12/02/10 11:00 AM EST
Baseball has seen LeBron-like returns
Stars reappearing in former homes can be sweet or sour
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
Because James is one of the biggest icons in Cleveland sports history, broke the hearts of Cavaliers fans by declaring his future plans during his own TV special and opted to play for another team with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- thus forming what is now the most hated team in sports -- many are saying this is the most captivating game in which an athlete faces his former team.
Baseball may have a counterargument.
Of all the players in history who spent at least 15 seasons in the Majors, only 62 stayed with one organization, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That means all the others -- lots of them household names -- dealt with the reality of switching teams, and many of them faced a return to where they previously starred.
Some left by choice, others were forced out.
Some departed bitterly, others more gracefully.
Some were booed loudly upon returning, others were emphatically cheered.
Some struggled with the jitters of coming back, others thrived under it.
With that in mind, here's a list of the 10 most-anticipated returns in Major League history, which incorporates all of the above.
May 22, 2006: "Big Hurt" hurts his former team
Frank Thomas' brilliant 16-year tenure with the White Sox ended on bad terms due to a war of words with general manager Ken Williams. But there was no love lost among the fans. When "The Big Hurt" returned to the South Side in an Athletics uniform at age 37, a sellout crowd greeted him with a three-minute standing ovation, and the slugger tipped his helmet twice from the batter's box.
"It was a different feeling walking in here today," Thomas said. "But, to me, I feel like I'm at home, you know? This is where it's been for me, for 16 years, and it's good to come back here."
That part was obvious. Thomas, who was called "an idiot" and "selfish" by Williams after getting angry that the White Sox bought him out in the offseason, homered in his first at-bat, then again in his third -- though he rounded the bases to a smattering of boos that time. The A's lost, 5-4, in 10 innings, but it was a good day for arguably the greatest hitter in White Sox history.
Since then, of course, Thomas and the White Sox -- especially Williams -- have patched things up. In fact, on Aug. 29, the organization retired Thomas' No. 35 jersey with an elaborate on-field ceremony.
April 9, 1993: Bonds disliked in Pittsburgh return
Barry Bonds became no stranger to boos or even flat-out hatred throughout his career. And one of those times came when he returned to his first organization as a brand-new member of the Giants. During the 1992 offseason, Bonds turned down a reported five-year, $25 million offer from the Pirates -- the team with which he played seven seasons and won two MVPs -- to sign for six years and $43.75 million with his hometown Giants. So, of course, one fan at Three Rivers Stadium emptied out a box of fake money and littered it onto the grass when Bonds took his position in left field during his fourth game with the Giants. And, sure, Bonds was booed rather unmercifully while going 2-for-4 and scoring three runs in a 6-5 loss. But, as usual, the mercurial slugger shook it off. "I expected the booing," Bonds said, "and it pumped me up."
Aug. 21, 1977: "Tom Terrific" just that in Shea return
Tom Seaver won three Cy Young Awards with the Mets and was a key member of the 1969 "miracle" team. But he had been feuding with the front office since serving a leading role in the 1976 players strike, and on June 15, 1977, the struggling Mets got even, trading one of the greatest pitchers ever to a loaded Reds team, getting Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry in return. A little more than two months later, Seaver was back at his old stomping grounds, pitching in Seaver-like fashion. While starting at Shea Stadium for the first time as a visitor, Seaver was given a thunderous salute from the 46,265 in attendance. He proceeded to hurl a complete game, giving up one run and striking out 11 -- even hitting a double off good friend Jerry Koosman -- to move to 14-5.
"Sure, it was emotional," Seaver said. "But I had to block that out of my mind. Now that it's over, I feel better."
Seaver has since had his No. 41 jersey retired by the Mets and has tossed some notable ceremonial first pitches, including the last at Shea and the first at Citi Field.
May 1, 2006: Damon quickly goes from friend to foe
Few players in Red Sox history were more beloved than Johnny Damon, one of the key "idiots" and among the most prominent players as the Red Sox reversed an 86-year curse to win it all in 2004. But Boston's hatred for everything Yankees far outweighed any joy they once felt for Damon, especially after he spurned the city to sign with its archrival in the 2005-06 offseason.
Of course, Red Sox fans had already dealt with Wade Boggs leaving them for the Yankees 13 years earlier, and Luis Tiant before him in 1979, but unlike with Boggs, the Red Sox actually tried to re-sign Damon -- and he turned them down. After agreeing to a four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees, Damon made his return to Fenway Park in a Yankees jersey, and the loud boos from the sold-out crowd made the rare applause almost unnoticeable. Still, Damon -- who finished 0-for-4 in a 7-3 loss -- stepped out of the batter's box and, rather uncomfortably, doffed his helmet out of respect.
"I was a little disappointed at the reaction by the fans," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "I guess we should feel proud, because evidently wearing a Yankees uniform overrides winning the World Series and busting your tail for four years."
April 27, 1982: Reggie shows up "The Boss"
George Steinbrenner eventually admitted that one of his biggest regrets was letting Reggie Jackson leave the Yankees for the Angels. This night may have been the beginning of that sentiment. From 1977-81, Jackson swaggered through the Bronx, winning two World Series championships, hitting 144 home runs and gaining icon status. On this night, Jackson did what so many other legendary Yankees -- Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra among them -- never did: He showed up to play at Yankee Stadium in an opposing uniform. And he made his former team pay. With his new club ahead, 2-1, in the seventh inning, Jackson led off and blasted a pitch from Ron Guidry that bounced off the facing of the upper deck and back onto the field. The 35,458 in attendance reverted to familiarity, boisterously chanting "Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!" Then they turned toward the owner's box and let their feelings be known to Steinbrenner. Great day for Reggie, who now serves as a special adviser to the Yankees. Not such a good one for The Boss.
June 3, 1997: All-Star returns to angry Cleveland (sound familiar?)
That's because it is. Very much so, actually. LeBron, as it turns out, isn't the first superstar to anger the city of Cleveland by leaving via free agency. The power-hitting Albert Belle spent his first eight seasons as a member of the Indians, but he chose to sign with the division-rival White Sox when they gave him a then-record five-year, $55 million contract. When Belle returned to what was then called Jacobs Field, he encountered a fan base as volatile as Belle himself often was. They booed, tossed fake money and even got a prop plane to drag a derogatory message aimed at Belle. After his White Sox won the game, 9-5, and he had three hits, Belle called the fans in Cleveland "village idiots."
"It was crazy," Belle recently told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They were throwing batteries. Someone threw a pair of binoculars."
July 12, 1997: Roger gets his payback with gem, glare
This one was different. This was a situation in which the player was furious with the organization. And Roger Clemens made sure everybody knew it on this night -- a night that meant nothing in the American League East standings but everything in Boston.
The Rocket was convinced that Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette had forced him out of Boston after 13 years because he believed he was done, so Clemens signed with the division-rival Blue Jays, and armed with a desire to prove he was still elite, won his first 11 decisions with his new club. His biggest moment came on this night, when Clemens -- initially greeted with some applause, but mostly boos -- recorded a then-Blue Jays record 16 strikeouts through eight innings and turned the tide in his favor. In his last frame, he struck out the side on 10 pitches. Then, as he left to a thunderous ovation after retiring Mo Vaughn, he shot a steely-eyed glare at the Red Sox owner's box, just to make sure the front office was paying attention. "He came to make a point," Vaughn said, "and he did."
July 21, 1972: "Say Hey Kid" returns to San Fran
The greatest player in Giants history was dealt to the Mets in May of his 21st season. In his first game in a different uniform, the 41-year-old faced his longtime team at Shea and homered. Then, a little more than a month later, Mays was back in San Francisco for the first time -- and he went deep again. Though Mays markedly tailed off in the latter part his career, he made a statement on this day, when he got a hero's welcome from the fans at Candlestick Park, then drove in two with his 650th career home run in an eventual 3-1 Mets win. Despite being the reigning National League West champions, the Giants had the second-worst attendance in the league in 1972, averaging 8,412 fans a game. But during the three-game series against the Mets, the average was more than 21,000. Why? Well, because "The Say Hey Kid" was back, of course.
April 19, 1920: Curse of the Bambino begins in earnest
There has never been a more controversial and impactful trade than the one agreed to on Dec. 26, 1919, when the Red Sox dealt left-hander/outfielder Babe Ruth to the Yankees for, essentially, $100,000. On the day the deal was announced, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was quoted as saying, "I think [the Yankees] are taking a gamble." But, of course, it wound up being one of the greatest gambles ever -- the Yankees won four World Series titles with Ruth, the Red Sox went on an 86-year championship drought that was chalked up to "The Curse of the Bambino," yada-yada-yada. Red Sox fans were quickly reminded of Ruth during the third game of the 1920 season, when he made his first return trip to Fenway Park for a doubleheader attended by 22,000. Ruth went 3-for-8 with a double while starting both games in center field, though the Yankees lost both contests. Their luck would turn around soon, though.
April 16, 2001: A-Rod rudely welcomed in Seattle
"I don't care what comes out of their mouths," Alex Rodriguez said before playing his first game in Seattle as an opponent, "I still love them." Apparently, that feeling wasn't mutual. Because with Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson gone, A-Rod was the one true superstar left in Seattle. So when he signed a then-record $252 million contract with the Rangers, fans were furious. And when word leaked that A-Rod wrote a letter urging Boeing Co. officials to relocate from Seattle to Dallas, the hatred grew even more intense. Fans wound up booing A-Rod incessantly during batting practice and each plate appearance of his first game back at Safeco Field. They screamed at him from the railing while he was in the on-deck circle, and they tossed fake money in the stands. The Rangers wound up losing the game, 9-7, to a Mariners team that began life without its star shortstop 10-3. But A-Rod, who finished 1-for-5, had lost something more: An entire city.
Ty Cobb returns to Detroit with Philadelphia Athletics (May 10, 1927)
Frank Robinson returns to Cincinnati with Orioles in World Series (Oct. 10, 1970)
Wade Boggs returns to Boston with Yankees (May 21, 1993)
Ken Griffey Jr. returns to Seattle with Reds (June 22, 2007)
Manny Ramirez returns to Boston with Dodgers (June 18, 2010)
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.