2004. The year Facebook started, the year the Red Sox ditched that 1918 monkey, and the year Ron Artest went into the stands just to say hello to a few fans.
2004 also marked my return to collecting baseball cards. I hadn't purchased more than two or three packs in a single year since 1994. But in 2004, I came across a few people who collected and that spurred me on to try to complete the sets that I collected when I was a kid.
That's where most of my collecting effort went in 2004. I didn't pay attention to modern stuff much. But like I had done the previous four years, I grabbed a couple of packs just to see what "this year's cards" looked like.
"Hmmm," I said. "White borders."
Topps hadn't created a flagship set with white borders since 1997. It looked good. Even if the borders were super thick, which made room for the photo rather small (and the images even smaller).
But this isn't the "card front countdown." It's the "card back countdown."
There is your 2004 Topps card back.
It's a nice-looking back. It has everything you need, and it is arranged well. I like the team color-coding. For instance, black and teal was used with this particular card back of Marlin Juan Pierre.
I like the small, candid mug shot and the highlighted major league totals. Everything is quite readable.
But there is something more to the 2004 card backs. Something more innovative.
It has to do with the statistics.
Topps added an extra column of statistics for the 2004 set. It added OPS.
This was big.
From 1981 through 2003 this was the stat line for the back of every hitter's card on a Topps base set:
G, AB, R, H, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, SB, SLG., BB, SO, AVG.
Every year. The same. Look it up if you don't believe me.
In 2004, Topps finally acknowledged the importance of some "new" statistics, in this case "on base percentage plus slugging percentage," or OPS.
Since then, Topps' stats have included OPS on the backs of its base set.
But Topps didn't just make the change for hitters.
From 1981-2003, Topps' stat columns for pitchers read thusly:
G, IP, W, L, R, ER, SO, BB, GS, CG, SHO, SV, ERA
You'll notice that on the Spooneybarger card there is an extra stat between saves and ERA.
It's good ol' WHIP. Walks plus hits allowed per innings pitched.
I admit I didn't know what WHIP was in 2004. So I was even more behind than Topps. It's still not a stat that I consult as often as I should. But I do understand how important it is to evaluating a pitcher's efficiency.
WHIP has shown up on all Topps base cards of pitchers since 2004. I personally think Topps should include "hits allowed" if it is going to include WHIP. And for the hitters, it should include "on-base percentage" if it is going to include OPS.
But after being stagnant in the statistical category for over 20 years, I'm just happy that Topps finally woke up to the changes baseball was making in statistical evaluation.
And probably no surprise, but the 2004 set was the first Topps flagship set to come out after "Moneyball" was published.
Best of the set:
I'm going with Eric Gagne, just because this was the set that first displayed his incredible 2003 season.
Not only did Gagne have 55 saves, a 1.20 ERA, 137 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings and just 20 walks, but he had an 0.69 WHIP. Mind-blowing stuff all around.
You can talk about PEDs all you want, but I don't think PEDs did all of that.
(previous card back countdown selections):
50. 1978 SSPC Yankee Yearbook
49. 1993 Score
48. 1999 Skybox Thunder
47. 2000 Upper Deck
46. 1999 Skybox Premium
45. 1953 Johnston Cookies Braves
44. 1995 Topps
43. 1997 Fleer
42. 1992 Pinnacle
41. 1989 Bowman
40. 1977 Kellogg's