There is a group of notorious professional athletes whose accomplishments on the field were tarnished by what happened off the field. As my on-going “tribute” to murder suspect Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the Patriots, I devised this list. Counting down from number 10, six of the ten members of the list have already been revealed. The remaining four will not come as any surprise or revelation, but that should not negate the need for them to be seeded in their place in history.
So here is Part Four of my five part series, which I am calling my “All Time State Penn (Penitentiary) Team.” Continuing the countdown from number ten, numbers three and four as well as the fourth of five who qualifies for Dishonorable Mention are as follows:
#10 PLAXICO BURRESS (See July 26, 2013 post)
# 9 MARION JONES (See July 26, 2013 post)
# 8- ROSCOE TANNER (See August 2, 2013 post)
# 7- DWIGHT “DOC” GOODEN (See August 2, 2013 post)
#6- DARRYL STRAWBERRY (See August 12, 2013 post)
#5- DENNY McLAIN (See August 12, 2013 post)
#4 MICHAEL VICK
There is not a lot new to be said about Michael Vick. His rise and fall is well-documented and his story about possible redemption is still being written. Interestingly, the man who was universally vilified just six years ago was seen in the past month as a leader and moral spokesperson for the Eagles, following the vile racist-tirade involving Riley Cooper.
Few would argue against the fact that Michael Vick has had the talent to become legendary. That legend started to be written in his first collegiate game in 1999 at Virginia Tech against James Madison. In less than one half of football, he scored three touchdowns. That same year, Virginia Tech went on to be undefeated and played for the National Championship but lost to Florida State. He was a Heisman Finalist that year, finishing third. He had similar success in his sophomore year, including rushing for 210 yards against Boston College. With Vick at quarterback over two seasons, Virginia Tech lost just two games. He ended his college career with a Gator Bowl victory over Clemson. He then announced that he was opting out of college and entered his name for the NFL Draft.
Vick announced his arrival during his NFL Pro Day Workout. He recorded the fastest-ever 40 yard dash for a quarterback. Vick was then drafted first overall by the Falcons in the 2001 NFL Draft. Interestingly, and despite not having played organized baseball since middle school, Vick was selected that same year by the Colorado Rockies in the 30th round of the MLB Draft. That speaks volumes about his natural-born talent.
Vick put up decent numbers in the early years of his NFL career but nothing close to what was perceived to be his potential. Many believe that this was because Vick relied upon his abilities rather than hard work and study. Had he dedicated himself to reading defenses and committed himself to a practice regimen greater than Alan Iverson, many suspect that he would have been reinventing the quarterback position. Despite the rap on his work ethic, he still managed to be named to three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons in the league.
Finally, in 2006, things started to click. He started all 16 games for the Falcons, threw for almost 2,500 yards with 20 touchdowns. At the same time, he was the first ever quarterback to run for over 1,000 yards. Despite his success, the team finished 7-9 and did not make the playoffs. There were still signs that he was a legend in the making and the expectations were high for the Falcons heading toward the 2007 season with Vick at the helm.
But this could-be legend had warts, and big ones at that. He had a number of scuffles in his seasons with the Falcons, and his “associates” seemed to surround him with trouble. Finally, in 2007, while still a member of the Atlanta Falcons, he was charged and later convicted of federal charges for illegal interstate dog fighting. He served 21 months in prison. His actions lead also to an indefinite league suspension from the NFL and legal action by the Falcons to recover millions of dollars of bonus money paid to Vick. An arbitrator later awarded the Falcons over $19 million from Vick.
So there was Vick, more or less penniless and in prison as well as despised around the country for his inhumane treatment of man’s best friend. Then entered the gentleman of all gentlemen, Tony Dungy. He mentored Vick and helped resurrect his career and perhaps his soul.
Following his release from prison, the Eagles took the risk of signing Vick to a one year contract, worth about $1.5 million with no guaranteed money, and a team option in 2010 for $5 million. In early 2010, following an injury to starter Kevin Kolb (gee, an injury to Kevin Kolb? Where have we heard that before or since?), Vick finished the season with 3,018 passing yards, 676 rushing yards and a total of 30 combined passing and rushing touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. Vick was named to his fourth Pro Bowl and Philadelphia made the playoffs with a 10–6 record.
In 2011, Vick started 13 games and he followed that with 10 starts in 2012. His numbers started to trail off and his touchdown to interception rate in 2012 was near equal. Nonetheless, the Eagles recommitted to Vick for the 2013 season, signing him to a one-year, $10 million dollar contract. The season is less than two weeks away and everyone is excited to see what happens when you combine Vick’s athletic ability with Chip Kelly’s frenetic style of football.
Michael Vick raises an interesting phenomena that is often seen in the entertainment industry and sports. If a person causes havoc and disgrace early enough in his career, there is time for redemption. This was true for Robert Downey, Jr. in the film industry but as to Mel Gibson, we see that redemption is hard to come by when the fall from grace occurs later in the career. Unlike Denny McLain, Roscoe Tanner and others, Vick still has time to rewrite the legacy of his career.
Is Vick a great quarterback or a great athlete who happens to play quarterback? Has he reached his potential or was he overrated from the start? He certainly has had great moments on the field and what he did in 2010 at quarterback showed that he had what it takes to become legendary. Four years ago, no one would have thought that to be possible. But who knows, the world loves the fallen star who seeks redemption.
#3 PETE ROSE
To this generation, Pete Rose is the central figure in the “should he be in the Hall of Fame?” debate. But, unlike the others on this list, Pete Rose is deserving of having his incredible baseball legacy told to those who are only aware of his fall from grace. So I will tell his story in reverse, by first discussing his legal problems and then celebrating his illustrious career.
Rose’s downfall is most represented by two significant violations, one relating directly to baseball’s rules and the other relating to the US Tax system. Following his playing career, Rose became a manager. He brought his brand of baseball to the Cincinnati Reds as their manager, and he encountered some success, finishing with a record of 412-373 over his six managerial seasons. However, he was surrounded by rumors about gambling, and in 1989 he fell directly into the cross-hairs of Commissioner Bart Giamatti, right at the start of Giamatti’s reign as the head of state for baseball.
Giamatti hired lawyer John Dowd to investigate Rose and his gambling activities. Dowd later found that Rose bet on baseball games in 1987, as part of significant other gambling activities. This violated a clear and unambiguous Rule 21 of baseball: Misconduct, (d) Betting on Ball Games- Any player…or club…official….who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.” The fact that most reports suggested that Rose bet on and not against his own team made no difference under the Rule or its penalties. After contesting the findings, Rose finally fessed up in 1989 and was given a lifetime ban from baseball and the Hall of Fame, a status that remains in place to this day. The only exception to this ban occurred during the 1999 World Series, where Rose was permitted to be present on the field in Atlanta for the pre-game ceremony honoring the All-Century Baseball team, of which Rose was a member.
After his lifetime ban from baseball, Rose lost his earning potential from his continued participation in the game he loved. However, he had not lost his entire fan base and from his notoriety, there were many others who wanted to secure memorabilia from this great and controversial figure. Rose went on the autograph-signing-for-fee junket, being paid by each fan for his autograph on baseballs, photos and other would-be memorabilia. This occurred during the frenzy of collectibles, a market that has since suffered a precipitous drop in value. In any event, these activities and the money earned from it led to the further toppling of Rose. In April of 1990, he pled guilty to two counts of false tax filings, having omitted earnings from selling autographs and memorabilia. He was sentenced to five months in prison, fined $50,000 and was ordered to pay over $350,000 in back taxes and interest.
So that is the fall of Pete Rose. Now it is time to commemorate his incomparable rise in baseball, and to celebrate one of the greatest and most dedicated players the game has ever seen.
Pete Rose made his first big league appearance during Spring Training in 1963. He appeared in a game against the Yankees and, after drawing a walk against Yankee Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, Rose sprinted to first base. Another version of the story involved Rose scaling the left field wall on a home run hit by Mickey Mantle that Rose did not have a chance in the world of catching. Whichever the story may be, Ford was incensed at what he saw to be showboating and in a derogatory fashion, nicknamed Rose “Charlie Hustle.” Rather than being insulted, Rose took it as a compliment and embraced the nickname for the remainder of his career. And my, did Whitey Ford get it right! Rose went on to be the iconic blue collar player, never doing anything below 100% effort.
Rose hit a triple on April 13, 1963, and his prolific hitting prowess was off and running. In 1963, Rose went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. In 1964, his numbers slumped some, but Rose was part of a baseball rarity. In the 9th inning of a scoreless game in which the Reds were hitless Reds against Houston (then the Colt .45s and later becoming the Astros), Rose reached first base on an error and later scored the game’s only run on another error, resulting in a 1-0 Reds’ victory. Houston’s Ken Johnson became the first pitcher in baseball history to lose a complete game no-hitter.
By 1965, hitting issues were resolved, and Rose’s numbers continued to rise. He had his first of ten 200-hit seasons and his .312 batting average was the first of what would be nine consecutive seasons with a .300 or better batting average. He peaked in 1969, hitting .348 and beating out the great Roberto Clemente for the batting title in his last at bat of the season. In typical Rose fashion, that hit was a bunt single— true Charlie Hustle style.
An iconic moment in his career occurred at the 1970 All-Star Game. With the game tied in the 12th inning, Rose singled and eventually got into scoring position. The Cubs’ Jim Hickman then hit a single and Rose came barreling home, arriving at precisely the moment as the throw to the waiting American League All Star catcher, Ray Fosse. The collision was violent and Rose was safe for the winning run. Fosse was injured more than first recognized, later diagnosed with a fractured and separated shoulder. Many reports suggest that this one collision altered materially the future of Fosse’s career.
By 1973, the Reds had become “The Big Red Machine,” and Rose was among its leaders. He won MVP honors that year, and his hustle style nearly caused a riot at Shea Stadium in New York when Rose engaged in another of his “win at all costs” actions. It was the 5th inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. Rose was breaking up a double play at second base and crashed into Mets’ shortstop, Bud Harrelson. This lead to a bench-clearing brawl and was followed by fans throwing objects from the stands directed at Reds’ players.
His success continued during the mid-70s, as the Big Red Machine continued to dominate baseball. Many praise Rose for that team success, not only because of his statistical contributions, but also because he agreed to move from the outfield to third base to open up playing time for slugger George Foster in left field. In his final season with the Reds in 1978, Rose collected his 3,000th career hit and had a 44 consecutive hitting streak, tying the National League record and making many believe that Joe DiMaggio’s insurmountable 56 game hitting streak could be broken.
In 1979, Rose began the next phase of his career, signing as a free agent with the Phillies, making him at that time the highest paid professional athlete. As another showing of his commitment to team, Rose agreed to transition from third base to first base since future Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt, already had a strangle-hold on third base. While Rose was with the Phillies, they won three division titles, appeared in two World Series, and were World Champions in 1980. I guess Rose was not a bad investment on their part.
Rose was released by the Phillies after his contract expired and he played less than one season in Montreal, where he collected his 4,000th career hit in 1984. He later rejoined the Reds. While there, he served in the rare role of player-manager. Later, he surpassed Ty Cobb’s career base hit record of 4,191.
Following the 1986 season, Rose finally hung up his playing spikes. As he did so, here are some of the many major league records he then and still holds: most career hits (4,256); most career games played (3,562); most career singles (3,215); most career runs by a switch hitter (2,165); and the only major player ever to have played in at least 500 games at five different positions (RF, LF, 3B, 1B; 2B). This is just a sample as the records go on and on.
I respect baseball’s rules and the penalties inflicted upon Rose, but he will always be in my Hall of Fame.
In case you missed the first three installments of this series, the Dishonorable Mention list is reserved for those who committed the crimes of never living up to their athletic potential and then being convicted of actual criminal offenses. Here are the first three honorees, followed by the next inductee:
#5 ISAIAH J.R. RIDER (see July 26, 2013 post)
#4 LAWRENCE PHILLIPS (See August 2, 2013 post)
#3 TONYA HARDING (See August 12, 2013 post)
#2 RYAN LEAF
Ah, Ryan Leaf. Every visual image of him raised when his name is invoked includes everything other than football. Most iconic is a clubhouse tirade directed at a sports reporter, but I digress.
Leaf was a star quarterback in high school, leading his team to the 1992 Montana State Championship. He went on to play for the Washington State Cougars of the then- PAC-10. By his junior year, his numbers were astounding and his rise was meteoric. He averaged more than 330 yards passing per game and set what was at that time a single season conference record for touchdowns. Washington State went on to win the conference championship and made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years. Despite Leaf throwing for over 300 yards and spearheading a last minute comeback attempt, Michigan beat Washington State, 21-16, and were declared national champions.
For his breakout season in 1997, Leaf was a finalist for the Heisman. It was won by Charles Woodson, and the list also included Peyton Manning and Randy Moss. Leaf finished third in the balloting. He then entered the NFL Draft. For the weeks leading up to the draft, the debate was whether Leaf or “that Manning guy” would be selected number one overall by the Colts. Rumor has it that many scouts for the Colts preferred Leaf but then team President Bill Polian and the coaching staff knew that Manning was their guy. And the rest is history.
After Manning was selected by the Colts, the Chargers used a trade with the Cardinals that moved them up from number three to number two in the draft to select Ryan Leaf. The Cardinals got more draft picks, Eric Metcalf, and still selected “their guy,” defensive end Andre Wadsworth from Florida State. The Chargers signed Leaf to a four-year deal worth over $30 million, with a signing bonus of over $11 million. Given what followed, this was Leaf’s first act of grand theft.
Leaf began the 1998 season as the starting quarterback for a franchise known before and since for an electric passing game but in Leaf, they got a power outage. While Leaf boldly predicted a 15 year career, a number of Super Bowls and eventual receipt of the keys to the city, it was later shown that perhaps he meant 15 years in prison and that he was hoping for the keys to the jail.
By mid-season of that first year, Leaf was benched in favor of Craig Whelihan (who?). After nine games, Leaf had thrown 13 interceptions against only 2 touchdowns, and had an unheard of quarterback rating of 39, a level of performance that is just this side of having a pulse.
Leaf’s most memorable moment of the season occurred in the locker room. He was being interviewed by a reporter with the San Diego Union-Tribune and apparently took exception to a question. Leaf was caught on camera attempting to physically assault the reporter while shouting “Just don’t f—ing talk to me, all right? Knock it off!” If not for the force of Junior Seau in restraining Leaf, blows would have been thrown and the reporter would have paid a steep price for the interview.
After the season, Rodney Harrison (then a star on the team and later with New England—now a commentator on NBC Sports’ Football Night In America each Sunday) referred to Leaf as a “nightmare” and indicated that if he had to play with him the following year, he’d consider quitting. Well, the wishes of Harrison and perhaps other teammates was granted at the very start of training camp in 1999. Leaf suffered a season ending shoulder injury just 20 minutes into the first practice. His absence from the field did not keep him away from controversy, seen arguing with the General Manager and coaches in November, leading to a fine and suspension (which had the effect of him not being paid part of his inflated salary).
Leaf was set to make a comeback in 2000, and the highlight that lead to the optimism was against the Cardinals (of course) during the last preseason game. However. once it all counted, nothing but lowlights followed. The team ended the season with a 1-15 record, and Leaf finished the season completing just 50% of his passes for a total of 1,833 yards, 11 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and a 56.2 passer rating. Compare that with Manning, who threw for over 4,400 yards to go with 33 touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 94.7.
In February of 2001, Leaf was released by the Chargers. On a hunch, Tampa Bay brought Leaf in but by the end of August, they knew that he provided no answers. They asked him to agree to be the fourth string quarterback and when he refused, they cut him. He later signed with the Cowboys, who were desperate for a quarterback, but he lost all four games in which he played with the Dallas. His totals in those four games? 494 yards passing yards, one touchdown, two lost fumbles and three interceptions. Then the lights went out and football was over.
In his entire football career, Heisman finalist and could-be first overall draft pick Ryan Leaf had amassed a total of four victories in games he started. That comes out to a salary to victory ratio of about $7.5 million per victory, give or take. No matter who prepares the list or what angle they use, Leaf is always part of the biggest draft busts ever in sports history.
Things then got worse. In 2003, he separated from his wife of two years, who was a former Chargers cheerleader, and they later divorced. Reports are that in 2008, he had to resign as a football coach at West Texas A & M because he allegedly asked a player for pain pills. In 2010, he pled guilty to multiple drug related counts and was sentenced to 10 years of probation. Sadly, one of the few “good” things that happened to him was from something quite frightening. In 2011, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which fortunately was found to be benign and was surgically resolved. In 2012, he was arrested on two separate days for separate burglaries, later pleading guilty to one burglary count and one dangerous drug possession count. He was sentenced to and, last I checked, is still serving his seven year prison sentence as a guest of the Montana Department of Corrections. I wonder if he has been the first draft pick in their prison football games.