Commentary

Bad endings for several beloved players

From Ozzie Smith to Sammy Sosa to Ken Griffey Jr., the conclusion was pretty awful

Originally Published: May 18, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Jorge Posada said he's sorry. He had a "bad day,'' and manager Joe Girardi's decision to drop him to ninth in the batting order prompted him to do the previously unthinkable and beg out of the New York Yankees' lineup. Now that he's apologized to Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman, he'll try to raise that .179 batting average and redeem himself in the public eye.

The seat-squirming doesn't end here for the Yankees. Derek Jeter storm clouds are hovering, and one of these days the Yankees will have to bump him down in the order or, heaven forbid, move him off shortstop. It's hard to envision Jeter taking the news well. And who knows what indignities might befall Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and other aging, high-priced Yankees down the road?

Posada is the latest example of the baseball truism: "Don't let a falling star fall on you.'' A select few players spend years building up currency with the fan base and establishing themselves as franchise favorites. Then one day, they wake up and the bat speed has faded and the range in the field has diminished, and the same sense of pride and competitiveness that fuels their greatness makes it difficult for them to embrace the new world order.

Best we can tell, the "falling star'' quote originated with longtime Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers executive John Hart. It sprang from a conversation that Hart -- then Cleveland's assistant general manager -- had with Indians manager John McNamara on a team charter flight in the early 1990s.

"Johnny Mac had a couple of cocktails and we were just talking baseball,'' Hart said by phone. "He told me, 'You're going to be really good at this, but you have to remember,' 'Be very careful with the veteran players. When you're making a decision [about moving] a big star, sometimes it's better to be a year or two early than a year or two late.'

"It's a hard thing to do, because none of us has a crystal ball. When you're dealing with a guy who's been with your organization for 15 years, it can get a little hairy. You don't want to have a mess on your hands.''

In this week's edition of Starting 9, we present a little history lesson on player-management relations and the hazards inherent when teams try to take a hard line or cut the cord with a beloved player. Sometimes it all works out in the end. And just as frequently, relations can get testy or damaged beyond repair. If Cashman remains with the Yankees when his contract is up, this could be his life in a nutshell over the next few years:

Tony La Russa
La Russa

Ozzie Smith
Smith

Ozzie Smith and Tony La Russa

The backdrop: In the spring of 1996, Smith was 41 years old, coming off shoulder surgery and a far cry from the acrobatic, rangy Wizard of old. The St. Louis Cardinals hedged their bets and began planning for the future by trading three pitchers to San Francisco for 26-year-old shortstop Royce Clayton.

When Clayton began logging most of the playing time, Smith felt deceived and unwanted. Upon announcing his retirement at midseason, Smith accused La Russa of "cowardice'' and lying to him by pronouncing the shortstop battle an open competition in spring training.

Money quote: "My relationship with Tony isn't going to be mended,'' Smith said at the 1999 All-Star Game. "There's no way. The club understands I have no interest in being part of it as long as he's there. Once that situation is over with and they resolve it, I'll be more than willing to go back and find my place in Cardinal history.''

The resolution: George Mitchell couldn't broker a truce between these two guys. It was telling that during Smith's 2002 Hall of Fame induction, he mentioned Alvin Dark and Whitey Herzog as major influences on his career, but never cited La Russa in his speech.

In 2006, Smith said he would like to return to St. Louis as a coach one day, but only with a change in management. La Russa, who had invited Smith to participate as a spring training instructor, rescinded the invitation upon being apprised of those conditions.

"When my time is up, they can welcome him with open arms, but I don't want to be anywhere that he is,'' La Russa said. "I won't ever be around when he's around. Cardinals fans can embrace him all they want to, and it won't be uncomfortable because I won't be there. I won't be in the area. I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror."

Animosity quotient on a 1-10 scale: 10

Chicago Cubs

Sammy Sosa
Sosa

Sammy Sosa and the Cubs

The backdrop: Chicago Cubs fans and the national media embraced Sosa for his star appeal and showmanship when he hit 60-plus homers three times, but the love affair began to wane when Sosa's numbers slipped and he was caught corking his bat in 2003. Manager Dusty Baker dropped him from third to sixth in the order during the 2004 season, and the tension came to a head in the season finale.

Sosa, who had the day off, told reporters that he had left Wrigley Field in the seventh inning, but the team cited a security camera video that showed him bolting 15 minutes after the first pitch. His Chicago teammates, tired of his selfishness and diva antics, reportedly smashed his boom box with a bat. And the Cubs fined him $87,400 -- one day's pay.

The Cubs were dying to get rid of Sosa, and he so badly wanted out of Chicago that he waived an $18 million option to facilitate a trade to Baltimore. Sosa was later panned for his performance in a congressional steroid hearing, and in 2009 the New York Times reported that he was one of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during MLB's "survey testing'' in 2003.

Money quote: Broadcaster Steve Stone blamed the Cubs for indulging Sosa and allowing his ego to spiral out of control. "If you create Frankenstein, you can't be too surprised if he eats the village,'' Stone said in December 2004.

The resolution: Sosa vented about the team's treatment of him in an August 2010 story in Chicago Magazine. Among other things, he said the Cubs "threw me into the fire'' and are trying to make people think he's a "monster.''

Sosa holds the Cubs' career record with 545 home runs. He has more RBIs than Billy Williams, more total bases than Ryne Sandberg and a higher slugging percentage than any Cub other than Hack Wilson. But when Sosa formally announced his retirement, the Cubs passed on holding the farewell news conference at Wrigley. And pitcher Jason Marquis and outfielder Tyler Colvin have both worn the No. 21 jersey since his departure.

"That number should be untouchable because of the things that I did for that organization," Sosa said in the magazine interview. "That right there shows me that they don't care about me and they don't want to have a good relationship with me."

Animosity quotient: 10

Kenny Williams
Williams

Frank Thomas
Thomas

Frank Thomas and Kenny Williams

The backdrop: Thomas is the Chicago White Sox's career leader in runs, home runs, RBIs, on base and slugging percentage, total bases, doubles, walks and strikeouts. With 1,959 games played in Chicago, he ranks third in franchise history to Luke Appling and Nellie Fox.

But there's no statistic to measure the animosity that boiled over late in Thomas' tenure with Chicago. In 2005, the White Sox bought out Thomas' contract for $3.5 million rather than exercise his $10 million option. When Thomas expressed disappointment that chairman Jerry Reinsdorf didn't have the courtesy to pick up the phone and call him, Williams went ballistic. He said Thomas should have shown more gratitude toward Reinsdorf, who had been his benefactor through the years and even loaned him money.

Money quote: "Believe me, it's not easy to deal with an idiot,'' Williams said. "And this man, over the course of the years, has tried my patience and tried it and tried it, and if he was any kind of a man, would quit talking about things in the paper and return a phone call or come knock on somebody's door. If I had the kind of problems he evidently has with me, I'd go knock on his f------ door.''

The resolution: Thomas received a standing ovation upon his first game back in Chicago -- followed by several rounds of boos. After three seasons with Oakland and Toronto, he announced his retirement in a February 2010 news conference at U.S. Cellular Field.

"We all know Kenny Williams and I had a big blowup,'' Thomas told reporters. "We both moved on. When you're pretty much considered an icon in a city as a player, it's always hard to let those players go. It's never a pretty or nice scene.''

Animosity quotient: 9

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez

Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox … Dodgers … and Rays

The backdrop: After years of Silver Slugger-caliber production, impromptu Green Monster bathroom breaks, goofy hijinks and exasperating trade requests, Ramirez finally played his way out of Boston. During the 2008 pennant race, he clashed with teammate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout, shoved a 64-year-old traveling secretary, clocked a glacial 6-second time to first base and forgot which knee was paining him during a doctor's visit -- necessitating two MRIs instead of one. The soap opera finally ended when the Boston Red Sox shipped him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-way deal at the July trade deadline.

Money quote: "The Red Sox don't deserve a player like me,'' Ramirez said after the trade. "During my years here I've seen how they mistreated other great players when they didn't want them to try to turn the fans against them. The Red Sox did the same with guys like Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, and now they do the same with me. Their goal is to paint me as the bad guy.''

Added Manny the philosopher: "Mental peace has no price, and I don't have peace here.''

The resolution: The Dodgers hoped that Ramirez would be reinvigorated by his arrival in "Mannywood,'' but the honeymoon was fleeting. Ramirez received a 50-game suspension for a drug policy violation in 2009, got ejected after one pitch from his final game in L.A., and slugged .319 in a 24-game cameo with the White Sox last summer. The Tampa Bay Rays took a $2 million flyer on him this year, but Ramirez lasted 17 at-bats before retiring on the heels of a second PED offense. His reputation torched and his Hall of Fame aspirations in tatters, he headed to Spain for a vacation with his dad.

Animosity quotient: 7. Combine a 10 in Boston, an 8 in Los Angeles and a blip on the radar screen in Tampa Bay, and that's the composite score.

Seattle Mariners

Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey

Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners

The backdrop: The Mariners brought back Griffey for a swan song in 2009, and things went as well as everybody hoped. Griffey hit 19 home runs (albeit with a .214 batting average), and provided such a lift to clubhouse morale that his teammates carried him off the field to raucous cheers from the Safeco Field crowd after the season finale.

Things went south the following spring and bottomed out in May when the Tacoma News-Tribune reported that Griffey was unavailable to pinch-hit because he was asleep in the clubhouse. Griffey, embarrassed by the story, reportedly thought that manager Don Wakamatsu was the anonymous source of the leak. Griffey was hitting .184 and glued to the bench when he abruptly retired in June. He hopped in his car and drove cross-country to his home in Florida, leaving some bittersweet memories and a prepared statement in his wake.

Money quote: When Seattle first baseman Mike Sweeney challenged anonymous Nap-gate leakers to come clean in the clubhouse, nobody budged. "We will support and fight and take a bullet for Ken Griffey Jr. if we have to," Sweeney said. "He's our teammate. Nothing is going to divide this clubhouse, especially a makeshift article made up of lies.''

The resolution: Griffey, who remains close to Mariners president Chuck Armstrong and numerous others in the organization, rejoined the team as a special consultant in spring training. He told reporters that he decided to retire because he didn't want to become a "distraction,'' and added that he hadn't spoken to Wakamatsu since leaving the team in June.

Animosity quotient: 6

Frank Wren
Wren

John Smoltz
Smoltz

Tom Glavine
Glavine

Tom Glavine (and John Smoltz)
and Frank Wren

The backdrop: Glavine left the Atlanta Braves under strained circumstances to sign with the New York Mets as a free agent in 2002. His return engagement ended with a bigger thud. Glavine was finishing up a minor league rehab assignment when GM Wren and the front office determined that the comeback wasn't working and it was time to end the experiment. The Braves gave Glavine the option of retiring. When he balked, they were forced to release the 305-game winner. Braves fans, needless to say, were not pleased.

Smoltz's tenure in Atlanta ended in an equally abrupt manner, when he spurned a take-it-or-leave it offer to sign a one-year deal with Boston in January 2009.

Although Wren told reporters that the call on Glavine was a "performance decision'' and that economics weren't a factor, media reports duly noted that Glavine would have received a $1 million bonus if he had been placed on Atlanta's 25-man roster.

Money quote: "Based on my performance?'' Glavine told reporters. "Well, my bad, I just threw 11 scoreless innings. Was I supposed to throw a no-hitter and strike out 15?''

Added Glavine: "I was taking people at their word, and at the end of the day that really didn't seem to mean a whole lot."

The resolution: John Schuerholz, Atlanta's club president, publicly apologized to Glavine for the whole affair, and Wren took some hits for his lack of sensitivity and bedside manner. Coincidentally or not, Wren seemed more cognizant of public opinion in his subsequent dealings with franchise icons. The Braves were generous with Chipper Jones by signing him to a three-year, $42 million extension, and Bobby Cox was able to enjoy a final fling as manager and a farewell tour in 2010 before handing over the reins to Fredi Gonzalez.

In August, Glavine became the seventh Brave to have his uniform number retired. He is now back in the fold as a special assistant to Schuerholz and a guest TV commentator on Braves broadcasts. As Glavine put it last summer, he's come "full circle'' in his relationship with the club.

Animosity quotient: 6

Arizona Diamondbacks

Luis Gonzalez
Gonzalez

Luis Gonzalez and the Diamondbacks

The dispute: The man called "Gonzo'' will be forever beloved in Arizona for his bloop RBI single to beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, but the Diamondbacks chose to move in a different direction five years ago when they declined to exercise Gonzalez's $10 million option.

Although the dialogue generally remained aboveboard, there were signs of tension along the way. Gonzalez was clearly hurt when Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks' managing general partner, dropped his name into a conversation with reporters about steroid use in baseball. During his final season in Arizona, Gonzalez also publicly expressed displeasure after being benched one game in favor of young outfielder Carlos Quentin.

Money quote: "I want to ride out on a donkey,'' Gonzalez said two weeks before his final game in an Arizona uniform. "Everybody's saying I'm getting old, so just open the right-field gates and let me ride out on a donkey.''

The resolution: Gonzalez played out the string with the Dodgers and Marlins before retiring due to a lack of interest on the free-agent market. He joined the Arizona front office as a special assistant, and club president Derrick Hall has gone to great lengths to smooth over any hurt feelings. Gonzalez will be the franchise's goodwill ambassador for the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix in July.

Animosity quotient: 5

Jose Canseco
Canseco

Jose Canseco against the world

The dispute: After hitting 16 homers for the White Sox in 2001, Canseco failed to land a big league job. Frustrated over being stuck on 462 home runs -- short of the 500 that he believed would provide entry to Cooperstown -- he pronounced himself "blackballed'' and vowed to write a tell-all book with lots of provocative insights into baseball's steroid problem.

The resolution: Hell hath no fury like a Bash Brother scorned. Canseco made big news with his book, "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big.'' Since then he's devolved into a sideshow act and a caricature of his former self, playing independent ball, dabbling in mixed martial arts, taking on fellow B-list celebrity Danny Bonaduce in a boxing exhibition and appearing alongside Meat Loaf and Gary Busey on "Celebrity Apprentice.'' Canseco also wrote a book sequel titled, "Vindicated.'' Jose and his twin brother Ozzie made news for this bizarre stunt in April, and now they've teamed up with the Yuma Scorpions in the North American League.

Money quote: "It's going to blow 'Ball Four' out of the water,'' Canseco said when asked about his upcoming book in 2002. "It will make waves. Monstrous waves. It's going to be a hurricane with an earthquake thrown in for good measure.''

Animosity quotient: 5. The anger is off the charts for Canseco, who harbored enough grudges to torch an entire industry. But most baseball executives view him with a mix of amusement or pity, with a touch of gratitude thrown in for his candor on steroids.

In this case, hostility is purely a one-way street. Although Canseco deserves credit for his clarion call on PEDs, his motives weren't exactly pure. He'll be remembered more as an angry avenger than a concerned baseball caretaker.

Houston Astros

Lance Berkman
Berkman

Lance Berkman and the Astros

The dispute: Last year around this time, the Houston Astros determined that they weren't going to pick up Berkman's $15 million option for 2011. Berkman hit .245 in 85 games as an Astro, and he looked tired and out of sync in his comeback from spring training knee surgery.

The two sides appeared to find a productive way out when the Astros traded Berkman to the Yankees for the stretch drive. But when Berkman's agent called Houston in November about a return engagement and general manager Ed Wade shot down the possibility, Berkman took it as a personal slight. He signed a one-year deal with St. Louis and is enjoying a second wind with the Cardinals.

Berkman recently returned to Houston amid some pointed comments from Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton, who criticized him for a failure to get in shape last season. But fans at Minute Maid Park greeted him warmly, and Berkman went 8-for-14 against his former club.

Money quote: "The Astros were a great organization to me in a lot of ways,'' Berkman said in a recent interview. "They gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. They paid me a lot of money, and they showed tremendous faith in me at times. … But [in the end] I feel like they didn't give me the benefit of doubt and they kind of cast me aside. They basically said, 'You're bad. We're bad. Let's cut ties and get on down the road.' And that was hurtful.''

The resolution: Yes, there's some ill will here, but Wade has tried to defuse it by taking the high road and claiming the team has "no animus'' toward Berkman. New owner Jim Crane has the advantage of a fresh start, sans baggage. It won't surprise anyone if Berkman, one of baseball's nice guys, joins former teammates Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio in the Houston front office when his playing days are done. He's hitting .352 with 11 homers for the Cardinals, so retirement might be a ways off yet.

Animosity quotient: 4

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer