In case you were studying with Buddhist Monks or in a coma — which I’m sure some of this would have seeped into your subconscious — LeBron James was a free agent deciding his future. Would he stay in Miami? Or would the prodigal son return? Currently, I’m living in the Miami area, so you can imagine the chatter down here. If you think ESPN squeezed the juicebox enough to annoy you, visualize how nuts people going down here. It’s an interesting feel because of the makeup and perception of Miami. They’re supposed to be this apathetic fan base, that suddenly becomes rabid once “The King” arrives, but all along outsiders suspect that it’s only temporary. These people are too interested in dancing, drinking, eating and the beach. Who has time for anything else? That’s the perception.
The reality, these people are nuts about basketball, for the moment. It’s all-consuming down here. Florida has literally seven different types of license plates that I’ve seen regularly (extremely odd coming from New Jersey where you only see the occasional “ASSMAN”-esque vanity plate). Of those seven rotating plates, I’d say a good 20 percent are Heat associated. Dare I say that the percentage of people with Miami Heat merchandise out numbers those in Philadelphia with Eagles gear? They might not be as aggressive, but they’re representing with their hard-earned dollars.
Now, you should know that you would probably hate me and my choice of teams: Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Bulls. Yes, I’m a child of the ’90s. No, I’m not a bandwagon jumper; these are all teams passed down to me by my family members. But you should also know that I love hating the local teams. It doesn’t always match the excitement of celebrating with your friends and random folks on the street. But, oh man, when there’s something that sucks for the local fan and has no consequence on my happiness, it’s wonderful. I just laugh and laugh and laugh. These paranoid callers ripping the hosts, the hosts – specifically Leroy Hoard (who I really enjoy) talking about how they’re not worried he’s leaving and the general uncertainty was mouth-watering.
The paradigm shifted from, “We’re Miami! Who the hell would ever leave!?” to “Hey, we got LeBron rings. He wouldn’t leave … right?” and the final emotion before he announced, “I mean, if LeBron leaves, whatever. But he won’t because Cleveland sucks and they’re too needy.” The second the story broke that LeBron was Cleveland bound, everyone became the crazy ex, “Good riddance, he’s never gonna win there! What we had was special, he’ll be back. How could he go back? What’s wrong with us? We can work on it! I hate Josh McRoberts!” It’s been really exciting for me.
So, what does all this have to do with baseball? BronBron got me thinking, what all-time baseball greats have pulled a LeBron and took their talents back to the team that gave them an opportunity to be great? Through surfing the web, looking at the Hall-of-Fame lists and my biases, I’ve created the top 10 prodigal baseball sons:
1. Greg Maddux – I know when you think of Maddux, you think of what he meant to the Atlanta Braves. His 194 wins to just 88 loses in an 11 year period was amazing. Although, he got to Atlanta via his time with the Chicago Cubs. After capturing his first Cy Young Award in 1992, the Mad Dog bolted for the Dirty South and collected three more consecutive Cy Youngs, which only him and Randy Johnson have done since the award was created in 1956. After 11 years away, Maddux returned in 2004 for what was supposed to be a World Series chase, but fizzled out as has seemingly been written by God for the Cubs to do. However, it was a magical time as Maddux collected his 300th victory with the team that drafted him in the second round back in 1984. The Professor ended his career with 355 wins good for eighth all-time and was elected to the Cooperstown on his first ballot with over 97-percent of the vote, which is 7th all-time.
2. Rickey Henderson – There’s so many stories about the greatest base-stealer in the history of the game. Henderson tries to downplay it, but it was Deion Sanders before there was Deion Sanders. The jersey pop on homers, flashy chain, the Jheri Curl, it was all of what represented a new era in baseball and gave it a personality it so desperately needed. The way Yasiel Puig polarizes and excites is what Henderson did a few decades back. Only a team from Oakland could spawn a personality like that. So when Henderson was traded in 1984, it only made sense that he went to the George Steinbrenner-led New York Yankees. But the magnet was too strong for Henderson, much like LeBron, Henderson was a hometown boy, playing for the hometown team. Although Henderson played left town a few times, he will always be remember as an Oakland A. The real question is: Which of Henderson’s four stints with the team do you remember most?
3. Ken Griffey Jr. – Name a baseball fan in the ’90s who didn’t marvel at “The Kid” and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t love baseball. You can be a rival fan and have that built in disdain, but there’s no denying talent. Junior had gobs of talent and a personality that was lovable. Apologies to Darryl Strawberry, but Griffey had the most beautiful swing I ever saw. Much like him, it was lighting quick and graceful. When Griffey left Seattle, ironically, for his actual hometown, it felt like the heart was ripped out the java lovers in the Northwest. Griffey knows a thing or two about being a good son and after career-altering injuries and a journeyman end to his career, he rightfully returned back home. Junior must have been exhausted because he allegedly took a nap in the clubhouse and missed an opportunity to pinch hit. Cracking 630 homers in your career will wear ya out.
4. Tom Seaver – Tom Terrific was a stud and my grandfather’s favorite player (remember I told you about my person biases, right?). But I don’t really need the biases to make my case for “The Franchise”, Steve Francis who? Ammirite? Anyway, Seaver was the leader of the magical Mets team in 1969 and was a part of the mediocre early 70’s teams before being just in time to see the Big Red Machine dismantled. After seven years with the Reds, Seaver returned for an forgettable 1983 season with the Mets. But that’s a footnote in the illustrious career of Mr. Seaver. Not only is the only person to don a Mets cap in Cooperstown, but he has the distinct honor of garnering the highest percentage of votes ever in the balloting process over 98-percent. Not to pull a LeBron, but not 91, not 92, not 93, not 94, not 95, not 96, not 97.
5. Joe Morgan – Old chicken wing is what I like to call him. Check out this batting stance. Before he became loathed as announcer, Morgan was a Hall of Fame second baseman. And before the awesome sideburns/mustache combo, he rocked a .45s, aka Astros, jersey. Signed as an 18-year-old in 1962, the first year of the franchise, it was only a year later that Morgan made his debut. It would be a full decade of bright orange and Astroturf. From there, Morgan made his way to Cincinnati—a running theme on this list—and picked up his only two championships in ’75 and ’76. Morgan made the pilgrimage back to Houston for the 1980 season to help a young Astros team to NLCS before falling to the eventual World Series Champion Phillies. Morgan ended up bouncing around eventually reconnecting with a former Cincinnati Red and prodigal son in a variety on scenarios, Pete Rose.
6. Pete Rose – Arguably one of the most polarizing figures American sports has ever seen. Charlie Hustle embodied his nickname; we all about Ray Fosse get trunked at the 1970 All-Star Game. But Rose was a hustler for a whole different reason we find out after his playing days were done. The degenerative gambler cost himself his opportunity to be recognized as an immortal in the game. Whatever your stance on that topic, Rose is an all-time great. His 4,256 hits are most in career, which is an average of 177 hits per season. The 17-time all-star spent his first 16 seasons with the Reds and won two rings before heading to Philadelphia—ahead of his former teammate, Joe Morgan—and won another ring there. After a brief stint with the Montreal Expos—who had the coolest uniforms ever—Rose returned to the place that he collected his first 3,164 hits. The concurring hero returned as a player/manager from 1984 through the 1986 season. After being removed from the roster, he continued his managerial duties until 1989 when Bart Giamatti hired a lawyer to investigate the allegations. After a court battle, Rose accepted his place on the baseball’s ineligible list on August 24th, 1989. My bold prediction is that he will be reinstated posthumously and put in Cooperstown then.
7. Reggie Jackson – Despite starting out and finishing with the Athletics organization, it’s fair to say that he’s best known for his time in pinstripes with the Yankees. Mr. October. Jackson’s list of accomplishments read as a laundry list of potential. And unlike most cases, that potential was fulfilled. Jackson went from a highly recruited football star to an All-American at Arizona State University to the second overall pick in the 1966 MLB Draft to a one of baseball greats. It’s hard to talk about Jackson without mentioning his decimation of the Dodgers in 1977. However, it’s a pop culture moment from the cult classic “BASEketball” that endears him to another generation. On regular series merits alone Jackson earned the right to be placed among the game’s best. Where he moves hero to legend is when the light shines brightest, the playoffs. As was once said, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die…” Jackson will never die.
8. Willie McCovey – Stretch is by far the most productive in his second stint than the others listed here. After 15 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, McCovey was traded to the San Diego Padres and spent three seasons away from the City by the Bay. Upon his return, McCovey hit the remaining 56 of his 521 homers. Sadly, McCovey was lost the general baseball fan despite being a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. Then again, when you’re teammates with one of the 10, maybe even five greatest players ever in Willie Mays, it’s very easy to see why. Another knock against McCovey was his lack of playoff experience. He reached only one World Series in his 22 year career and the NLCS just more time. As Reggie Jackson made his bones as the first person to win a World Series MVP for two different teams, McCovey floundered in his only appearance on the biggest of stages. Rightfully, he garnered attention to a new audience when the Giants built their new park and donned the China Basin “McCovey Cove” to go along with a statue. It is a fitting tribute to a person that belongs on San Francisco Giants Mt. Rushmore.
9. Ferguson Jenkins – I want to give some love to Jenkins for a few reasons: First, he’s a Canadian. Imagine how difficult it is being a Canadian and trying to break into professional baseball. As the first Canadian to be elected to Cooperstown, that’s something that needs to be celebrated. Plus, he has his own stamp. How cool is that? Second, he is a Cub. Anyone who wants to return to a team that is seemingly predestined to fail, you have to respect their love for the franchise. Ironically, the man who kicked off the list, Greg Maddux, did the same thing while wearing the same number 31. Needless to say, it has since been retired in their honor. Dig deeper and you’ll find even more connection between Jenkins and Maddux, both are part of a club of four (Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez are the other two) pitchers that have recorded 3,000 strikeouts and less that 1,000 walks. Third, he’s the only on this list who didn’t break in with the team. I know it’s bending the rules, but he played barely over a season with the Phillies before being traded to the North Siders.
10. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez – Undoubtedly in the top five of greatest catchers ever. The pride of Puerto Rico, Pudge signed at 17 years old and found himself as the primary backup catcher just two years later. From there, the diminutive ballplayer found himself dominating in Texas, a place he spent the first 12 seasons of his career. After leaving and collecting a championship with the 2003 Florida Marlins, he anchored the revival of the Detroit Tigers franchise. Lest you forget the horrendous season they had in 2003. With 49 wins and 119 losses the Tigers were the second-worst team in the 100 plus years of professional baseball and the worst team in American League history. Pudge bounced around following a five-year stint in Motown nevertheless, he made a 28 game appearance with Texas in 2009 and when the official retirement came, Pudge signed a one-day contract to officially say goodbye to his career as a Ranger.