Topps Total and the 2004 Montreal Expos

From 2002-2005, Topps had one of the best ideas for a card set in a long time, Topps Total. Unfortunately it didn't catch on....


When I started collecting in the late 1980's, each card company (and there were five of them in 1989, vs one and a half today... I can't give full credit to Panini and their unlicensed efforts) had their flagship set, weighing in at 600-800 cards. The effort was put in by all five to ensure that each set was a fairly accurate record of the season before it. Nearly all the members of each team got a card. If you were a below average middle reliever, you got a card! Backup middle infielder, pinch hitter, bench riding role player, you all got cards!

As the 1990's dawned, each company introduced more and more smaller sets every year, most relied on gimmicks instead of substance. In 1988, Topps released one comprehensive set that covered 792 cards of nearly everyone on the 26 teams, with an additional 132 card update set at the end of the season. Ten years later, Topps flagship set was 300 cards smaller, despite the league growing to 30 teams.

So who gets cut from the sets? Those middle relievers, backup infielders, role players etc. There are a lot of players in the mid to late 1990's that never got a Major League Baseball Card, because they only had a cup of coffee at the highest level. And Derek Jeter needed to take up 7 cards of that less than 500...

All five companies marketed their brands the same way. Each year more new sets would come out, with nothing notable to set them apart. Most new sets were between 200-300 cards, and featured only the top 5-10 stars from each team. They were mainly a cash grab aimed at a shrinking hobby base that was developing ADD from all that empty shiny. To oversimplify the situation, it caused three of the baseball card producing companies (Donruss, Pinnacle and Fleer) to go out of business (or to become absorbed by another) between 1998 and 2005.

Enter Topps Total. For four years, it was a huge, low cost, no frills set, whose gimmick was to include a card for most of the 25 man roster (as predicted in Spring Training) and several of each team's top prospects. Finally the days of getting cards of mop-up relievers and third string catchers was back!

But few cared...

The days of a majority of people buying cards to assemble complete and/or team sets was gone. People were buying cards for quick turn profits these days. The hobby had turned itself from a pattern of collecting, to that of a lottery mentality. No one wanted cards of players that weren't stars. They wanted hot rookies and prospects, low serial numbers, reflecting colors and on-card autographs of the top names in the game. Anything other than that just wasn't worth the money it cost to purchase them.

Topps listened to it's audience. After 2005, the Topps Total line was scrapped. Topps Opening Day was created to fill the company's lowest price point tier, only with a much smaller and much duller concept. Topps Opening Day was nothing more than 300 of Topps regular base cards with an opening day logo slapped on them. Same design, same photos, and a more limited player selection than the flagship brand.

Yeah... I'm not buying that... I want stuff like this!


In 2004, Topps even made a limited amount of Topps Total boxed team sets. Where you could get the team of your choice in an attractive display box! 2004 was the last season of the Montreal Expos, so this begged a prominent home in my collection when I found one at Mike's Stadium Sports Cards in Aurora, CO.

I own that box now, which will stay sealed. I had earlier picked up a hand-collected Expos team set off ebay, for display in my team binder. Paging through the 2004 Topps Total Montreal Expos team set, it brings back memories of how terrible that Expos team was (through little fault of their own) in their final season in Montreal.

It needs to be noted the Expos were being run by a consortium of the other 29 MLB teams, since 2001. Then-Commissioner Bud Selig planned on contracting the Expos and Minnesota Twins after the 2001 season. This plan ultimately was stopped by a Minneapolis court order, but the damage was already done in Montreal. Their previous owner, Jeff Loria (and don't get me started...) was allowed to sell the Expos to the other 29 MLB owners, and take over the Florida Marlins, in some shady dealings that also involved ownership of the Boston Red Sox.

The plan was set, the Expos (and Twins) would just go away before the 2002 season. Players from both teams would be dispersed to the other 28 teams in sort of a reverse expansion draft. The Players Union wasn't down for that and neither were the courts. So that didn't happen, and MLB had to run the Expos themselves. The end game, if they couldn't kill the franchise, was to get it out of Montreal. But there were no cities ready for the Expos to move to, so they languished in baseball purgatory...

They ended up playing three more seasons in Montreal, with the team run by the 29 other clubs. This put Montreal at a distinct disadvantage. Why would the owners support anything for an opposing team? They were given a bare bones budget, couldn't compete to sign decent players, and weren't even allowed to make late season call ups when it meant a possible playoff appearance. When Loria left for Miami, he took EVERYTHING from Montreal that wasn't nailed down. All computer equipment, scouting information and most team personnel left the country along with Loria.

It was one thing to make a team play three lame duck seasons in a city, but to cut their balls off completely is a slap in the face to whatever fans remained. It wasn't about strengthening the game, it was about killing off a specific market. At the same time, preaching about showcasing the game on a worldwide stage... By getting rid of a team in Canada?  After the way we've been treated by MLB, it's no wonder Expos fans hate Bud Selig, Jeff Loria and anyone else who made these decisions.

As far as producing an on-field product, those left in charge of the team (General Manager Omar Minaya and Field Manager Frank Robinson) came up with a mismatch of pieces that made the Expos resemble an expansion team. (I've since viewed the Expos as an expansion team in their first season, 1969, and in their last, 2004.)  As their current stars contracts ended, they were simply allowed to leave if they weren't traded first. The structure of the team meant the Expos never had an advantage in making a trade. All too often, they traded a valuable asset, for another teams failed prospects. By the time the 2004 season started, the Expos roster was a near laughable mess of retreads.

Which Topps Total captured in all it's glory!

Tony Batista
Power hitting third baseman who tied for the team lead in home runs, with 32. Which sounds good, but home runs were about all Batista could do. Which really wasn't that valuable... Coming off some big power hitting years in Toronto and Baltimore, he signed a below market value contract with Montreal. The next season was spent playing in Japan. He'd bounced around his entire career (including a 50 game stop in Minnesota in 2006), with 2004 as his only year in Montreal.

Chad Cordero
The Expos first round draft pick in 2003, as a college relief pitcher. Cordero excelled in 2004, going 7-3 2.94 in 69 games. He pitched three more good seasons in Washington after the team moved in 2005, before arm problems ruined his career. He last played in the majors for Seattle in 2010, at age 28.

Brian Schneider
Drafted by Montreal in the 5th round of the 1995 draft, Schneider played with the Expos/Nationals from 2000 to 2007, before moving on to the Mets and Phillies for another five seasons. He had a solid career, and was a player I liked.

Greg Zaun
I'd always wanted this set for my Expos collection, but it took finding out that Greg Zaun had a card in the set that made me immediately purchase it from ebay. Greg Zaun is what made Topps Total the set it needs to be. Zaun was never a star, but worked extremely hard to forge a career as a backup catcher, that spanned the 1989 Draft (17th round, to Baltimore) to voluntarily retiring from the San Diego Padres in 2011. In August 2003, Zaun was released by the Houston Astros. A few days later he signed with the Colorado Rockies, and finished the season in Denver, where I remember seeing him play at Coors Field.

A free agent after the 2003 season, he signed with the Montreal Expos in January 2004, but was released in the second week of Spring Training. Despite only a handful of pre-season games, Zaun has an official card as an Expo! I had to have this card! Fortunately, Zaun landed on his feet, signing with the Toronto Blue Jays a month later and staying there for five seasons. As the Blue Jays primary starting catcher for most of that run.

Orlando Cabrera
One of the last Expo star players. Cabrera was an above average shortstop from 1998 until a July, 2004 trade to the Boston Red Sox, where he helped win the 2004 World Series. Cabrera also had a 59 game stint with the 2009 Minnesota Twins.

Livan Hernandez
The former Cuban defector was the ace starting pitcher the Expos needed in 2003-2004, going 26-25 for some really bad teams. Not a stellar record, but 488 innings pitched in two years, with a below league average ERA, has a tremendous amount of value. Livan spent the 2008 season pitching terribly for the Minnesota Twins and the Colorado Rockies. One of the very few to play for all three teams.

Rocky Biddle
Former first round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1997, Biddle was traded to Montreal for Bartolo Colon after the 2002 season, and became the Expos closer for 2003-2004. Too bad he wasn't very good at the job. Montreal released him after the 2004 season and he never pitched in the majors again.


Sun Woo Kim & Seung Song
Nothing against either of these two highly touted prospects from Korea, but the trade with the Red Sox that brought them to Montreal spoke volumes about the situation the Expos were facing. Montreal started the 2002 season hot and were staying in contention for the first half of the season. Sensing this could be Montreal's last shot at the World Series before the team was moved or folded, GM Omar Minaya decided to send the team's best prospects for pieces that could help them win now. Trading Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon, and Carl Pavano, plus other pieces to the Florida Marlins for Cliff Floyd. Returning the former Expos #1 draft pick with the team.

I loved these moves! I knew they sold the farm for Colon, but under these circumstances, they had to do it. I do not fault Minaya at all. From the looks of things during the 2002 season, it was becoming likely that 2002 would have been their last season in Montreal, so you have to lay it all out. I was so on board for this and excited by a possible Expos post-season appearance...

For about two weeks...

The Expos hit a team-wide slump, Floyd didn't hit as expected and was flipped to the damn Boston Red Sox for Kim & Song. Getting Floyd's contract off the books was a rumored reason. The Expos finished 2002 at 83-79. A winning record and second place in the National League East, but outside of the playoffs...

Sun Woo Kim had an inconsistent 6 year career, including a season and a half with the Colorado Rockies. Song never made the Major Leagues, but did play 8 seasons in the Minor Leagues. After leaving American baseball in 2007, Song signed with the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization, where he is still pitching today.

Jose Vidro
With the departure of Vladimir Guerrero to Anaheim after the 2003 season, second baseman Jose Vidro became the face of the franchise. A 6th round draft pick of the Expos in the 1992 draft, Vidro played in Montreal and Washington from 1997 through 2006, before finishing up his career with two seasons in Seattle. From 1999 through 2003, batted over .300 all five seasons. He batted .294 in 2004. That's a very nice run for a second baseman.

Peter Bergeron
A former top prospect on his last flicker of hope in 2004. He was the centerpiece of the 1998 Expos salary dump, coming over from the Dodgers. Montreal gave up on him early in the 2004 season. Despite a summer trade to Milwaukee, then bouncing around the minor league systems of the Cubs, Orioles, Phillies and Pirates for three years, Bergeron never played a game in the majors again.


Endy Chavez
One of my favorite Expos, the speedy center fielder made spectacular catches almost every time I saw him play on TV. You still see highlights of his home run robbing catch in the 2006 playoffs for the Mets every year. Chavez came to Montreal after a bunch of waiver mess, played for three seasons, then spent time with the Mets, Seattle and other teams.


Zach Day
Just for the record, I HATED those red Expos hats...

Day was a former top prospect in the Yankees and Indians organizations, who was seemingly putting it together for his first three seasons in Montreal. But things went off the rails for Day after the team moved to Washington in 2005. Mid-season, he was traded to the Colorado Rockies for Preston Wilson, in one of Dan O'Dowd's more baffling moves. Colorado tried and failed to get Day going, and lost him on waivers in 2006... To the Nationals... Day spent the next two seasons pitching in the minors for the Royals and Twins. I really wanted Minnesota to call him up to give me another three team player...


What I will always remember Day for, came on May 17, 2003. I had really good seats to the Rockies Expos game at Coors Field, and watched Day get ejected in the third inning. Hall of Fame manager Frank Robinson threw a bit of theatrics in defense of Day, at the pitching mound. The story would come out after the game that during the first two innings, Day developed a blister on his finger. He used glue to cover it up, which is illegal. Second base umpire, Joe West (not that guy again!) noticed the foreign substance and ejected Day from the game.

Brad Wilkerson
The Expos first round draft pick in 1998, Wikerson made the majors in the summer of 2001. For the rest of the Expos stay in Montreal, he looked to be a certain star. Once the team moved to Washington, Wilkerson rapidly regressed. He last played in the majors in 2008. I don't know what went wrong here...


Joey Eischen
One of my favorite Expos prospects from the early 1990's. He put up good strikeout numbers as a left handed starter in A and AA ball, but by the time he was breaking into AAA, his control wasn't good enough. The Expos tried him as a relief pitcher in AAA Ottawa in 1994, promoting him for his major league debut, and only game of the season, on June 19, 1994. Eischen was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in early 1995, playing a season and a half before a trade to the Detroit Tigers in 1996. 

Between 1997 and 2000, Eischen only pitched 1 game in the majors (for the Cincinnati Reds), while logging time in the minor leagues for the Padres, Yankees, Diamondbacks and Indians. In the middle of the 2000 season, Eischen re-signed with the Expos, and started 9 games with the AAA Ottawa Lynx. After 11 games in relief with Ottawa to start the 2001 season, Eischen was brought back to the major leagues to stay, until wrapping up his career with the Washington Nationals in 2006.


Eischen delivers a pitch to Todd Helton in the 7th inning, in relief of the ejected Zach Day. The Expos would go on to beat the Rockies, 6-4 in 10 innings.

Carl Everett
Another former top prospect (#1 pick of the Yankees in 1990) that found himself as a 2004 Expo. Everett was an amusing soundbite with his eccentricities such as denying the existence of dinosaurs or questioning the moon landing. He always had a great deal of talent, just had a rough time fitting in with others. He was the big Expos offseason acquisition to replace Vladimir Guerrero in 2004. Signing for $3 million, vs Guerrero's $75 million over 5 years with Anaheim... Kind of shows you the playing field Montreal was using... Everett wore out his welcome before the trading deadline, and was shipped to the Chicago White Sox on July 18, 2004.

Tomo Ohka
Montreal acquired Ohka from Boston at the 2001 trading deadline for longtime Expos closer Ugueth Urbina. The native of Japan pitched well for Montreal the next three seasons, but fell apart after the team moved to Washington. It's funny how many Expos that seemed to happen to...


Nick Johnson & Juan Rivera
Going into the season, the Expos pretty much knew that 2004 was it for them. Management tried to field a competitive team, but not only did Montreal lose their future Hall of Fame right fielder in Guerrero to free agency, but they also had to trade their best young pitcher (Javier Vazquez) due to financial restraints. Cue the New York Yankees to come calling for that trade... (Both the Yankees and Red Sox owe a tremendous amount of their success between 1996 and 2004 to players pillaged from Montreal...) New York offered up Johnson and Rivera (plus relief pitcher Randy Choate) for Vazquez. Rivera played one season in Montreal, and was traded to Anaheim after the 2004 season ended. Johnson fared ok in his 2004 season, then three and a half more steady seasons in Washington, as the Nationals first baseman. Of all involved though, Vazquez had the best career.

Chad Chop & Kory Casto
The 2004 Topps Total team set included some of the Expos top prospects to fill out the last few cards. Of those five players, Josh Labandeira (not pictured) played in 7 games for the 2004 Expos, going 0-14. He never played in majors again. The name Chad Chop amuses me. Kory Casto played in 82 well-below average games for the Nationals between 2007-2008, but the Expos farm system was barren by the time they moved to Washington. 


This ended up being a MUCH longer story than I'd planned on writing. I didn't even include every card in the team set.

Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, for providing all the stuff I couldn't remember. And thanks to any readers who managed to stick with this to the end!

Comments

  1. Topps Total is much loved around these parts. I loved it because it was the one set that featured relievers and backup catchers. Of course many others loved it because it was a challenging yet cheap set to build. Challenging and cheap doesn't really exist in todays collecting environment.

    Welcome to the community!

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