A team that develops a green rookie into a bona fide star is rewarding the fans’ patience. But the acquisition of an established superstar delivers instant gratification, at least initially. The press conference is a party, beat reporters gush, fans get excited (and buy season tickets, of course), because a run of championships is just around the corner. It’s all upside, as they say.
That is, unless the player departs, willingly or not, for another team after a short time — a season or two, sometimes briefer than that — leaving fans of the “rebound” team gnashing their teeth with what-ifs and regretting the purchase of once-coveted memorabilia.
Imagine you’re a Texas Rangers fan at the end of the twentieth century. (No, really!) If being swept by the Yankees in the American League Division Series in consecutive years isn’t embarrassing enough, your team drops an additional 24 games during a first-to-worst drop in 2000.
But there’s hope. Owner Tom Hicks signs free-agent wunderkind shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who abandoned the Seattle Mariners after leading them to the American League Championship Series, to a 10-year deal worth an otherworldly $252 million.
But despite a contract so Texas large it seems comical in retrospect, Rodriguez was not to finish his career in the place that catered to his every whim. In fact, A-Rod’s short stint reminds us of the “drive-by” careers of several prominent players in the past few decades. We’re not talking journeymen here, but some of the best ever to play their respective sports. It seems odd that teams would opt to part (or players, of course) with relationships that seemed, at one time at least, a perfect fit. And yet.
In A-Rod’s case, the season following his arrival finds the Rangers unable to climb out of the AL West basement, 43 games behind A-Rod’s previous club, Seattle, who somehow grind out more wins than any team since Satchel Paige was in diapers. Manager Johnny Oates is fired in May, and general manager Doug Melvin follows him at season’s end, but you’re not worried: A-Rod leads the league in runs, homers, and total bases — a promising start to a new decade of Rangers baseball, right?
By the end of the 2003 season, however, A-Rod’s prolific output, including an MVP year, hasn’t been able to turn the team around. Tom Hicks admits buyer’s remorse, and Rodriguez is willing to move to third base and change his jersey number to facilitate a trade to the Yankees, the one team in the league who can afford his budget busting salary.
Sorry, Dallas-Fort Worth denizens, but your beloved Rangers won’t reach the playoffs again until 2010, which would have been the last year of A-Rod’s contract. By then you’d even stopped complaining about the more recent unloading of Mark Teixeira, another young power-hitting infielder. It’s been a lost decade. That Teixeira and Rodriguez won their first World Series rings the previous year — as mega-rich Yankee teammates, no less — is only a bad dream. In hindsight, leveraging an entire franchise on one star seems like maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Then again, it only took 10 years for it to pay off.
It’s not always a big-name signing that can create a meeting of odd bedfellows. Sometimes it’s a contract that’s ending and a team in sell mode. To wit, Reggie Jackson was an Oriole. No, seriously.
Neither a broken-down ballplayer clinging to a roster spot nor a tool of a team banking on past glories to sell tickets — this wasn’t Willie Mays on the Mets, Jackson was in his prime in the orange and black.
Even diehard fans of Mr. October might be unaware that before he brought his star to New York — a star formed in Oakland, which included six All Star appearances, two World Series wins (Reggie was too injured to appear in the 1972 Fall Classic) and an unanimous MVP season in 1973 — Jackson spent a single season during the prime of his career in Baltimore.
With no desire to award raises to cantankerous star players, the A’s (who lost free agent Catfish Hunter to the Yankees in 1975) executed a six-player deal that sent Reggie, in the final year of his contract, to the O’s right before Opening Day 1976.
Jackson would turn 30 years old while batting .277 with 27 home runs and 91 runs batted in, a decent season for a mid-1970s slugger. The Orioles would finish in second place, 10½ games behind the Yankees, despite a roster with two 20-game winners. (When the player on your team with the second-highest batting average — .000465 behind Ken Singleton — is Reggie Jackson, you’re not exactly filling the bases.)
The Orioles were unable to sign Jackson to a new contract. Money was the obvious issue (Reggie had held out for a raise prior to donning the Baltimore uniform), though his teammates claimed that he never planned to stick around anyway. The following season Reggie was the $2.96 million straw that stirred the Yankees into back-to-back World Series championships, while his time spent at Memorial Stadium is now remembered — if at all — as a lost season.
Here are some other players, like Reggie, who turned what-could-be into what-could’ve-been, all in the blink of an eye.
Mike Piazza, Florida Marlins (five games, 1998) — How’d you like to fly from Los Angeles to New York, with a one-week layover in Miami? That’s sort of what happened to Mike Piazza in May 1998. Shortly after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought the Dodgers, the team gave up on hammering out a contract extension for their franchise catcher and traded him, apparently without any input from the actual general manager that the new ownership inherited. Piazza joined Todd Zeile in Miami as Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, and Gary Sheffield went west.
Unlike Baltimoreans in 1976, Floridians held little hope that the new acquisition would stick around for the rest of the month, let alone the season. The Marlins were in the midst of their first post–World Series fire sale, and it was an open secret that the Mets were targeting Piazza, so it was only a matter of time – seven days, in fact – before he was shipped to New York.
Just a week after Piazza and a journeyman (sorry, Todd) were worth a few recent all-stars, the catcher who would finish his sixth full season as a perennial All-Star with career marks of .333 and 200 home runs was suddenly considered equal in value to:
• An outfielder whose entire major-league career at that point consisted of three more games than Piazza spent as a Marlin (Preston Wilson)
• A minor-league pitcher whose major-league resume would contain 20 innings’ worth of work over two seasons (Ed Yarnall)
• Another minor-leaguer who wouldn’t pitch his way out of Double-A (Geoff Goetz)
Piazza’s South Beach legacy includes five hits in 18 at-bats (no home runs but, curiously, one of his eight career triples), and left behind a limited and coveted trading card collection. With the Mets he bolstered his potential Hall of Fame qualifications, and led them to the Subway Series, where Roger Clemens chucked a bat at him.
Wayne Gretzky, St. Louis Blues (31 games, 1996) – The Los Angeles Kings were defeated in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals and three years later were a team in decline. Wayne Gretzky wasn’t exactly in decline himself, but he wasn’t getting any younger. The Kings, obliging his request to trade him to a contender, sent him to the St. Louis Blues on February 27, 1996, for a handful of guys not worth mentioning.
With Brett Hull and Shayne Corson, Gretzky, who was named team captain, anchored a line that had the potential to find the back of the net a dozen times every night. In 18 regular-season games, Gretzky scored a slightly more modest 8 goals and 13 assists, and racked up 37 points in a postseason that lasted 31 games and ended on a Steve Yzerman slapshot in the second overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Less than two months later, Gretzky signed a contract with the Rangers, leaving Blues fans with, well, the blues. The postmortem included theories ranging from the lack of on-ice chemistry between of Gretzky and Hull to the inevitable lure of the New York market. According to an interview with the Great One last year, he had initially planned to finish his career in St. Louis — rumors had him buying a house in the area, and his wife had grown up near the city.
A more tantalizing suggestion is that mercurial coach/GM Mike Keenan, who never met a bridge he didn’t burn, rubbed Gretzky the wrong way. “Rubbed the wrong way,” if Gretzky’s former Blues teammate Chris Pronger is to be believed, included confronting his team at the hotel while “shitfaced,” where he “tore Gretzky a new ass.”
Gretzky skated on Broadway for three years before retiring after the 1998–99 season. Though the Rangers didn’t qualify for the playoffs that final, their fans were able to witness the Great One’s victory lap. On the other side of the Mississippi, the Blues would lose again in the Western Conference semis, this time to a Dallas Stars team featuring Brett Hull, who would later score the Cup–winning goal in a Game 6 triple-overtime thriller.
The Blues have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
Rasheed Wallace, Atlanta Hawks (one game, 2004) – Rasheed Wallace was one of the more colorful folks in NBA history — the announcement of his latest retirement elicited tributes from BuzzFeed and Deadspin — and his one-game cameo with the Hawks was, for Sheed, a logical turn of events.
It took more than seven seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers to finally reach their fill of Wallace’s behavior, both on and off the court (take your pick), and on February 9, 2004, he and Wesley Person were shipped to the rebuilding and expiring-contract-seeking Hawks for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Dan Dickau, and Theo Ratliff.
On February 19, as the trade deadline loomed, the Hawks pulled off a more complicated transaction with the Celtics and Pistons that moved nine players and sent Wallace to Detroit.
During those ten days, while he on the roster of three teams separated by almost 3,000 miles and had his fate connected to 13 other players, Rasheed Wallace played a game of basketball. He performed admirably in a loss to the Nets in New Jersey, scoring 20 points with six rebounds and five blocks — and, good for him, zero fouls or technical fouls.
On his third team of the season, Wallace would be one of the final pieces that propelled the defense-minded Pistons to the NBA title over the heavily favored Lakers, who had acquired Gary Payton and Karl Malone and were crowned champions before the season started.
Post-Wallace, the Trail Blazers continue to be … the Trail Blazers.
Ryan Smyth, New York Islanders (23 games, 2007) – It wasn’t Gretzky leaving Edmonton for sunny LA — or even Mark Messier heading to New York — but Ryan Smyth’s departure on February 27, 2007, surprised and devastated the Oiler fan base, and not just because it came on the same day the team retired Messier’s number.
The previous season ended with a Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Oilers’ first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since the team’s dynasty days. By the start of the 2006–07 season, however, two important members of that team, Chris Pronger (the same Chris Pronger who witnessed the Mike Keenan tirade) and Mike Peca, were with new teams.
The Oilers had faded from playoff contention before the trade deadline, and when they couldn’t come to terms on a contract extension for Smyth — sources later reported that the two sides were just $100,000 apart — the team traded one of the few superstars that remained.
The Islanders knew they were taking a big risk: Smyth would be a free agent after the season, meaning they gave up two prospects and a first-round draft pick for what could be at most a three-month rental. Islander fans weren’t exactly eager to buy Smyth merchandise after the winger held a teary press conference before his flight to New York where he said things like “This is not what my family and I had in store” and declared his intention to win the Cup with his new team “so I can bring it down here to Edmonton — because that’s where my heart is.”
The Smyth experiment lasted 18 regular-season games (five goals and 10 assists) and a five-game first-round playoff loss to the Sabres. Smyth barely entertained the idea of remaining on the Islanders for the start of the 2007–2008 season, but that was during an era when nobody wanted to play for the Islanders, who would endure last-place finishes and a playoff drought until this season.
The Oilers suffered their worst public relations disaster since Gretzky left town — fans and Oiler players alike were enraged — and haven’t been to the playoffs since, either. As for Smyth, he signed with the Colorado Avalanche, who traded him two seasons later to the Kings, who traded him two years after that to the Oilers, where he began — and will likely end — his career.
Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran, Houston Astros (Johnson: 13 games, 1998; Beltran: 112 games, 2004) – Twice over a six-year period, the Astros rented a top player in an attempt to bolster their playoff chances.
During 1998, the final year of his Mariners contract, Randy Johnson was either leaving Seattle or staying in Seattle, depending on what month it was. A great deal of intrigue ended right before the July 31 trade deadline, when he was finally shipped to Houston for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama, all minor leaguers at the time.
Johnson, who was 9-10 before the trade, mowed down National League hitters, going 10-1 with 116 strikeouts and a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts as the Astros increased their NL Central lead and finished the season with 102 wins. The first round of the playoffs pitted them against the San Diego Padres. Johnson pitched well in the two games he pitched, striking out 17 and giving up four runs (three earned) in 14 innings, but took the loss in each because Astros hitters went a combined 7-for-60 (.116), generating a single run in each contest.
A free agent, Johnson signed a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he’d win the next four Cy Young Awards. Garcia, Guillen, and Halama would be key parts of the Mariners team that won 116 games in 2001, the season when Johnson won his only World Series ring. That was also the season that the Astros were knocked out of the Division Series for the fourth time in five years.
In 2004, Houston added Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte (who together won 38 Yankees games the prior year) to their Roy Oswalt–anchored rotation with the hopes of ending a two-year playoff drought. They held a share of NL Central lead as late as May 22 before dropping as low as fifth place for most of June. By the time Carlos Beltran and his expiring contract were acquired from the Royals in a trade that also involved the Athletics, the Astros were on their way to the All-Star break with a 44-44 record and a new manager.
Beltran batted only .258 during 90 regular-season games on his new team, but the hits — 23 homers, 17 doubles, seven triples, plus 28 stolen bases — were crucial. The Astros went 59-36 with Beltran on the roster, closing out the season on a seven-game winning streak to clinch the Wild Card after game 162.
In the postseason, the only thing more impressive than Beltran’s numbers was timing his production to the end of a walk year. In the Division Series he batted .455 with four home runs to help Houston win their first postseason series since 1986. In the Championship Series he hit .417 with another four homers as the Astros kept pace with the 105-game-winning Cardinals — until Clemens fell apart in the sixth inning of Game 7.
Beltran was the most coveted free agent of the offseason, and his agent was optimistic that the Astros, who were given exclusive negotiating rights until the middle of November, would work out a worthy 10-year-deal. Of course, when a player’s agent is Scott Boras, negotiations are never easy, and Houston fell short with a seven-year $105 million offer. The Mets won the bidding battle and signed the switch-hitting centerfielder to a seven-year, $112 million deal.
Houston would reach the World Series the following year, only to be swept by the White Sox in four close games, and (to date) haven’t sniff the playoffs since. Beltran would play a mostly productive seven years for the Mets and lead them to another Championship Series Game 7 against the Cardinals, but the 2006 postseason was one that Beltran would likely rather forget.
Others worth mentioning:
• In 2008, Brett Favre was on his way to being the greatest New York Jet since Joe Namath, until, uh, he wasn’t.
• During what amounted to an eight-month sabbatical from the Indiana Pacers, Mark Jackson played some of his best basketball on a dysfunctional Denver Nuggets team during part of the 1996–97 season.
• Between separate five-year stints with the Falcons and Cowboys, Deion Sanders had one of his best seasons during a single 1994 tour with the 49ers: six interceptions for more than 300 yards (three went for touchdowns), Defensive Player of the Year, and key coverage on the Cowboys’ Michael Irvin during the NFC Championship — plus an interception in the Super Bowl XXIX victory.
• In 2005 Larry Brown planned to cap his coaching career running the Knicks, but “future” and “building” — even “next year” — always meant something less long-term.
Anthony Zumpano lives on Long Island. He’ll still root for the Islanders when they move to Brooklyn.