Top 10 Sports Retirements 2010

From 'The Big Unit' to 'The Big Hurt'

'The Big Unit' as seen on 'The Simpsons'
'The Big Unit' as seen on 'The Simpsons'

Who’s to say what they’ll do next, now that it’s over, kaput, lights out. Moonlighting as a dancing fiend and making up for lost time with family is paramount for a decorated ex-NFL QB with seven children, while pursuing a clichéd future in sports broadcasting represents the next mountaintop for a multitalented modern day Boston icon.

Doesn’t anyone want to canvass for “Save the Children” or join the fight to combat gang violence? For others, it could become the catalyst for a wasteful and hedonistic splurge into bankruptcy, ruin, and infamy – as Lawrence Taylor and Mike Tyson can attest. God knows these now-ex-professional-athletes have plentiful resources and ironclad celebrity, whatever their plan. Bankruptcy notwithstanding, the first one to hock used cars or sell-out for some local grease-ball attorney on late-night TV ads with negligible production value, loses. These are the pillars of American sports who gratefully (in some cases) and begrudgingly (in others) relinquished the dream and retired in 2010 – roll the montage and cue the bittersweet piano melody, Clark.

1) Ken Griffey Jr.

It sounds oxymoronic to pronounce someone nicknamed “Junior” and “The Kid” to be “over the hill,” but that was the scarlet moniker branded into the legendary Ken Griffey Jr. during his 2009-2010 farewell tour with the Seattle Mariners. Forever to be remembered as the fun-loving, boyish centerfielder who donned and popularized the backwards hat in a conservative and decorum-obsessed sport, Griffey Jr. abruptly retired on June 2nd, 2010, realizing his stark decline in production was inordinately hurting his beloved Mariners. Though catchy and charming, Junior’s infectious style was but a superficial (and refreshing) polish over his career: in his 22 Major League seasons with Seattle (13 seasons), Cincinnati (8.5), and the Chicago White Sox (.5), the simultaneously dynamic and injury-wracked centerfielder amassed superlative numbers, even by Hall of Fame standards – 630 home runs (5th all-time, behind Willie Mays), 2,781 hits, 1,836 RBIs, and a lifetime .284 batting average. Sprinkle in 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, and one American League MVP, and Ken Griffey Jr. stands tall among the pantheon of baseball greats.

Unfortunately, yet paradoxically to his credit, Griffey Jr. missed an astonishing 750-plus games due to injury (nearly 4.5 seasons). The baseball media has lamented “what might’ve been” if not for Griffey’s host of injuries well in advance of his actual retirement, and it’s an equally mesmerizing and melancholy indulgence to consider the milestones and records the ostensibly steroid-free slugger could’ve demolished – notably baseball’s most sacred, the home run record, since tainted – and the even deeper cultural impact he could’ve made in the sport. And though his epitaph must also dredge up his scant postseason experience – only three appearances: 1995, 1997, and 2008 – and the bitter fact that his teams never reached the World Series, Junior’s most cherished moment during his 22 illustrious seasons came very early on, when on August 31, 1990, he and his father (Ken Griffey Sr.) became the first father-son pair to play on a Major League team together. Two weeks later, the Griffey’s – who followed each other in the Mariner lineup – hit back-to-back home runs. Griffey Jr. reflected on the experience years later: “I got to play with my dad. I got to go to work with him. That’s the biggest thing that ever happened to me other than the days my kids were born. That’s bigger than any record I’ll ever set. … To play alongside him was the best.”

2) Kurt Warner

The saga of Kurt Warner’s life and football career is dotted with so many extreme highs and lows as to make one worn down just reading about them. Widely believed to be the best undrafted free agent of all time – and the best Super Bowl winning quarterback Hy-Vee ever employed – the resilient, Pollyanna-ish Warner is a remarkable study in perseverance alone: his first taste of the NFL occurred during Green Bay Packers training camp in 1994, where the Northern Iowa star competed for Brett Favre’s position along with Mark Brunell and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. He was released.

Fortunately, a Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, broke his fall, to the morose wage-slave tune of $5.50 an hour. Though no job stocking shelves could ever eclipse hitting Packer receivers Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks in stride on game day, Warner, unfazed and full of moxie, bucked-up and made sure the Fruity Pebbles were stocked 12 deep without fail. This humble, blue-collar interlude, and successful stints thereafter in the dim light of the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, amount to one of the most compelling “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” storylines in league history when spliced with the season of Dan Marino’s dreams, Warner’s 1999 campaign with the St. Louis Rams (aka “The Greatest Show on Turf”) – where he accomplished the trifecta of single-season greatness after replacing injured starter Trent Green in preseason: NFL MVP, Super Bowl MVP, and a Super Bowl Championship. With stars Marshall Faulk at running back, and Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Az-Zahir Hakim flanking him at wide receiver, the Rams explosive offense registered an NFL record three straight 500-point seasons (1999-2001) with Warner as their not-so-eccentric ringleader.

Warner’s meteoric career suddenly took another dramatic turn – for the worse this time – following his second coronation as league MVP in 2001, and the Rams’ heart-wrenching Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots in 2002. His final two seasons with St. Louis were frustrating and lackluster, tarnished by interceptions, fumbles, the day-to-day agony of living in St. Louis, and a broken finger on his throwing hand; the team’s promotion of Marc Bulger to the starting role early in the 2003 season prompted Warner’s release by the team in June, 2004.

With his once sterling career blighted by two lost seasons with St. Louis – exemplifying how nobody has fun doing anything in St. Louis for long, after all – Warner inherited the starting role with the New York Giants in 2004 and led the team to an encouraging start – winning five of their first seven that year. But the Giants eagerness to play prized rookie Eli Manning meant Warner was on thin ice, as the decision to bench him and start Manning following a two-game losing streak demonstrated.

The Arizona Cardinals – another long suffering franchise – invested in Warner in 2005 and ultimately cashed-in on the gamble via the Cardinals’ Super Bowl appearance (a 23-27 loss to Pittsburgh) in February 2009, and another playoff appearance the following year. The veteran quarterback finished his 12-year career near the top of his game: netting 4,583 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, and a 67.1 completion percentage in 2008 (their Super Bowl season), and 3,753 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and a 66.1 completion percentage in 2009. He is the first quarterback ever to throw for more than 14,000-plus yards with two different teams. And he is also one of a select group of men worldwide to have seven children without being a known polygamist.

3) Randy Johnson: "The Big Unit”

Where to start when paying tribute to the “Big Unit”? In my opinion, any intelligent discussion of Randy Johnson begins and ends with that dove he iced in spring training 2001. The accursed dove’s seam-scorched carcass landed amid a macabre festival of feathers. It was dubbed a “freak accident,” but pronouncing it a “freak’s accident” would’ve been more apt. For starters, the “sassy mustache-y” (a nickname I coined years ago that never gained traction) was a stringy, 6’10”, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn with a greasy, noodle mullet and complimentary mustache. To say Johnson’s physical aesthetics were unique for his sport would be equivalent to underselling Kurt Warner’s prolific libido. But Johnson had the transcendent, intimidating game to match: he was renowned and vaunted for his overpowering fastball, which consistently flirted with – and occasionally eclipsed – 100 miles per hour during his prime. His hard, biting slider was as lethal a table-setter for his fastball as it was a masterful finishing touch. These weapons, combined with his menacing, fiery demeanor on the mound made him one of the most feared pitchers in MLB history.

Randy Johnson’s seemingly baseless, seething rage on the mound suggested that he resented the imposition of having to face most batters at all. The deep-seated apoplexy he mustered for each start inadvertently contradicted how blisteringly successful he really was – I mean, his sterling track record gave him good cause to be chipper and approachable, especially later in his career. The Big Unit’s numbers arguably warrant the building of an extra wing in Cooperstown made especially for him: 22 seasons – with Montreal, Seattle, a brief stint with Houston, Arizona (two tours), the New York Yankees, and San Francisco – a 303-166 overall record (averaging 17 wins per season), a 3.29 lifetime ERA, 100 complete games, 37 shutouts, 4,875 strikeouts (2nd most all-time), six 300-plus strikeout seasons, 10 All-Star appearances, 5 Cy Young Awards – including four straight with Arizona: 1999-2002 – two no-hitters, one of which marked the league’s 17th perfect game, pitched on May 18, 2004, vs. Atlanta when Johnson was 40 (making him the oldest player to accomplish the feat), a co-World Series MVP award, and one World Series Championship, earned in 2001 with Arizona. To boot, Johnson struck out 20 Cincinnati Reds in nine innings on May 8, 2001, and once pitched an “immaculate inning”: striking out three Pittsburgh Pirates on nine pitches in the sixth inning of an August 23, 2001, contest – becoming the only the 30th pitcher in MLB history to do so.

Famed sports talk show personality Jim Rome has long characterized Johnson as a classic “red-ass” for his trademark salty temperament on the mound. Rex Hudler, a former utility player and current broadcaster, once relayed a priceless Big Unit anecdote on Rome’s radio program, describing how he once attempted to bunt off Johnson, and Randy, incensed, yelled to Hudler from the mound: “swing the bat, puss!”

That was Randy Johnson for you: no bunts allowed, don’t get in his face, and don’t talk back to him. We square, puss?

4) Rasheed Wallace

On the subject of players despised by the NBA’s fraternity of referees, defrocked and disgraced ex-referee Tim Donaghy shared this about the NBA’s record holder in technical fouls: “Rasheed Wallace was someone I don’t believe anyone cared for. Looking back, it’s probably because he’s one of the smartest players in the league. He was outspoken about how there were biases and how relationships affected the refereeing.”

Despite Wallace’s laudable career numbers – (per game averages)14.6 points, 1.8 assists, 1 steal, 1.3 blocks, 6.7 rebounds, .468 field goal percentage – four All-Star game appearances, and NBA title (Detroit, 2004), his enduring legacy will unquestionably revolve around his unrivaled propensity for getting tee’d-up. Not only does the hair-triggered Wallace hold the infamous record for technical fouls in a career with 306, but “Sheed” also predictably holds the record for most technical fouls received in a single NBA season – 41 in 80 regular and postseason games played in 2000-01, while with Portland.

Growing up in inner-city Philadelphia doesn’t exactly begat pacifism, and Rasheed Wallace was a fascinating sociological case study to understand how hardened Philadelphians are likely to cope with professional basketball careers. In response to a technical foul call on him by Tim Donaghy during a Portland Trail Blazers home game in 2003, Wallace tracked Donaghy down after the game and threatened him by screaming obscenities on an arena loading dock; the NBA issued Wallace a seven-game suspension, which was the longest suspension handed down by the league for an infraction unrelated to drugs or violence.

Always outspoken, wide-eyed, exasperated, and never afraid to stand up for truth as he saw it, the four-time All-Star was essential personnel with the successful Portland teams of the late '90s and early '00s, and helped co-pilot the Detroit Pistons to an NBA championship in 2004, and a return trip to the championship round in 2005 – losing in seven games to the San Antonio Spurs.

On the heels of Detroit’s manhandling of the Los Angeles Lakers 2004’s NBA Finals (4-1), Sheed shelled-out for replica WWE World Heavyweight Championship belts to be crafted for every member of team; Rasheed Abdul Wallace (RAW) would often carry his belt into the Piston locker room the following season as a motivational prop to rally his teammates in their title defense – ironically, and suggesting a certain degree of foresight on his part, Wallace and the Pistons were the unwitting hosts of the “Malice at the Palace” that very year, versus “Rowdy” Ronny Artest’s Indiana Pacers –November 19th, 2004.

Sheed was a beauty, a true original; a 6’11” forward with remarkable shooting range, an insubordinate loudmouth, one of the league’s rare Muslims, a disciple of Dean Smith at North Carolina, and one of the most colorful and intriguing characters the NBA has ever had the supreme displeasure of trying to keep in check.

5) Nomar Garciaparra

Male professional athletes are often stereotyped as being selfish, dim-witted, egotistical, man-children with poor impulse control. This is the fault of those spotlight-hungry few who make themselves the most visible with inane stunts and mindless “tweets” – Cincinnati Bengal wide receivers and Lebron James, for example – and the criminal element who wreak just as much havoc in society as they do between the lines. But there also exists a redeeming faction of pros who embody just the opposite. Consider the life of Nomar Garciaparra; a half-hour’s worth of casual research into the celebrated Red Sox shortstop reveals astonishing information: Ramon’s son – “Nomar” spelled backward – was Valedictorian of his high school in Bellflower, Calif., with a 4.2 GPA while thriving in football, soccer, and baseball – and presumably the art of seduction among the cheerleader set. Approximately 14 years later, with Superman trapped in a phone booth and Batman busy washing his tights, Garciaparra and his uncle Victor answered the call by diving into Boston Harbor and rescuing two women who had accidentally (drinking) fallen in.

Picture Lebron James risking his precious “talents” to save the lives of complete strangers. Drop acid if it helps you stretch your imagination (my views do not reflect those of the management). No, Lebron James merely takes his talents to the beach for gratuitous self-aggrandizement, and not with a book either.

Nomar Garciaparra: erudite super-hero. With a lush, jet-black head of hair, shimmering teeth, and soccer heroine Mia Hamm as his lady fair. Snaps.

But I suppose all anyone wants to talk about is his baseball career? Let’s get nosy, then: in 14 seasons with Boston, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Oakland; he was 1997’s American League Rookie of the Year, and a six-time All-Star: .313 career batting average, 229 home runs, 936 RBIs, 1,747 hits, a .321 postseason batting average in seven postseason series. However, statistics alone cannot accurately convey Garciaparra’s impact on the game, particularly during his nine seasons with Boston where his stellar early years elevated him to cultural icon status within the effusive Red Sox Nation. No-mah’s unique celebrity occurred through that special, yet formulaic combination of superlative talent mixed into a setting and era conducive to the degree of reverence he enjoyed.

Red Sox fans were rabid and long-suffering in equal measure when Nomar made his debut with the team in August 1996; and by the time it was clear they had a once-in-a-generation superstar in their midst, Nomar-mania took off – best illustrated by Saturday Night Live's “The Boston Teens” sketches with Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch playing sex and Sox crazed Boston teens – what else? – with an unquenchable love for smooth No. 5; Pat Sullivan – played by Fallon – always donned a Garciaparra T-shirt and religiously gushed over his hero in-between furious, impromptu make-out sessions with his similarly berserk girlfriend.

Garciaparra set an MLB record for RBIs by a leadoff hitter in his rookie season (1997); his 30 home runs that year set an MLB rookie record, and his 30-game hitting streak set an American League rookie record. He was unanimously named Rookie of the Year and finished runner-up for AL MVP the following year (1998) – 35 home-runs, 122 RBIs. His .357 batting average in 1999, together with his .372 mark in 2000 (both American League bests), made him one of the few right-handed batters in MLB history – and the first since Joe DiMaggio – to win consecutive batting titles.

But the age of Nomar essentially crumbled following a wrist injury that ate up the vast majority of his 2001 season. The fandom of Nomar those first four seasons in Boston was baseball’s closest pass in decades at a Beatle-mania-like pitch; but just as Paul McCartney found a lesser niche with Wings, Garciaparra remained productive and notable, but simply couldn’t replicate his early dominance – his batting average markedly declined in 2002, but nonetheless remained All-Star worthy at .310.

For all the bliss, rapture, and release of lifelong angst that Boston’s 2004 World Series victory provided their previously tortured fan base, it must’ve looked surreal and felt a tad sobering to see Orlando Cabrera celebrating with the mob in St. Louis and not Nomar Garciaparra, who epitomized Red Sox baseball since 1997. Though Cabrera was an integral piece in Boston’s championship run, the four-team trade on July 31st, 2004, that imported him from Montreal and sent Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs meant that Nomar had no involvement whatsoever in Boston’s unforgettable, cathartic postseason odyssey. However, his former Red Sox teammates voted to give him a World Series ring, with Curt Schilling stating that Boston might not have reached the pinnacle if not for Nomar.

Five years, and one 2006 All-Star appearance with the Los Angeles Dodgers later, Nomar Garciaparra played his last Major League game, on October 4, 2009, as a member of the Oakland Athletics, the very team he made his MLB debut against.

6) Chris Chelios

It’s because of Gordie Howe that standout NHL defenseman Chris Chelios can only be known as “deputy Old Man Winter.” The American-born and former Montreal, Chicago, and Detroit stalwart’s 26-year labor of longevity with the National Hockey League is age-defying and remarkable, but only second-best. You see, the venerable Howe surely had to quit at some point, and the time was ripe at 52; Chelio’, on the other hand, just needed to hang around another four years with the punchless Atlanta Thrashers. You, Chris Chelios – and your 948 points in 1,651 games played – are hereby awarded the Silver Medal of stubbornness. Thank you for your service, all the way up, up, up, to your 48th year.

ThisisTexasnobodycaresabouthockeybutI’mfromColoradowhereit’skindacoldsoIthoughtI’dmentionittheend.

7) Bobby Cox

You decide for yourself if Bobby Cox’s managerial career is as unconventional as I think it is: he managed the Atlanta Braves twice (1978-1981 and 1990-2010), and the Toronto Blue Jays in-between – 1982-1985. Cox was fired by Braves owner Ted Turner following the 1981 season; when asked by a reporter who favored hiring as a replacement, Turner said: “I’d like to hire Bobby Cox if I hadn’t just fired him. We need someone like him around here.”

Cox could no longer stand idly by while chafing as Atlanta’s general manager in June 1990. The Braves were terrible, so Cox fired lame-duck manager Russ Nixon, then diabolically and ingeniously appointed himself as manager – and started dressing like his two-bit players and eating seeds – somewhere Dick Cheney stored the maneuver in a classified mental document labeled “future use.” But some of those two-bit players remained to play in the 1991 World Series against the Minnesota Twins, a series the Braves lost. But the '91 Braves, along with their World Series nemesis, the '91 Twins, both became the first teams to rise from last place to first in one season. But such a rags-to-riches tid-bit reeks of triviality when you consider the agonizing trend it triggered. The Atlanta Braves and Buffalo Bills of the NFL were marching toward their inevitable demise in near lock-step: the Braves lost the '91 World Series to Minnesota, the '92 World Series to Toronto (Cox’s former team), won the 1995 World Series vs. Cleveland (their only saving grace), Lost the '96 World Series to the New York Yankees, and were victimized once more by the Yankees in the 1999 Fall Classic.

While going one for five in your sports’ championship round may titillate one Marv Levy, it’s piss-poor for everybody else. And isn’t this the only statistic that really matters? That, and/or how many drums of sunflower seeds the man consumed in his 4,508 games managed.

Honorable Mention:

8) Tom Glavine

Career numbers in 22 seasons with the Atlanta Braves (where he is best remembered) and the New York Mets: 305-203 record (.600) in 682 games started; 56 complete games, 25 shutouts, 2,607 strikeouts vs. 1,500 walks and a 3.54 lifetime ERA in 4,413.1 innings pitched. Glavine was a critical member of the dynamic Atlanta starting rotations of the '90s that also consisted of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, and Kevin Millwood. Glavine and the Braves won the World Series in 1995.

9) Frank Thomas “The Big Hurt”

Career Numbers in 19 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and Oakland Athletics: 2,468 hits, 521 home runs, 1,704 runs batted in, and a career .301 batting average over 2,322 games. Thomas was a five-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP, 1993 and 1994 with Chicago. Thomas’ teams never reached the World Series, but did make three postseason appearances – 1993 and 2000 with Chicago, and again in 2006 with Oakland.

10) David Tyree

Though an extraordinary special teams player, David Tyree – also a backup wide receiver with the New York Giants from 2003-2008 – never caught more than 19 catches in a season. The sixth-round draft pick from Syracuse only had four receptions for 35 yards and no touchdowns during the 2007 regular season; but his miracle, fourth quarter catch in Super Bowl XLII versus the Patriots – with the ball precariously pinned to his helmet as he fell backward to the ground – was ultimately the decisive moment in the game and led to a 17-14 Giants victory over the previously undefeated Pats. Sportscenter would subsequently anoint it the greatest play in Super Bowl history.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Randy Johnson, Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, Kurt Warner, Rasheed Wallace

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