The Best Free Agent Signings in Sports History
As the 2010 NBA Free Agency period begins, there are more A-list players available than we've ever seen in one class. Now, just because a big name changes teams, it doesn't guarantee success.
Many players have been multi—million—dollar busts setting their team back years. Others, like these ten, lived up to and even exceeded expectations.
A few years from now we may see something like Lebron James—Miami Heat (2010) on the list, but for now here are what I believe to be the ten best free agent signings in American sports history.
10. Manny Ramirez—Boston Red Sox (2000)
It didn't end well with him and Boston (which is why he's this far down the list) and there will always be disputes regarding his laundry list of his antics. But, one thing that cannot be disputed is his production and his results.
On that December night in Boston when he signed, the Red Sox were in the 82nd year of the title drought known as the "Curse of the Bambino." Of course, the curse refers to when the greedy Red Sox management undersold Babe Ruth for money.
The Manny move was the antithesis of the Ruth move, as the Red Sox generously gave Ramirez an eight year 160 million dollar contract. The contract was one of the biggest in sports history.
Although the Red Sox remained until the 86th year of the streak, Manny put up gaudy numbers in his first few seasons. In 2004, the team finally broke through and won the World Series, and Ramirez was named MVP. Three years later, the Red Sox won again, and have been a strong title contender every year.
There are many people to thank for this success, Manny should be the first.
09. Ichiro Suzuki—Seattle Mariners (2000)
I wanted to include one foreign country free agent signing, and this is by far the best one.
Many of the Japanese imports have been busts, but not Ichiro.
The man is simply one of the best pure hitters the game has ever seen. He started his career in Seattle with a bang as he won an MVP in his first season and led the Mariners to an MLB record 116 wins in the regular season.
For a guy who didn't join the bigs until he was 27 years old, to put up the numbers he will end up putting up is unbelievable.
If he had only started earlier in America, he'd be making a strong run at Pete Rose's hit record.
08. Chauncy Billups—Detroit Pistons (2002)
I tried to make this list entirely of big splash guys who changed teams with a lot of fanfare (which is why you won't see the Red Sox signing David Ortiz on this list) but I couldn't leave out Billups.
A former third overall pick in the draft by the Boston Celtics, he showed some clear natural skills, but never seemed to get settled. The Celtics traded him only four months into his career. Billups went on to play with the Raptors, Nuggets, Magic, and Timberwolves.
He had a breakthrough season for the T-Wolves in 2001-02, and signed a 6 year, 35 million dollar deal with the Detroit Pistons.
In just two seasons, the Pistons were champions and Billups was the Finals MVP.
07.Steve Nash—Phoenix Suns (2004)
In the summer of 2004, the Suns had a lot of money to spend and were looking to make a big splash. They had their sights set on Kobe Bryant, but Bryant remained with the Lakers.
Nash was considered weak compensation at the time, but he proved the skeptics wrong right away. Nash made the Suns relevant immediately, by leading them to one of the best records in the NBA and winning the MVP award.
Although they never made the Finals (but have come close and still could before it's all said and done) you cannot blame Nash. He has won two MVP awards, and will go into the Hall of Fame as one of the best and toughest point guards in league history.
06. Deion Sanders—San Francisco 49ers (1994)
It's laughable to think that Sanders was signed to a one year, 1 million dollar deal in 1994.
I think Gibril Wilson made that amount for the Dolphins in five minutes last year, which is about the amount of time it took for him to bring down Jeremy Shockey in a game against the Saints last season.
It's hard to find a player who made a bigger immediate impact than Sanders.
Prime Time recorded six interceptions and returned three for touchdowns en route to winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. More importantly, he ended the season holding the Lombardi Trophy, while sporting his first career Super Bowl ring.
06.(tie) Deion Sanders—Dallas Cowboys (1995)
One year later, Sanders was a free agent again, and this time he demanded a much larger contract. San Francisco wouldn't be able to bring him back, so Sanders was met by a gauntlet of suitors.
Dallas gave him a seven year, 25 million dollar contract, (which is still a bargain today) and although he didn't repeat the numbers from San Fransisco, he end result was the same.
Dallas won the Super Bowl and Sanders was a big part of the process. It will be hard to find a player today that would be able to do what Neon Deion did.
04.Drew Brees—New Orleans Saints (2006)
As a Dolphins fan, this is tough one, but it's essential to the list.
Brees injured his shoulder at the end of the 2005 NFL season. He wasn't going back to the Chargers, who were handing over the car keys to Phillip Rivers.
Brees had two teams realistically competing for his services. One was the Miami Dolphins, who were a team on the rise and were even picked by Sports Illustrated to go to the Super Bowl the following year.
The other team was the New Orleans Saints, a franchise that finished 2005 with one of the worst records in the league, and who's home stadium yielded comparisons to a level of hell after their city was hit with arguably the worst natural disaster in American history.
You would think that anyone in their right mind would go with Miami, unless the management was incompetent and the coach was more concerned with applying for college coaching jobs than doing the current one he held. Luckily, for Saints fans, that was exactly what was going on in Miami.
Brees chose the Saints over the Dolphins. In the four year stretch since the signing, Miami hasn't won a playoff game, but they have produced a 1-15 season.
Meanwhile, the Saints have four times as many playoff games in Brees' tenure than they had as an entire franchise prior to the signing. I watched Brees hold the Lombardi trophy and Super Bowl MVP trophy this past February and died a little inside.
03.Reggie White—Green Bay Packers (1993)
Many consider this the move that changed the NFL. It was the first big move since the NFL implemented their free agency policy, and it certainly panned out well for the Packers.
White was a monster in Green Bay, and retired as perhaps the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history. His three sacks in Super Bowl XXXI helped bring the trophy home to Titletown for the first time in 29 years.
I believe that this move resonates the most throughout the years because of who White was, and how he helped shift the power of the NFL.
02.Barry Bonds—San Francisco Giants (1992)
Like Manny Ramirez, his time didn't end well, but I believe he is more beloved in the Bay than Manny is in the Bay State.
Bonds, along with Reggie White, was one of the first real mega million blockbuster signings in sports. He signed a six year contract for a then record 44 million dollars (which I believe is the going rate for a utility infielder these days) and became a legend in San Francisco.
I did not write this blog entry to discuss what Bonds did or did not do to his body while he played. But, I will say that he's the best baseball player I've ever seen. Bonds would be the best no matter what he did or did not do to his body.
The All Time Home Run Leader will go into the Hall of Fame, and he'll go in as a Giant.
01. Shaquille O'neal—Los Angeles Lakers (1996)
The 1996 free agency period was the closest thing to the 2010 period.
At the time, Shaq was the top prize.
Most people understood that he had worn out his welcome in Orlando, and that his title chances were slipping away.
The Lakers offered Shaq one of the biggest contracts ever, only a couple weeks after the 1996 draft. There they traded for some young high school kid named Kobe Bryant.
And thus, the foundation was laid for a dynasty.