I believe sports fans are witnessing an extraordinary coalition of individual professional careers that have been most supremely wasted.
These four athletes, one from each of the major pillars of North American sports, have long since passed the prime years of their respective careers, having earned no championship hardware, and for the most part, have spent those careers wearing the same franchise colors, always waiting for next year, never to fully reap the rewards of their hard work and talents.
These four great athletes, while having accomplished so much, have been failed repeatedly by their respective teams, owners, coaches and management, in more ways than one. With comeuppance, through the best and (so far) worst of times, I pray this tale of four wasted careers shall end.
Ichiro. What more could a franchise want? It’s so easy. You just write Ichiro’s name at the top of your lineup card, and for the next 11 seasons, sit back and enjoy the almost automatic 160 games, 220 hits, 40 steals and .325 avg each year with a Gold Glove-winning arm in right field to boot.
Ichiro never gets hurt. Ichiro is always on base. Ichiro never makes an error. If you want to make a baseball-related compliment, begin that sentence with Ichiro’s name and you can never be wrong.
Ichiro’s MLB career began so promising in 2001. He won both the MVP and ROY awards that year, and his Seattle Mariners won a record-tying 116 regular-season games, only to lose quietly in five games to the Yankees in the ALCS. From there, it’s been a tale of drought and famine for the greatest import in MLB history.
The Mariners have yet to return to the postseason. They have won less than 70 games five times since, hitting rock bottom in 2008 when they became the first team in MLB history to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll. The team emerged for an unfortunate encore in 2010, losing another 100 games, even with Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez on the pitching staff. Through it all, there has been Ichiro.
Ichiro is a table-setting, run-scoring, base-stealing, missile-throwing machine, and the Mariners have wasted his career, surrounding him with failed experiments such as Carlos Silva, Pokey Reese, Carl Everett and Chone Figgins.
Jarome Iginla. From the onset of his professional career as an 18-year-old, Iginla has successfully mastered the art of getting the puck past the goalie. For the past 10 seasons, Iginla has scored 30-plus goals (twice leading the NHL) and tabbed 30-plus assists in each of them.
He recently became the 42nd member of the NHL’s 500-goal club—all of them scored with the Calgary Flames.
The star of the 1995 entry draft, Iginla flourished under the spotlight of Theo Fleury, and by Iginla’s third season he became the clear face of the franchise. Iginla mixes the front-line scoring power of a Steve Yzerman or Jari Kurri with the physicality formed over the years in the mold of Brendan Shanahan and Keith Tkachuk. He is a general manager’s dream and a line-mate’s best friend.
In a sport in which it seems every franchise qualifies for the playoffs, the Flames failed to make the postseason for the first seven seasons of Iginla’s career, finishing under .500 each year. In his eighth season, Iginla and the Flames struck gold, parlaying a third-place division finish into a conference championship, and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In classic Flames fashion, they lost by one goal in Game 7 to a team from the manufactured hockey hotbed of Tampa Bay, Florida. Follow that up with a season-long lockout, four first-round postseason exits, and a couple more playoff DNQs, and you begin to understand how Jarome Iginla might just be the greatest NHL talent wasted by a franchise.
Steve Nash. Growing up in a country otherwise known as America’s frozen joke to the north, and going to a college nobody heard of, must have been difficult enough for Steve Nash. Pulling off one of the greatest first-round upsets in NCAA Tournament history, and entering the NBA staring at the names of Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell and Jason Kidd on the Phoenix Suns depth chart at point guard, is just unfair.
The fact that Steve Nash is even on this list is proof positive that he is an all-time NBA great.
After working only 11 games over his first two NBA seasons in Phoenix, Nash was the center of a draft-day trade with the Dallas Mavericks that brought the Suns the rights to Shawn Marion. In Dallas, Nash paired nicely with All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Juwan Howard, becoming one of the best distributors in the game, averaging more than seven assists through his six seasons with the Mavericks.
However, the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings consistently served as playoff kryptonite in the Western Conference, and Nash rejected a low-ball free-agent offer from Mavericks ownership, and returned for a second act in Phoenix.
As a member of the Suns, Nash reached unprecedented heights for guards in the modern NBA game. He won back-to-back MVP awards, led the league in assists five times and from 2005 to 2010, Nash strung together perhaps the greatest five seasons of shooting we have ever seen.
In each of those seasons, Nash shot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line. Nash owns the most “50-40-90" seasons in NBA history. Only Larry Bird has pulled off such a season more than once.
It surely did not hurt Nash to play with Marion, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson in his return to the desert. And in recent years, Nash has been dishing on court to the likes of Shaq, Boris Diaw, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Raja Bell.
The names have been there, but the commitment from management has not. Johnson was traded away the same season Stoudemire was lost to microfracture knee surgery. Marion went to Miami in the Shaq swap of 2008, which was the epitome of a series of player movement where the team flooded Nash with a revolving supporting cast, only to blow it all up before seeing positive results.
The Suns are now just a mediocre team led by the greatest point guard of the last 20 years. No NBA player has shared jerseys with so many great talents, only to see the landscape change before ever reaching the promised land.
Steven Jackson. In a sport where the average career length is 3.3 years, and for running backs is a only wisp longer than two-and-a-half seasons, Steven Jackson is a miracle of epic proportions. Jackson runs with a force so violent, you can’t help but feel sorry for the free safeties and linebackers charged with bringing the 230-pound horse to the ground in open space.
Jackson recently became the seventh NFL back to rush for 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons, joining legends named Emmitt, Barry, Curtis, Thurman, LT and Dickerson.
Arriving in St. Louis just as the Greatest Show on Turf was dying, Jackson has reached the postseason only once in his career as a rookie moonlighting behind Marshall Faulk. Jackson has outlasted changes in coaching, general management and even ownership (twice).
Jackson has hung on through several rebuilding projects, never complaining that management’s idea of protection (in the form of a backup) was whoever raised their hand first that morning in the practice squad meeting.
Jackson has done it all over his seven seasons since replacing the Hall of Famer. He has led the league in yards from scrimmage. He has caught 90 balls in a season. He has made three trips to the Pro Bowl.
Standing behind some terrible offensive lines over the years, Jackson has never been afraid to take the ball 20 times a game from an ever-rotating cast of punch-drunk quarterbacks.
Jackson wrote the book on how a running back takes the field with class and character, no matter the score or record. So, when the Rams eventually figure out how to build around Sam Bradford, Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, they better hope Jackson leaves a copy in his locker.
You can surely make a case for several others I’m sure to have overlooked (Roy Halladay, LaDanian Tomlinson, Rick Nash and David Lee come to mind). Please share your thoughts below.