Saturday, February 07, 2004

Test Post: 2004 Ultra

The details:

One box of 2004 Ultra Baseball (paid $59)
24 packs per box, 8 cards per pack (MSRP $2.99)

Base Set: 220 cards

Broken down by short-print scheme:200 card Short Set
20 All-Rookies (odds not stated)

Parallels:Gold Medallions (200 cards, one-per-pack)
Gold Medallion All-Rookies (20 cards, 1:8)
Platinum Medallions (220 cards, 1:36, numbered to 66)

Ultra Performers (15 cards, 1:6)
Ultra Kings (30 cards, 1:12)
Ultra Kings Gold (30 cards, 1:350, production varies)
Diamond Producers (10 cards, 1:144)

Season Crowns Game-Used (50 cards, numbered to 399, **)
Season Crowns Game-Used Gold (50 cards, numbered to 99, **)
Season Crowns Autographed (50 cards, numbered to 150, ***)
Season Crowns Autographed Gold (50 cards, numbered to 25, ***)
Ultra Performers Game-Used (numbered to 500)
Ultra Performers UltraSwatch (production varies)
Diamond Producers Game-Used (numbered to 1000)
Diamond Producers UltraSwatch (production varies)
Ultra Kings Triple Swatch (10 cards, numbered to 33)

* Odds of finding any game-used card: 1:12
** Odds of finding a Season Crowns game-used card: 1:24
*** Odds of finding a Season Crowns autograph: 1:192

The Pulls:

Base Set:153 of 220 (69.55%)

Broken down by short-print scheme:
Short Set: 141 of 200 (70.50%)
All-Rookies: 12 of 20 (60.00%)

24 Gold Medallions
3 Gold Medallion All-Rookies
1 Platinum Medallions: A. Ramirez

4 Ultra Performers: A. Pujols, R. Johnson, C. Jones, H. Nomo
2 Ultra Kings: M. Prior, A. Pujols

2 Ultra Performers Game-Used: R. Baldelli, M. Piazza
1 Diamond Producers Game-Used: D. Willis

The Review:

Whenever somebody who is new to The Hobby asks me what they should collect, inevitably I recommend the same handful of products: Topps, Bowman, Upper Deck, Fleer Tradition, Topps Gallery, Stadium Club and Ultra. (For the record, Donruss and Leaf used to be on this list, that is until Playoff managed to butcher them up with short-prints and other collector unfriendly gimmicks). Although the 2004 edition bears little, if any, resemblance to the great Ultra sets of the mid-90s, it is still a "must have" addition to any serious baseball card collection.

Like I mentioned in my review of 2003 Fleer Tradition Update (see my website, I'll get around to posting it here soon), "retro" is now officially "played out." More proof of this: The design of the 2004 Ultra base set. It's one thing to rip off the design of a 1960s card set for a 2003 product, but quite another to rip off a 1999 design for a 2004 set. This year's Ultra base set is virtually indistinguishable from the Ultra set released just five years ago with the only difference being a "swipe" underneath the player's name. But that's not all! Oh no. The backs are virtual carbon copies of the 2002 Fleer Premium set!

Other than the design, the composition of the base set is pretty much consistent with what Fleer has been offering with Ultra over the last couple of years. The single series set features 200 cards of all the usual suspects and a 20 card "All-Rookie" subset that appears to be seeded one in every other pack. I say "appears" because, while the last couple of Ultra sets have had SPs, this year Fleer took a page from the Donruss deceptive marketing playbook. Nowhere is it mentioned that the All-Rookie subset cards are, in fact, short-printed. Granted, there are fewer of them to chase (20 as opposed to the 35-50 in previous years) and they are seeded at a little more generous ratio of 1:2. (as opposed to the 1:4 that the SPs were in previous Ultra offerings). So in theory, this year's Ultra set should be easier to build than in years before. Still, for a card company to include short-printed base set cards and fail to mention it to the collector is fraudlent, not to mention extremely unethical. They pulled a stunt like this two years ago with 2002 Fleer Tradition baseball (not coincedenitally the worst Fleer/Fleer Tradition set in ten years), and they did it again this year with Ultra. Hopefully, Fleer will come to their senses and not repeat this mistake in the future.

The Gold Medallions, one of the few one-per-pack parallels left, return for another year, with a Platinum version (each numbered to only 66 copies), coming every thirty-sixth pack. Each Medallion has one of it's corners clipped off to differentiate it from the base cards, as if the Gold and Platinum foil fronts wasn't enough. Also, it appears that the All-Rookie Gold Medallions and Platinum Medallions were seeded separately from the short set GMs. In every pack that produced an ARGM or a PM, I also received a short set GM.

Ultra's non-parallel insert program includes the 20 card "Ultra Performers," 30 card "Kings," and ten "Diamond Producers," all of which have a game used parallel version (more on those later). The Kings are actually three different 10 card sets in one (Home Run, RBI and Strikeout Kings), and are modeled after similar themed inserts from Ultra sets gone by. There's also a Gold version that's numbered to 50 copies each. The Diamond Producers are seeded at the rate of 1:144 packs (that's one in every six boxes), and are actually a tougher pull (or is it "tuffer pull?") than the game used quasi-parallel version.

Speaking of which, all of the autographs and game used cards are de facto parallels, or in the case of the 50 card Season Crowns, de facto partial parallels. The SCs take the design of the base set and add either an autograph or a jersey swatch. Both come in regular and Gold flavors. The Ultra Performers and Diamond Producers game jersey cards come in both regular and Gold "UltraSwatch" versions as well. Like I previously mentioned, the game used Diamond Producers are easier to pull from the packs than the non-game used version. A pretty novel concept if you ask me. The UltraSwatch cards have a piece of a uniform patch and are serial numbered to the respective player's uniform number. The showcase inserts in 2004 Ultra though, are the Ultra Kings Triple Swatch cards. These cards feature game used patches from one player from each of the three different Kings sets, and each are limited to only 33 serial numbered copies.

The Bottom Line:

The box delivered just about everything that was promised. I received 70 percent of the base set (including 60% of the short-printed All-Rookies). Inserts and parallels came as listed and I received an extra game used card. What curious about the game used cards is that, although I did receive three gamers (as opposed to the two promised), I one the three was not from the one-per-box Season Crowns.

With that aside, 2004 Ultra is a pretty good product that suffers from three fatal flaws. Two I previously mentioned: the total lack of originality in base set design, and that little minor detail of short-printed All-Rookie cards. The other has plagued Ultra (and to a certain extent Stadium Club, Donruss and Leaf) for the last couple years: It's a single series product released almost a month before Christmas. Call me old fashioned, but if it says "2004" on the wrapper, then at the very least the players on the cards inside should be pictured on their 2004 uniforms. Believe it or not, the very first Ultra cards of Jim Thome and Kevin Millwood in their Phillies uniforms are in 2004 Ultra -- 11 months after the team acquired them. Obviously, with 2003 Ultra going live almost a month before their acquisitions, it would be impossible for Thome and Millwood to be added to the set with their new teams. But 11 months is way to long. This problem can easily be rectified three ways:

1) Wait a couple of months.
2) Release a second series.
3) Both.

The first option, waiting until 2004 to release a "2004" product, other than making much more sense, would also allow more than enough time to include free agents and traded players. Also, one of the worst things Fleer did to the Ultra brand was to make it a single series. This is a product that deserves to a second series or update series made. Besides, I'd much rather purchase a box of 2004 Ultra series 2 than crap like Box Score, Hardball or Authentix. My recommendation to Jim Stefano, Lloyd Pawlak and the rest of the gang is to hold off on releasing the first series until January (at the earliest), and to replace one of the aforementioned mid-summer premium price-point products (try saying that five times as fast as you can), with a second series of Ultra.

Product Rating: 2 1/2 Gumsticks out of 5.
I would have given this 3 1/2 if they had only listed the short-prints on the packaging.
Collation Rating: 4 1/2 Gumsticks out of 5.

Do I recommend this product: Yes. Despite it's flaws, it's still Fleer Ultra, and it deserves to be in your collection.

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