Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

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Perfecting the Top 10: Superstars in Surprising Places

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Perfecting the Top 10 on July 25, 2011 at 7:00 AM

For many of us, the off-season and the trade deadlines can be a time as exciting as the season itself. You can find yourself in agony when a favorite departs or on the other side of the fence when a fresh face or seasoned veteran makes their way onto your club.  And with today’s salary cap limitations, fire sales and trades in the name of “rebuilding,” cornerstone members of franchises often find themselves in jerseys different than the one they’ll be remembered for. While most of these are forgotten over time, here are the most random (and jarring) ones over the last few decades until LeBron ultimately ends his career in Minnesota.

10. Wade Boggs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Boggs is a member of the 3,000 hit club, and he did it while wearing one of the ugliest uniforms in sports history. After a long run in Boston and a World Series for the Yankees, Boggs signed on with Tampa Bay in 1998. The Hall of Famer spent the last two seasons of his career in the basement of the AL East after years of sitting on top of it.

9. Thurman Thomas, Miami Dolphins

After being cut by the Buffalo Bills in 2000, Thomas signed on with the Miami Dolphins as a backup to Lamar Smith (and probably because Florida is a retiree paradise). The future Hall of Famer saw action sparingly before an injury ended his career twelve year career.

8. Mike Piazza, Florida Marlins

One of the greatest offensive catchers of all-time, the one time Dodger bat boy was traded by L.A. to the Florida Marlins in 1998 for exactly a week. He was nothing more than a poker chip to the Marlins to purge contracts from their World Series team the year before. The twelve-time All-Star managed to play a whole five games before being flipped to the New York Mets where he spent the next seven seasons of his career.

7. Karl Malone, Los Angeles Lakers

The definition of a ring chase: Karl Malone spent eighteen of his nineteen years with the Utah Jazz and John Stockton perfecting the pick and roll. After Stockton’s retirement in 2003, Malone, at the age of 40, decided to move out further west to the Lakers for one last attempt at the NBA Finals. Things didn’t go as planned as the Lakers ran into a staunch Pistons team who caused The Mailman to retire with many accolades, but no championship.

6. Wayne Gretzky, St. Louis Blues

“The Great One” to some will always be seen as an Oiler while many will reference him as a King. While he did spend the end of his career in New York, his brief stint alongside Brett Hull for the St. Louis Blues is often forgotten. Acquired for their playoff run in 1996, he departed the following off-season.

5. Eddie George, Dallas Cowboys

Forgot this ever happened even though it wasn’t all that long ago. Eight years after being drafted by the Oilers and then moving with them to Tennessee, George made his way back to Texas as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. From there, he pretty much did nothing until hanging it up. Playing in only 13 games for Dallas, he managed just over ten yards per game.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon, Toronto Raptors

The Dream was Houston. He spent his college years a Cougar and led the Rockets to two championships over his seventeen years with the franchise. However, after the 2000-01 season, Olajuwon and the Rockets could not settle on a contract for the fading superstar and traded him north to the Raptors. He retired after the season, but he got to hang out on Toronto’s bench for half of it.

3. Emmitt Smith, Arizona Cardinals

As odd as it was to see Eddie George in Cowboy blue, it was even more awkward to see the NFL’s all-time leading rusher not in it. Determined his career wasn’t over, Smith made his way to the Cardinals after the 2002 season and spent his last 2 years in the backfield of some really bad teams. Thankfully, Emmitt retired as a Cowboy after signing a one-day contract worth zero dollars.

2. Joe Montana, Kansas City Chiefs

Still remember the Sports Illustrated cover with Montana, his ring and the title Kansas City, Here I Come. After 13 seasons in San Francisco, the Hall of Fame quarterback was traded to the Chiefs who he took to the playoffs both years before retiring. Regardless of this success, the guy who threw that pass will always be remembered in red and gold.

1. Michael Jordan, Washington Wizards

This one is easy. Michael Jordan is a Chicago Bull. While his numbers were decent, the Wizards weren’t and his tenure there just didn’t feel right.

Disagree on the order?  Have we left out some obvious choices?  Let us know in the comments!

Cheering for a False Idol

In Baseball, Houston on June 30, 2011 at 10:00 AM

My heroes always carried a glove, not a cape.  Somewhere in my closet, I had a nice collection of comic books, but they were just a collection.  My pride and joy were my baseball cards.  I spent countless hours memorizing stats, sorting them and creating trades in my head (an early precursor to fantasy baseball).  These weren’t just guys playing baseball.  They represented everything I wanted to be.  Simply put, the Houston Astros were my life.  To a large degree, they still are, but it’s not and will never be the same again.  As a kid, I was fortunate enough to have had many encounters with these superheroes, but in the end, those experiences have become a touch too bittersweet.

Ken Caminiti was the greatest 3rd baseman I’d ever seen.  Maybe he wasn’t, but when you’re nine, you have a distorted frame of reference.  All I knew was that he could stop a bullet down the line and fire off a fastball to first that would have made Nolan Ryan blush.  Yeah, and he swung a mean stick.  But more than that, he was a good guy, and he played for my team.  Bagwell, Biggio, Gonzalez, they all were.  How could they not be?  I cheered for them, I wore a smile for weeks after I got one of them to sign a ball for me, and I religiously watched them at night.  Even after Caminiti was traded to San Diego, he was still a Houston Astro for me.  Being one was more than a jersey; he just happened to play elsewhere.  I had no perspective at that age about the “business” end of sports.  It was so much more than just that.

In 1996, Ken Caminiti reached the top with the Padres.  He was named the 1996 National League MVP and won his second consecutive Golden Glove.  A couple of years later, he made it to the Series.  And like many athletes, he had a rough end to his career.  Suddenly, he could no longer make the plays or manage his way through the pain.  Ultimately, he flamed out at first base for the Braves.  All in all, though, it was still a great career.

And then it happened.  Eight years and many confessions later, Caminiti was dead.  I had lost a part of me.  I had lost my innocence.  Superheroes weren’t supposed to die.  Or have a cocaine habit.  Or cheat.  Watching his fall was painful.  I poured over his Sports Illustrated story and tales of steroid abuse.  All those stats I had memorized now had a nice, big asterisk.

But this is not about steroids or other drugs.  It’s about last piece of the puzzle that Caminiti’s demise helped me figure out about baseball, sports and, well, everything.  What I saw so clearly as a kid became an impossibility as an adult.

Realizing that so many of my idols were false idols makes it hard for me to be a baseball fan nowadays, or at least one that’s not cynical.  Baseball is a proud and stubborn sport, to say the least.  It’s basked in tradition and numbers.  And for a good part of my youth, many of those playing at the highest level blatantly disregarded this history.  I’d like to believe baseball has cleaned itself up over the last few years.  And while the cynic in me is ready to forgive the sport, I refuse to forget.  After all, I still find myself comparing every third basemen today to Caminiti.

But cynicism has its limits: As an adult, I realize athletes aren’t mythological.  They’re just people like you and me.  Like many, Caminiti had his flaws and made his share of mistakes.  Unfortunately, his mistakes (and those of other athletes) were put in the spotlight for everyone to see.  But I still believe he was a good guy.  He had to be.