As my fingertips hit the keyboard on this fine Monday in late August, the big sports story in Chicago is undoubtedly the acquisition of Manny Ramirez by the Chicago White Sox. To paraphrase an obscure 1960s song made somewhat less obscure by the 1992 movie "Reservoir Dogs": Controversy grows wherever Manny goes. And White Sox GM Kenny Williams will no doubt be fielding a flurry of questions about why he decided to claim the aging slugger off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But today’s Top Five is less concerned with Mannymania as it is with where this particular roster move might stand among other, similar ones made by Chicago’s big sports teams. And we’re not just talking about acquisitions here. Rather, let’s look at — and rank — five of the most controversial roster moves (or, as the case may be, non-moves) over the last couple of decades:
1. Gambling on fragility: Milton Bradley
You win, Milton Bradley. Still. Or should the real sarcastic credit here go to Jim Hendry, General Manager of the Chicago Cubs? Hard to say. But, whatever the case may be, the most controversial roster move in recent Chicago sports must go to the North Siders for acquiring outfielder Bradley as a free agent in January 2009.
Here was a player who lived and breathed controversy, battling umpires, fans, broadcasters and, indeed, the sports media as a whole. Here was a player who simply couldn’t stay healthy long enough to prove whether or not his at-times outstanding offensive numbers were for real. Here was a player who was willfully walking into a claustrophobic environment that would put his fragile mental state at odds with a fanbase and media desperate for answers explaining one of the longest championship droughts in professional sports.
The consequences of this roster move were, to many, predictably disastrous. Although, relatively speaking, Bradley did a fairly admirable job of staying on the field for most of the season (124 games) and, in all fairness, his overall numbers for the Cubs don’t look all that horrible in retrospect (.257/.378/.397, .775 OPS, .357 wOBA), his defensive foibles and inconsistency at the plate made him far less valuable than his three-year, $30 million deal would indicate. He was only a 1.2 WAR player in 2009.
But it was Milton’s disciplinary issues both on the field and in the clubhouse that truly spelled doom for both him and Jim Hendry’s professional reputation. Those issues culminated in a season-ending, team-levied suspension that capped one of the most deservedly controversial roster moves in Chicago sports history.
The only bright side to this story, for Hendry at least, was that Bradley was traded to the Seattle Mariners in late 2009 for pitcher Carlos Silva. Despite struggling with cardiac problems in 2010, Silva has provided the team with more value — 2.1 WAR going into the last month of play — than Milton did in 2009 and drastically more than the -0.2 WAR Bradley afforded the Mariners in 278 plate appearances this season.
2. Winning With The Enemy: Dennis Rodman
Looking back, the decision by John Paxson, then General Manager of the Chicago Bulls, to acquire Dennis Rodman may not seem all that controversial. After all, Rodman helped the Bulls win a championship (or three) and probably boosted the team’s merchandise sales (and local hair coloring professionals' profits) by a substantial percentage.
But, make no mistake, the trade of center Will Perdue and cash to the San Antonio Spurs for Rodman had fans and media reeling. Although the idea of putting a power forward who excelled defensively on the court alongside scoring machines Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen made plenty of sense strategically, Rodman was already 34 years old and had just begun to show signs of bizarre, erratic behavior that seemed unlikely to gel well with the Bulls no-nonsense approach to the game. Above all, Rodman was an infamous member of the late 1980s/early 1990s Detroit Pistons, a team whose physical — too physical — style of play made them the arch-villains of the NBA.
Yet sometimes controversy pays off. It certainly did with Rodman, who played a pivotal role on the trio of glorious Bulls teams (1995-1996, 1996-1997 and 1997-1998) that repeated the three-peat of the early 1990s.
3. L.A. Consequential: Manny Ramirez
That’s right, we’re putting Manny squarely in the middle of the pack. Why? Because we just don’t know how this is going to pan out. It’s definitely a controversial move. Kenny Williams has struck a straight-up waiver deal for one of the most written- and talked-about players in major league baseball — a player who, just last season, was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance.
And it’s not like that was Manny’s first and only brush with controversy. His legendary laziness in the outfield and unpredictable clubhouse behavior (shoving the Red Sox travelling secretary to the ground in 2008, for instance) have made him a hero to certain fans and a stocky, dreadlocked question mark to MLB front offices.
Of course, he’s also been one of the best right-handed hitters in the game over the last couple of decades. His 72.1 career WAR is, quite frankly, staggering. And, in 232 plate appearances so far this season, the power appears to be still there. He’s slugged over .500 with an ISO (isolated power) just under.200 — a strong number.
We hope this waiver wire claim will turn out as well as the Alex Rios deal did (despite his recent struggles). The South Siders have made a memorable move in an exciting season. It could turn out to be one for the ages.
4. Running On Empty: Tank Johnson
Sometimes a controversial move isn’t a move at all — it’s a non-move. Such was the case with the troubled Terry Johnson, the defensive tackle affectionately known as "Tank."
Drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2004, Tank played roughly three full seasons for the team from 2005 through 2007. Those seasons featured two playoff runs, including the Bears’ 2006 trip to the Super Bowl versus the Indianapolis Colts — thanks in part to Johnson’s sterling defense.
But, off the field, Tank was nothing but a headache to the higher-ups at Halas Hall. He was busted at a downtown Chicago nightclub in 2005 for possession of a handgun that was found by police in his vehicle. The next year, Lake County officers raided Tank’s home in Gurnee, Illinois, and discovered multiple weapons. And, in 2007, Johnson was busted for speeding in Arizona. The latter incident wound up being the backbreaker of his Bears’ career; the team released him a couple of days later.
What was controversial about Tank’s tenure, besides his various legal predicaments, is just how long it took the Bears to cut ties with him. The team gave Johnson multiple "second" chances, with head coach Lovie Smith issuing his usual emotionally neutral responses to the infractions. Many fans and media pundits will probably tell you the Bears waited too long to rid the locker room of Tank’s toxic presence. Of course, Johnson would probably note that the Bears haven’t made it back to the postseason since he left town.
5. Thanks, But No Thanks: Antti Niemi
This is a controversial move that just about every fan of the Chicago Blackhawks is nervously considering at the moment. Goalie Antti Niemi was a key figure in team’s successful quest for the Stanley Cup in 2009-2010. He solidified a position considered a weakness for much of the regular season and made a seemingly countless number of key saves in the victorious swirl of the playoffs.
Yet his success may have been his undoing as a Blackhawk. When an arbitrator awarded him a $2.75 million salary in 2010-2011, ’Hawks General Manager Stan Bowman decided to say no to Niemi and, eventually, turn to former Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco. Although Bowman skirted the issue publicly, most believe he essentially rejected Niemi to keep the Blackhawks under the NHL salary cap.
Leaving Niemi off the Blackhawks roster is controversial for a couple reasons. One is obvious: This is a guy who played a monumental defensive role in the first major professional sports championship in Chicago since the 2005 White Sox. Another is not so obvious until you look at Niemi and Turco’s respective stat sheets: Niemi just turned 27; Turco is 35. Sure, the latter’s age brings experience, but it also brings a body more easily banged up in a long, sometimes brutal hockey season.
All in all, one could say many, if not most, of the moves the Blackhawks have made this off-season have been troubling. No one wants to see a championship team broken up before it’s had a chance to defend its crown (or, in this case, Cup). But the ’Hawks firm adieu to Niemi stands out as one of the more controversial roster moves we’ve seen in recent years.