Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Could've Been....

So upon Pete's suggestion (see? I actually do listen to you guys sometimes...), I decided to make a list of the Top 12 (how rebellious) Athletes whose careers were shortened by injury or illness. The general purpose of this list is to look at the athletes that make you think, "How much greater could they have been if they stayed healthy?" The higher on the list, the more unfulfilled potential (in my opinion, of course). Before I start, let me just toss in a couple of guidelines:

1) The player must have played at least 5 years professionally. That's enough time to establish yourself as a top-class athlete.
2) No current players (with all due respect to Yao Ming and Mark Prior).
3) Sudden deaths do not count on this list (that goes for you, Len Bias), nor do sudden retirements (ditto, Barry Sanders).
4) Players whose careers were interrupted by war (i.e., Dimaggio and Ted Williams) were not included. If they had been, Teddy Ballgame would've no doubt been up here.

OK, with that, it's on to the list:

Honorable Mentions: Pavel Bure (3 time goal-scoring champion, 1992 NHL rookie of the year, missed over 300 games in 12 NHL seasons, retired in 2005)
Mark Fidrych (1976 AL Rookie of the Year, lowest ERA in majors that year, missed almost two years with a torn rotator cuff, retired in 1981)

12. Greg Lemond
3-time Tour de France Winner
Retired 1994 (age 33

History lesson for you kiddies: Before Lance Armstrong rode in on his shiny bike and kicked both France's and testicular cancer's ass, there was only one legendary American rider. Greg Lemond was a truly dominant rider whose endurance and strength were largely unmatched when he appeared on the scene. After being the first Yankee to win the Tour de France at age 25, it appeared he was setting up a dynasty. But in 1987, a freak hunting accident caused him to miss two years in recovery (he still has shotgun pellets resting in his body). The fact that he came back to win twice in '89 and '90 is a remarkable feat, but mitochondrial disease soon struck, and he could never regain the championship form. Since Lance won his last Tour at age 34, it seems that when Lemond claims that he could've won five Tours, he might have been selling himself short.

11. Lou Gehrig
6-time World Series champion, 2-time American League MVP, Triple Crown Winner
Retired 1939 (age 35)

The epitome of a legendary career cut short by circumstance. In all of baseball history, few are perhaps as underrated as the Iron Horse. He had a career .340 average (16th highest ever), drove in 1,995 RBI (5th all-time), famously played in 2,140 straight games (2nd all-time, and would've been longer before ALS forced his early retirement), and hit 493 career home runs in an era where hitting 20 in a season would make you an All-Star. Speaking of which, Gehrig was also selected for the first 7 AL All-Star Teams, the last one coming a week after he officially called it quits. Sure, it helped to have the Babe hit ahead of you in the lineup, but Gehrig was as fearsome a hitter and as tireless a worker as you could find. He may have only had a few good years left anyway had the disease which now bears his name not taken his strength (and eventually his life). Still, had he only finished up that 1939 season, he would still be only 1 of 3 players in baseball history with 500 home runs and 2,000 RBI (with Ruth and Hank Aaron). It was a truly remarkable career that sadly ended in a way that no career should.

10. Mario Lemieux
2-time Stanley Cup champion, 3-time MVP, 6-time scoring champ, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, Olympic gold medalist
Retired 1997 (age 32), 2006 (age 40)

OK, I know it's odd to say that someone who retired at 40 had his career shortened, especially when he won 2 championships, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and became the owner of the franchise before he hung up his skates. But the scary part is, he could've had an even greater career had he not missed so many games. He missed 2 months in 92 to undergo treatment for Hodgkin's Disease; he missed 48 games in 1993 - and all of the '95 season - with back problems, which eventually caused his first retirement in 1997. He came back in 2000, but still had injury issues, appearing in only 24 games in the '02 season and just TEN in the '04 campaign. He finally called it quits in 2006 after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Overall, in a stretch of 13 seasons (not counting the 3 he missed during his retirement), Mario played in just 461 out of a possible 1,056 games - in his entire career, he never had a season where he played 80 games (Gretzky, by comparison, achieved that feat 8 times). Considering the fact that Lemieux averaged nearly 2 points a game, had he played all those games he had missed, his numbers would be awfully close to Gretzky's all-time scoring records, and the Penguins might have conceivably picked up another Cup along the way. Nevertheless, Mario has had an extraordinary career; it's just interesting to wonder how much greater he could've been completely healthy.

9. Mike Bossy
4-time Stanley Cup champion, 5-time All-Star, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee
Retired 1987 (age 30)

Quite possibly one of the most underrated players in NHL history, Mike Bossy was also perhaps the deadliest goal-scorer in the game. In an era where Gretzky, Lafleur, and later Lemieux dominated the headlines, Bossy quietly used his blazing shot to help lead the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups. In 1981, he became only the 2nd player in NHL history to score 50 goals in his team's first 50 games - in fact, in his first nine NHL seasons, he scored at least 50 goals every time; not even the Great One can make that claim. He is also 4th all-time with 7 100-point seasons, and he also racked up 3 Lady Byng Awards for sportsmanship. However, recurring back problems forced him to the sidelines in 1987, and he was never able to come back. As the league gained popularity at the end of the decade, its greatest pure shooter was unfortunately left behind.

8. Earl Campbell
1977 Heisman winner, 1979 NFL MVP, 3-time All-Pro, NFL Hall of Famer
Retired 1985 (age 31)

When running backs like Adrian Peterson show up on the scene, they're inevitably compared to the Tyler Rose. Earl Campbell was truly a specimen: 6 feet tall, 240 lbs., and could run the 40 in 4.5 seconds. After an incredible college career, he signed with the Houston Oilers and continued to earn accolades. When he wasn't flying past his would-be tacklers, he simply plowed into them and ran them over. Even against stacked defenses, he'd still average nearly 5 yards per carry, and he led the league in rushing 3 straight years. However, the power running, as it does for so many halfbacks, took its toll, and by the time he was traded to New Orleans in 1983, people had already declared Earl's career to be over. Not only was that the case, but the punishment he received (and dished out) over his too-brief career also forced him to use a wheelchair to get around. A sad reminder of how tough the business of football can be.

7. Cam Neely
5-time All-Star, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee
Retired 1996 (age 30)

I'll admit it; Cam Neely was one of my favorite players to watch growing up (only behind Lemieux). He was a great shooter, a deceptively good puck-handler (here's some evidence of that), and one tough son-of-a-bitch. Along with Brendan Shanahan, he was the prototypical power-forward - a guy who could beat you with his fists and with his stick (not in the Marty McSorley definition of the term). In the 1991 playoffs, he took a cheap shot to the knee from Ulf Samuelsson - unfortunately, the leg did not heal right, and part of the muscle actually calcified. The fact that Neely could even continue playing is surprising, but he never played more than 50 games in a season ever again. Having said that, he was still a phenomenal player, racking up an impressive 50 goals in 44 games during the '94 season. Alas, the injuries caught up to him, and he was forced to retire from hockey far too early. On the bright side, he has done great charity work off the rink, and who can forget him as Sea Bass in Dumb & Dumber? Still, it would've been nice to have seen him hammer away on a few more dudes before his days on the ice had come to an end....

6. Marco van Basten
2-time World Player of the Year, 2 European Championships
Retired 1995 (age 31)

One of the most gifted strikers of the 1980s, Marco van Basten broke onto the world stage at an early age. After a few seasons with Ajax (where he scored this beauty), he transferred over to Milan, where he would help lead his team to two European championships and three Italian titles. Although the Netherlands was not as strong as they had been in the past, he performed admirably on the international stage, enough to be awarded the World Player of the Year Award on two occasions as well. However, upon his transfer to Milan, ankle injuries kept nagging away at him, and after the 1993 season, he underwent major surgery to fix them. The problem never really was solved, however, and van Basten was forced to retire in 1995, two years after he played his last match. Had he been healthy and in good form, the Dutch may very well have won the World Cup in 1994.

5. Bobby Orr
2-time Stanley Cup champ, 3-time MVP, 2-time scoring champ, 8-time Norris trophy winner, Hockey Hall of Fame inductee
Retired 1979 (age 31)

As with Lemieux, it might be a little off-putting to see someone with such overwhelming credentials to be so high up on this list. But even more than Lemieux, Orr had the potential to be even greater than he already was had injuries not killed his career. To put it simply, Orr changed the game: he was the first defenseman to be successful at joining the attacking rush, and he went all over the ice to make a play. He is still the only defenseman to win a scoring title, let alone 2 of them, and his tenacity helped the Bruins win 2 Stanley Cups (see the picture). However, as Orr himself has said, when you move all over the ice that much, you're going to take a pounding; as such, his knees began deteriorating at a rapid pace. By the age of 28, he was barely able to play - in his last 3 seasons (spent with the Bruins and Blackhawks), Orr played a total of 26 games. Yes, he did have ten phenomenal seasons, but after a dozen knee surgeries, you just can't be an effective player anymore. Sadly enough, had he been playing with today's advances in arthroscopic surgery, he might have had a few extra years in him. That's the sad part about being an innovator - you're too often stuck in the wrong time period to last.

4. Gale Sayers
5-time NFL All-Pro, College and Pro Football Hall of Famer
Retired 1971 (age 28)

When you talk about great rookie seasons, Sayers's performance in 1965 should be near the top of the list. The Bears speedster ran for a then-NFL record 22 touchdowns, including 6 in one game against San Francisco (still the record). In three of his six seasons, he led the NFL in rushing yards, and he was also a beast on kick returns; in 1966, he set the NFL record with 2,440 all-purpose yards. Unfortunately, as is the case with most speed backs, severe injuries on both knees put him on the shelf in 1970, and once the speed was gone, so was he. Since his retirement, he has had great success in the stock market and as a philanthropist (he was also well-known for the movie Brian's Song, one of only three movies men are legally allowed to cry at while watching - Old Yeller and Field of Dreams being the other two). Still, as accomplished as he is off the field, it is a shame he only had 5 full seasons to impress us with his athleticism and all-out speed.

3. Terrell Davis
Super Bowl XXXII MVP, NFL MVP, 3rd man in NFL history to rush for 2000 yds in one season
Retired 2001 (age 29)

Speaking of someone whose legs failed them, TD was an absolute monster when he burst onto the scene in the late 90's. Sure, the Broncos always had solid running backs, but Davis was as strong as he was fast, and opposing defenses had few solutions for him. And while John Elway famously won his first Super Bowl in 1998, it was Davis who gained MVP honors with a 3-TD performance. The following season, he rushed for 2,008 yards, joining OJ Simpson and Eric Dickerson in the prestigious 2,000-Yard Club, and the Broncos repeated as Super Bowl champs. However, that was the beginning of the end for Davis. Early in the '99 season, he torn his ACL and MCL. The next season, a stress fracture caused him to miss significant time. And in 2001, he had to have arthroscopic surgery on both knees. At that point, he decided enough was enough and retired at 29, just three years after his greatest accomplishment. If his legs had not given out on him so much, he could've easily become one the NFL's all-time greatest rushers. Unfortunately, the injury bug does not consider potential before striking.

2. Vincent "Bo" Jackson
1985 Heisman winner, 1989 All-Star Game MVP, 1990 Pro Bowl
Retired NFL 1991 (age 30), MLB 1994 (age 34)

If there has ever been a more complete physical freak of nature than Bo Jackson, I would love to see him or her (OK, him. No offense, ladies.) There was the most insane, over-the-top hype machine behind him (Bo Knows Money); there were the urban-legend stories about just how impressive his athleticism was ("Did he really outrun Carl Lewis? Did he hit a 600-ft home run? Did he bench-press thoroughbreds in the off-season?"); of course, there were the actual documented feats that were just as impressive (the "wall run" catch for the Royals, the Monday Night game where he made Brian Bosworth his personal bee-yotch); and of course, his single greatest legacy to mankind. Seriously, anyone who says Michael Vick was a better video game athlete should get punched in the face and made to look at that video with their eyelids held open, Clockwork Orange-style. Maybe a lot of it was hype, maybe some of it was steroids, who knows? (Well, we've already established that Bo does, smartass.) Still, one fluke tackle in 1991 was enough to dislocate his hip (which earned urban-legend status itself) and end his football career, and considerably damage his baseball career until the strike ended it for good in 1994. It was perhaps better that it was over quickly - we all got swept up in the hype, and the ride was over before we could really determine how much of the Bo myth was smoke and mirrors, and whether he was really as amazing as we all thought. But it sure would've been nice to see him crush a few more homers and obliterate linebackers for a little while longer, though.... that shit never gets old. Neither do the 99-yard Tecmo Bowl runs. Greatest. Virtual Athlete. EVER.

1. Sandy Koufax
4-time World Series champ, 3-time NL Cy Young, 1963 NL MVP, 4 career no-hitters
Retired 1966 (age 30)

It seems unfortunate that when people talk of the greatest pitchers ever, they name guys like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, or Cy Young, but they tend to skip over one of the most impressive (but sadly not so durable) pitchers in history: Sandy Koufax. With today's training staff and physiologists, it's very hard for a pitcher to "pitch until his arm falls off". Pitch counts, 5-man rotations, middle relievers, PEDs (oh, wait, am I not supposed to talk about that?) keep pitchers around a lot longer than they used to. You can bet your ass that if Sandy Koufax had been playing today, the Dodgers would be doing everything in their power to keep his arm fresh. To put it mildly, during a 6-year stretch from 1961-66, Koufax was more dominant than any pitcher in major league history. His fastball and 12-6 curveball were practically untouchable, even when the opponents knew they were coming. And since he was so dominant, the Dodgers kept putting him on the mound (usually 40 starts per season). Of course, reminiscent of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, their dependence on Koufax caused his arm to degenerate quickly from arthritis. Of course, he still wanted to pitch, and did so for two more years; he even threw a perfect game in 1965, even though he was taking a laundry list of pain medication. Finally, after the 1966 season, Koufax had no choice but to end a career that included an MVP Award, 3 Cy Youngs, 4 world championships, 4 no-hitters (then a record), and he remains 6th all-time in strikeouts per 9 innings. His retirement was unfortunately a reflection of the times in which he played - you threw until you couldn't throw anymore. Had he received better treatment, it's possible he could've had five or six more seasons of quality pitching, and then any conversation about the greatest pitcher of all-time would probably start and end with Koufax.

As with all these athletes, he had a great run, and you just wish they could go out on their own terms. But just like life, sports isn't always fair - the ball bounces the wrong way, the ref screws you over, or you take one wrong step, and then "What's next" becomes the saddest two words in sports: "What if?"

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