a few bucks," which was a blessing in disguise for the frugal left-hander.
"I'm not a Top-100 prospect. ... if you're that, then your card kind of goes up. Luckily collecting myself's not a very expensive hobby or thing to do," he joked.
As time went on, Tillo continued to rack up similar cards in an effort to complete his "rainbow," the complete set of differently colored border parallels. While making steady progress on that, he kept his eyes peeled for his grail -- his rookie year Superfractor, typically the most valuable and most rare card for any player, since it's only printed once.
The 23-year-old wasn't sure he'd ever track down the Superfractor until after the conclusion of last season, when he returned home to Sioux City. While talking shop with his brother, he decided on a whim to check eBay and quickly found it listed for around 320 dollars.
The rarity of Superfractors often makes them expensive, so he wasn't shocked to see it listed so high. It was still a lot of money for him, though, so he decided to reach out to the seller. He explained that it was his card and asked if there was any way the seller would lower the price so he could add it to his collection.
"He said, 'Nope.' Good luck this year, but no, I can't,'" Tillo said.
A disappointment for sure, but if he mustered up the 300-some dollars, it would be a done deal, right? Wrong.
"The next day he raised the price to 499 [dollars]," he said. "So yeah, I was like, 'Oh, wow.' I was a little disappointed to see that."
No matter how badly he wanted the card, $500 was too steep of a price for him to pull the trigger. So he moved on, focusing his efforts on building his collection with other packs and boxes. That was the case for the rest of the 2019 offseason, and ultimately until he made his way down to Arizona for Spring Training as a non-roster invitee.
The Royals' facility in Surprise is about a half an hour away from Phoenix Sports Cards, a card and memorabilia store Tillo occasionally visits when he's in the Grand Canyon State. An employee mentioned that his Superfractor was on eBay and at "not a bad price." Tillo explained it was too much for him and that the seller had hiked up the price substantially from the original auction. The employee laughed and offered some advice.
"He was like, 'If I were you, I'd still make an offer and try to get it, because that's your 1-of-1 superfractor, your first one. You can hold onto that forever,'" he said.
So nearly seven months after being turned away, Tillo reached out to the seller with an offer close to the initial price of just over 300 dollars. The seller quickly accepted, and the card was promptly on its way.
With the end of Spring Training less than a month away, he decided to have the card shipped home to Iowa. The left-hander finished last season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas, but wasn't sure where he would begin 2020 and he didn't expect to be back in Sioux City so soon due to the coronavirus. So he had the card sent to his brother's house for pragmatic reasons ... and one amusing one.
"I knew he would keep it the safest, compared to my mom or dad who have thrown away a lot of my old Pokemon cards that might've been worth something," he joked. "I was a little mad when my mom did that. I had to send it to my older brother, Nick, so he could put it in a safe spot, because he understands the value of it and what it is."
Not long after it arrived, Tillo tweeted a picture of the card and it instantly went viral in the collecting community. Later that day, Royals fan Terry Gardner saw the post and told Tillo that he owned his 1-of-1 black-border Bowman Chrome card, one of the missing pieces in his rainbow set.
Tillo was shocked. He offered to pay for it, as it would likely fetch a decent chunk of change on eBay. Gardner declined, opting simply for a signed ball. As an added perk, Tillo promised Gardner that if he made it to the Major Leagues in 2020, he would hook him up with free tickets to a home game.
It was a small price to pay for a monumental piece of his collection, and in Tillo's eyes, came as a reflection of the kind-hearted spirit that often accompanies those involved in the hobby.
"It was awesome," he said. "It just kind of shows you the type of people that collect cards. A great hobby and industry, and it's very unique and fun to be in. Like that's just so nice of that guy to do that, he didn't have to do that. … I can't thank him enough."
Tillo acquired both his black-base parallel and Superfractor within weeks of each other this spring.
Looking ahead to the future, Tillo needs just two more cards to complete his rainbow set. While continuing to chase those, he will continue to be actively involved in the collecting community as a whole. He posts the cards he pulls on his Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts, and buys and sells some cards on eBay as well.
"I always kind of hoarded my cards, then I realized, you know, 'What am I doing?'" he said. "Let's get rid of them and maybe put [the money] back into the hobby for cards I like."
But nothing he ever pulls, purchases or trades for ever will compare to the crown jewels he recently acquired, for reasons both practical and sentimental.
"My grandpa played football at Iowa State University, so we have a framed picture of him in our basement in his uniform like ready to tackle someone," he said. "That's kind of how I see it, because I love that picture of him and how cool I thought it was, to where I want my kids and then grandkids to be like, 'Oh wow, this card is awesome too, and I look up to this.' I don't know, how cool it is to see like your dad and then your grandpa -- I know that's a long ways away -- but has a baseball card out there and has a rainbow of himself from his first cards ever. I just feel like there's no value on that, it's just endless."
Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf.