by Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*

Aside from 1995, I liked a lot of Topps sets in my major years of collecting baseball (pretty much the decade of the 90’s, as I got more into hockey in the 2000’s).  But 1998 was not one of those years. As a baseball fan, that year was kind of the beginning of the end for me for a while. The Indians’ once-great teams were starting to fall off, they missed out on Pedro Martinez (because they wanted to keep Jaret Wright… can you believe that?), and the steroid-inflated numbers were entering the picture in a major way. Of course, the performance-enhancing drugs already were in the game (I have suspicions on a few players going back to the early 1980’s) but the record breaking numbers from the users were just starting to make their way into the books.

The 1998 Topps design was the first of those colored border years that I loathed. 1998 had gold borders and a way-too-busy name plate at the bottom. The name runs into a bar at the bottom with the team name in it, and behind it all is a background with the team logos all over it. It’s too much, and not enough at the same time.

I can understand that bar at the bottom, but the logos behind it too? Why not put the player’s position and jersey number in the bar? It’s not enough information. Likewise, the team name AND logos put in contrasting colors in an area where the main draw should be the name? It’s too much!

MY EYES! MY EYES!!!

Troy Glaus. Kris Benson. David Dellucci. Those are the three biggest rookies in this set. It’s bad when David Dellucci ranks third in anything, except for awesome fan chants. I went to a Rangers game back in 2005 and every time Dellucci and his #22 came up, a guy near me in the right field stands would shout “Double deuce, double D! Hit it hard, hit it to me!” Me gusta.

Looking at this set, how did I rank it higher than some of the sets right behind it? I mean really, this is a bad set. I really liked the 1997 Topps set. I got a ton of it at a garage sale once and it became a favorite of mine. I liked 1999 with a clean design in spite of the gold borders. But 1998 was an eyesore with limited redeeming value in terms of players. It was another short set– 503 cards, but at least it only had 26 fillers. For the mathematically not-so-inclined, that’s 16, almost 17 players per team. In my view, that’s nowhere near enough. 2001 and 1978 really should be ahead of this set.

At least these two cards looked pretty cool.

It’s even hard for me to come up with anything to write about this set. I’ve already said enough on the negatives. I tried to find positives, but am coming up short there. So on that, I will take a brief detour. I mentioned 1998 being the end for the Indians, especially the Pedro Martinez trade. I feel that not making that trade cost the Indians at least one World Series championship.

It’s October 1997. The Indians were an inning away from beating the Marlins in the 1997 World Series for the city’s first championship since 1964. And then Jose Mesa and Tony Fernandez combined to wreck it. Fernandez was already on my list. Of course, his home run won the ALCS in the 11th inning of a scoreless Game 6. But his error in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the World Series allowed the Marlins to have a big inning. If Fernandez makes the play on Counsell’s grounder, you have a potential inning-ending double play and a 9-7 Marlins lead. The Indians went on to put up 4 runs in the bottom of the 9th. If history holds true, the Indians win Game 3 by a 10-9 score and then the World Series in six games.

Instead, Game 7 becomes inevitable, Wright stays in a little too long in the 7th, Mesa gives up two hits and a sac fly, Fernandez makes yet another bad error in the 11th, and that’s that.  Many blame Mesa, I blame Fernandez. Julio Franco had been a better fielder for the Indians that year at second base, had nearly the same batting average, and was only getting paid about $1.5 million more, but Franco was the one released midseason. I hate putting the label of blame on Fernandez considering he hit .471 in the World Series, but the fact his his iron glove in the clutch cost the Indians the series more than his 7 singles and a double helped them.

So the Indians were obviously one of the best teams in baseball with the AL’s second best offense behind only Seattle. But their pitching was only average. Below average even, as the AL’s average team ERA that year was 4.56, while the Indians were at 4.73. Only four teams were worse, including Boston and Seattle.

And so, with the league’s most dominant pitcher in Pedro Martinez on the trading block, it would seem obvious that Seattle, Boston, and Cleveland should be the frontrunners to acquire his services. Montreal wanted Jaret Wright who looked like he could be great for a few years. Key word: could. In the eyes of the Indians front office, he was a can’t-miss prospect. In the eyes of the fans, he was still a prospect and it’s better to have an established arm to win now. The Indians passed, the Red Sox gave Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr., and again, that’s that.

Then came the 1999 ALDS. Red Sox vs. Indians. Pedro pitches four scoreless in Game One before leaving due to injury. Indians take a 2-0 series lead with a 3-2 Game 1 win and an 11-1 Game 2 win. Game 3 featured epic mismanagement by Mike Hargrove, as he put in likely Game 4 starter Jaret Wright (yes, THAT Jaret Wright) in to pitch in relief of Dave Burba. Wright allowed 5 runs in 2 innings and took the loss. Tribe still leads 2-1. The roof caved in during Game 4, as six pitchers for the Indians combined to go eight innings and allow 23 runs. All earned. 2-2 series now. And by now everyone knows what happened in Game 5 in Cleveland: Saberhagen and Lowe get thumped for 8 runs in 3 innings, and an injured Pedro comes in and shuts the door with no hits and 8 strikeouts over 6 innings, the Red Sox score five, and just like that, the potential Cleveland empire is over, defeated by the guy they should have acquired, and partially lost by the guy they should have traded to get him.

The Yankees would go on to be the team to beat in the AL from 1998-2003, the Red Sox would be that team from 2004-2007, and the Indians would fade into obscurity. All because of one trade that wasn’t made.

About the Author: Drew Pelto is loaded with Cleveland angst. He lives in Texas but still finds himself beating his head against a wall over the Indians, Browns, and Cavs. To quote his high school classmate George Chimples, “Being a Cleveland fan is like being forced to watch helplessly every morning as Mike Tyson enters your home and stomps on your children.”