Five For FRiday: Sporting Farewells

It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday, not least when you love sports and some kind of favorite is bidding adieu.  This past week, career-long Detroit Red Wing Nicklas Lidstrom announced his departure from the ice.  Hockeytown native Nathan and NHL obsessive Travis both were moved by this development.  That in mind, FR offer here the ends of careers that struck them somehow, as heroes, admired competitors, and others left the arena.  There’s something about sports.  Written by the FRarrely brothers.

Tyler: David Pollack

Exceptional Bengal linebacker David Pollack suffered a horrific injury to his vertebrae within the 2006 season, during a game against the rival Browns, at which I was in attendance.  He was stretchered off the field, though a wealth of Cincy injuries throughout the game left him somewhat lost in a crowd.  Stellar center Rich Braham, too, endured that day a knee blow that would conclude his career.

Braham, though, was a veteran, a mainstay of the Bengals’ offensive front line for more than a decade.  Pollack was in but the third year of his NFL tenure.  He did his medical due diligence, but, the following preseason, announced that he would retire rather than risk his physical well-being in the name of a sport.  The decision sticks with me to this day, as feverish debate over the hazards of organized football raises by degrees every day.  Now, Pollack is a fine analyst and cohost of a more-than-decent gridiron show on ESPN2.  Good for him.

Travis: Barry Sanders

Sometimes even the greatest athletes cannot overcome their circumstances. Barry Sanders, without argument one of the best running backs of all time, retired from the Detroit Lions short of the all time rushing record and still fully capable of making tacklers miss on every play. He later admitted the reason he retired was that the Lions’ culture of losing had “robbed him of his competitive spirit.” Losing is contagious, and it made the NFL lose one of its best ever. Though it may have been better for him in the long run to retire healthy, seeing how many former NFLers are faring these days, it was definitely not better for the sport or for Barry Sanders fans.

Nathan: Michael Jordan, Retirement #1

You had to admire the man who, at the peak of his powers, gave up two years of basketball to play minor league ball for the Chicago White Sox. He gave the Houston Rockets two championships they more than likely wouldn’t have had otherwise. He gave the rest of the NBA a break. He did it because he felt he had nothing left to prove. And the truth is that he was right. He’d already done what he needed to do. He could’ve stayed retired and still would have been hailed as the greatest basketball player of all time. He came back and had the legendary “Flu Game”, but, really, the rest of his career was just icing on the cake.

Tyler: Magic Johnson

I was eight when Earvin “Magic” retired, unfamiliar with basketball at any level.  In time I would fall for the NCAA courtesy of the Cincinnati Bearcats, but I spent the first six years of my life in Canada, where the sport was not a phenomenon, and was the product of American parents who never had interest in hoops.

Johnson’s recession from the league in November of 1991, however, could not help but strike a chord.  Magic’s celebrity transcended athletics, and the reasoning behind his retirement was more a story than the retirement itself.  You can’t comprehend sex at that early age, let alone the complexities of STDs, no less the most insidious of all, a virus that had infiltrated national conversation with increasing, necessary volume over a preceding course of years.  I knew not from the NBA, nor the Lakers, nor any reason why this charismatic, famous individual was either of those adjectives.  News was news, though.  Sensation was sensation, and I asked permission to call my childhood friend Tate that night, knowing he was (somehow, in Cincinnati), a hardcore early hoops fan.  He was out when I called, but I found him first-thing the next morning at school.  For some reason, our small second-grade class, divided into four “homerooms,” was gathered at day’s start in an Indian-style assembly.  I found Tate, crouched and crossed my legs next to him, and asked “Did you hear the news?”

Of course he had.  “Yeah.”  Everybody had.  We didn’t understand what it meant, but it meant something.

Travis: Kurt Warner

Though St. Louis is a baseball town, Kurt Warner helped bring about the first St. Louis sports championship I ever witnessed, the miracle Super Bowl run of the Greatest Show On Turf. Early on in his career, he was a little offputting with how much he preached the gospel in his postgame interviews and attributed his success to divine intervention, but by the time he made a career resurgence with the Arizona Cardinals, another unexpected Super Bowl contender, there was nobody I wanted to win more. Warner, one of the smarter guys in football (especially since he’s toned down the God stuff in public) and by all accounts one of the nicest, announced he’d be retiring following the 2009 season, for fear any more damage to his head might mean he’d miss, or not remember, moments of his kids’ lives. This decision was oddly prescient, as Warner was, on his final play, victim to one of the dirty Saints hits at the center of the Bountygate scandal. Warner is now an analyst and seems happy with his retirement, and I’m happy for him.

Nathan: Barry Sanders 

Barry retired because the culture of losing in Detroit crushed his competitive spirit. I don’t blame him for leaving the game when he did, but it’s hard not to believe that the culture of losing in Detroit was only perpetuated by his retirement. It was all we had at the Pontiac Silverdome and with him gone were were left with nothing.

Tyler: Joe Carter

Joe Carter was (along with Robbie Alomar) the favorite athlete of my early youth.  He gave not only my heart, but that of baseball, one of its finest all-time moments.  In-depth statistical analysis since has exposed Carter’s weaknesses; he wasn’t quite the run producer his tenure suggested at the time, nor was his ability to get on base anything special.  But he anchored a two-time champion.  The final out of that first World Series triumph?  Caught by Joe, shifted to first base, a position he played from time to time.  When he left, via free agency, after a ’97 season that epitomized the Jays’ mediocrity of the time, his presence in San Francisco’s scrubs felt wrong.  Dealt to the Orioles midseason, the effect was the same.  He’d begun his career with the Cubs, jumping quickly to the Indians, making a name, and moving finally to the Padres, who would deal him to the Jays (along with Alomar, for two of my prior childhood favorites, Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez), where he would become a legend.  He caught that last ’92 out.  Magical.

Wait.  Am I forgetting anything else?

Travis: Ozzie Smith

Not every retirement goes smoothly, even for an icon like the Wizard of Oz. Despite thoroughly outplaying newly acquired shortstop Royce Clayton, Clayton was awarded the majority of play in the Tony La Russa “platoon” that began the season for the Cards. Unhappy with his playing time, and with many fans on his side, Ozzie and La Russa met in a closed-door meeting in which the newly arrived manager asked if Ozzie wanted to be traded. He said no, but that he’d retire at the year’s end. It probably really was time for Ozzie to retire, as he still showed a lot of his ability, but was dealing more and more with nagging injuries.  The acrimony, though, and the fact that Royce Clayton was one of the most massive busts to ever have busted, ruined what could have been a nice victory lap for the player every kid in St. Louis emulated when diving for a ground ball.

Nathan: Scotty Bowman

Because the sporting world in general treats hockey like the bastard child, Scotty Bowman rarely gets his due credit as one of the greatest coaches in all of sports. I watched him leave as coach of the 2002 Red Wings, but I’m not including him on this list just for hometown pride. Bowman was a wizard everywhere he went. From St. Louis to Montreal to Pittsburgh and then Detroit.

He ended things perfectly. With Cup in hand.

Tyler: Barry Larkin

Barry Larkin’s now-Hall-Of-Fame career with the Cincinnati Reds ended in inglorious fashion.  He’d extended his career to the displeasure of the club’s management, who thought him over-the-hill and hoped to drum up enthusiasm with a “Barry Larkin Day” at the end of an ugly Redleg campaign in 2004.  Larkin had pledged impending retirement early in the year, but put up decent stats and maintained the itch to play.  “Barry Larkin Day” was cancelled, and #11 deigned to test the free-agent market.  This possibility had been broached four years earlier; Larkin’s request for a 3-year/$28 million contract was denied, and a trade was negotiated midseason to deal him to the Mets.  Larkin, though, invoking his rights as a “ten-and-five” player, rebuffed the trade, and was that same day signed to the contract he’d requested, no small thanks to then-owner Carl Lindner stepping over the authority of then-GM Jim Bowden.  No such front-office sympathy was evoked at the end of 2004.  Larkin attempted to continue playing, and the Reds led him walk.

He’d never play again.  Bowden, having rescued his career (for the moment) as GM of the foundering Washington Nationals, gifted Barry an advisory position, but pushed him to retake the field as a Nat, going so far as to hang a D.C. uniform with the familiar #11 in a locker.  Larkin couldn’t do it.  Said and done, he expended all his playing days as a Red.  The end wasn’t pretty.  But, home-grown, it’s a certainty now that he’ll never be a ballplayer that isn’t pure Cincinnati.

Travis: Al MacInnis

Athletes are often forced to retire due to injury, especially older athletes, but it’s particularly sad when even an older athlete has to retire due to an injury that has nothing to do with age, but a freak play. Al MacInnis had played more than twenty seasons in the NHL when an eye injury left him unable to return; even as a twenty-year veteran, at that point he was still the St. Louis Blues’ best player. MacInnis, known mostly for having the hardest shot in the league (he topped 100 more than once in the NHL skills challenge, which may not seem impressive with Zdeno Chara’s totals today, except for the fact that MacInnis was using a wooden stick instead of today’s lightweight composites), was also a defensive rock, the perfect power play quarterback, and a real leader. As an aspiring defenseman who was a bit slow but knew his position and spent hours upon hours in the driveway in back perfecting his slapshot, I proudly wore the number 2 whenever it was available.

Nathan: Nicklas Lidstrom

The Detroit Red Wings reign of NHL supremacy is officially over. It was basically done before Lidstrom retired, but now there’s no turning back.

Lidstrom is the ultimate rarity in professional sports, nay in life. The consummate professional, almost robotic in his practice, preparation, and on the ice. Few noticed Lidstrom because he wasn’t flashy, didn’t knock people around, and never said anything colorful to the media. He was a great captain because he led by pure example. Calm and perfect.

I don’t shed tears for athletes often, but when Lidstrom announced his retirement the other day, I had a hard time holding back the tears as I read one effusive article after another. You couldn’t find a bad thing to say about him. He was a role model for everyone. I’m proud to have been a Red Wings fan during his tenure. I started watching hockey in 1993, only one year after Lidstrom snuck his way into the league. It was a privilege to watch him play.

Tyler: Dmitri Young

Celebrating some random-ass role-player sure doesn’t make much sense.  But Dmitri?  This portly, amiable, quippable, mighty talented (dude could hit doubles like a metronome matching a beat) whose struggled with his life toward the end of his career?  He seemed the best kind of human.  He grappled with drinking, he fought diabetes.  Odd accusations arose, domestic violence, or some such.  But he was the favorite player of myself and friend of FR Mike, even to the end, and beyond it, as–this very passing season–he mounted a comeback driven by his inimitable love of the game.  We created a banner in our youth, Mike and I, dirt-cheap bedsheet and even cheaper hardware-store spray paint.  “The Dmitri Young Fan Club.”  The night we chose to unveil our canvas, of course, he didn’t even start.  But he made it to the plate in the tenth inning of a game that would go thirteen (Reds won on a Chris Stynes walk-off. HOLLA).  We busted it out on other occasions, too, his number brandished in black lacquer beneath his name, sloppy, just like our scattered Reds logo, and he threw us balls between innings all the way up to the red seats at Riverfront Stadium.  He found a brief rebirth in Washington, after an ill-fated trade to Detroit, but that resurgence didn’t last.  That said, he had some issues; he dealt with them.  He’s okay with no longer being in the game, though it’s obvious that he still would like to play.  It don’t matter.  He’s Dmitri.  He’s the man.  Big D.  I adore the game, and I’m a hardy student; it doesn’t make sense, but what does?  Dmitri Young is my favorite ballplayer ever.

Travis: Magic Johnson  

There’s likely nothing left to be said about the retirement of Magic Johnson that hasn’t already been said: it came as a shock to everyone, it put AIDS and HIV in the forefront of any sports fan’s mind, and we all thought Magic was going to die. Obviously, he has not yet, and has continued to succeed in business all the while educating a public who might not have accepted the knowledge from anyone else about his disease. Sure, Magic came back, not only with the Dream Team in the Barcelona Olympics, but a couple of years later as a much bulkier but still effective power forward for the Lakers. Then he got to retire on his own terms, which might be the most powerful part of the whole story.

Nathan: Steve Yzerman

Steve Yzerman played the entire 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a shattered knee.

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