Being a sports fan can be both a glorious and soul-crushing existence – and that’s just what happens on the field. At least with events on the field we can chalk it up to a ‘well, you win some and you lose some’ mentality that comes with following any team or sport in a diehard manner. But nothing gets under the skin worse than when management goes all in on a ‘fire sale’ that tests the testicular fortitude of even the most blessed fanbase.
You know the drill; your team didn’t live up to expectations last season, the management privately grumbles to trusted media links about the viability of this lineup, frustrated fans find themselves questioning everyone – from the uniform guy to the team’s owner – about what management plans to do and then, BOOM, your team starts unloading dudes left and right.
Sometimes this behavior is warranted – the once-promising in March then suddenly god-awful in April 2012 Marlins – and sometimes you are fresh off a new championship and management decides to take your 12-year-old heart, rip it out of your chest cavity and proceed to eat it in front of your face as it pretends to justify the sale with words like ‘market correction’.
These sales are often nasty, brutish and short – it is a take-no-prisoners method of pairing down a team’s bloated salary and replacing aging, over-priced veterans with cheap, young labor. It’s a wonderfully capitalist American model that has worked for centuries and your team will do it to you one day. It does not feel good. It is scary and almost never works out the way you think it will.
With the MLB All-Star game just behind us and the trade deadline rapidly approaching, we thought it best to look at the 15 top fire sales in sports history:
15 2015 Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in this year’s Stanley Cup and then promptly traded away some players due to salary cap considerations. While some moves to cut the salary cap were anticipated, it still has left the Hawks without vital pieces from their Cup run. GM Stan Bowman dealt Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a move that surprised many, as the perception was the Hawks would do what they could to keep the young star. Bowman then traded away Patrick Sharp, an enormously popular player in Chicago that was a Blackhawk before anyone in Chicago – much less the rest of the NHL – cared about the team. Chicago also chose not to re-sign Johnny Oduya, who has absorbed big minutes for the defence corps, as he signed in Dallas.
Bowman, who has been successful in re-tooling his team after Cup runs, must now see if that luck continues.
14 1919 Boston Red Sox
Not necessarily a ‘fire sale’ in the traditional sense but any time you trade a dude named Babe Ruth (at this time a pitcher that had helped the Red Sox to back to back World Series titles in 1915 and 1916) to your bitter rivals for $100,000. No players; just cash. The Red Sox better have had a killer party with that cash because they wouldn’t have a reason to celebrate again for another 86 years.
13 2015 New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees, Hall of Famer. Surround him with talent? Naaaah. Let’s trade away Jimmy Graham – probably the best tight end since Tony Gonzalez in his prime – but let’s also get rid of Kenny Stills and guard Ben Grubbs to help protect Brees. Brees has been public about his unhappiness regarding the trade, saying “I’m as shocked as anyone” so it will be interesting to see if this quasi-fire sale given the Saints’ $4 million dollar cap window will work out for the Saints.
12 1914 Philadelphia Athletics
After being swept by the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series, owner/manager Connie Mack got fed up with the Federal League (the Green Party, if you will, of early Major League Baseball along with the established National and American Leagues) that had been established in 1914 and proceeded to sell off his best players.
As the Federal League proceeded to steal away star players from both the National and American Leagues, Mack refused to match those offers for the established ‘prima donnas’ and rebuilt the team with younger talent. As a result, the Athletics went from the World Series in 1914 to a 109-loss season in 2015. Connie Mack would sell off his children if they pissed him off enough.
11 1991-92 Edmonton Oilers
After inexplicably trading The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, to the L.A. Kings in August of 1988 despite dominating the NHL for years with Gretzky leading the team, Edmonton managed one more Stanley Cup in 1990. The Oilers did it again in 1991 to put an end to their dynasty for good. Gone to the Rangers was Mark Messier, while Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr were sent to the Maple Leafs, and Jari Kurri was traded to the Flyers, who quickly dealt him to the Kings.
10 1976 Oakland A’s
After finishing 2nd during the 1976 season to the Kansas City Royals, A’s management let Hall of Fame-worthy players like Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Don Baylor, Phil Garner, Vida Blue and Willie McCovey go. The following season, the A’s only won 63 games as A’s owner Charlie Finley (in moves that pre-date Billy Beane) blamed poor attendance and the increasingly competitive albatross of free agency as the main reasons the A’s needed to sell low coming into the 1977 season.
Although the MLB ended up voiding some of Finley’s trades, the fire sale mentality was etched in stone from early on in our national psyche. The bottom line is the only line.
9 2010 Chicago Blackhawks
After winning the Stanley Cup in June, GM Stan Bowman thanked fans by trading Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Ben Eager and letting other players go in free agency. Bowman, apparently lacking a working heart in his body cavity that pumps warm blood to the rest of his body, said: “Perceptions are, ‘Geez, the Blackhawks mismanaged the salary cap,’ but I’d say we did the opposite — we managed the hell out of it. We exploited it in a way.”
Well, in fairness to Bowman, he was able to put the pieces back together for another couple of Stanley Cups. There is a method to the madness, after all. It sort of proves that being a good GM means making cold, calculated decisions, so props to Bowman for doing what he can in a cap-driven league.
8 1997 Chicago White Sox
On July 31, 1997, the White Sox made the infamous ‘White Flag Trade’ when they traded three major league players (all pitchers) to the San Francisco Giants for six minor leaguers despite the White Sox being only 3 ½ games behind the Cleveland Indians for the American League Central lead. With the pitching unit depleted, it was of little surprise that the Sox tailed off and finished six games behind the eventual American League champion Cleveland Indians.
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf was vilified in the media and by fans for this trade even though it actually helped the White Sox win the 2000 Central Division through the acquisition of players like Keith Foulke.
7 2004 Los Angeles Lakers
Ah, the 2003 Lakers. The Kardashians of the early aughts sports world. Shaq hates Kobe, Kobe won’t speak with Shaq, a roster stacked with All-Star players from the late 90s and the Zen Master (the one currently continuing the slow death-march of the Knicks basketball legacy) attempting to rein in all of these complicated personalities.
Once the Pistons used team-basketball and a hungry, young lineup to easily take down the 2003-04 Lakers in the Finals, the Lakers went full flame-thrower to the lineup and traded an unhappy Shaq to the Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and a few other players that might have the good fortune of playing on what was now “Kobe’s team”. Also gone were Payton, Malone, Fisher, and even Phil Jackson to presumably sit cross-legged at Big Sur and contemplate the existential questions that have plagued humanity for ages – until he was offered more money to come back and deal with Kobe.
6 2012 Boston Red Sox
Ah yes. The great Boston purge of 2012. It’s hard to feel bad for a team that had won two World Series since 2004 and had been in the postseason for much of the 2000s. However, you have to wonder at the mentality behind trading players like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. While Crawford struggled to stay healthy, Adrian Gonzalez is still a very good player (an All-Star with a .290 average, 17 HR and 53 RBIs so far in 2015) and Josh Beckett still pitched well for the Dodgers when healthy.
While small on the inferno-level fire sales of some other teams, Red Sox management still made some long-term questionable moves after a disappointing 2012. Ironically enough, the fire sale worked wonders for them the next year, as the 2013 Sox won the World Series. One of the few fire sales with a happy ending.
5 2012 Miami Marlins
Any idea what might happen to a franchise that gets a new stadium in Little Havana, signs a bunch of high-priced but injury-prone players, has a loud-mouthed manager that proudly declares how awesome Fidel Castro is in, you know, said Little Havana, and the whole thing is run by the modern day anti-Christ of professional sports owner whose only desire is to make as much profit as possible to purchase ugly, expensive art whilst fleecing the city for millions of dollars for a brand new ballpark he somehow owns without much taxation or repayment to the county?
Well, it’s a total disaster and the team becomes America’s laughingstock as said owner decides to dismantle the team he and his cronies built halfway through the season once again scorching a twice-burned franchise. The players traded away included Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. Jeffrey Loria is the worst.
4 1999 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls came off one of the greatest runs in professional sports history with their 62-win team and Michael Jordan pumping up his hands triumphantly holding up six fingers over and over again as the ticker tape flowed. After MJ’s ‘retirement,’ the Bulls were completely gutted as Pippen, Kerr, Rodman and even Phil Jackson were effectively pushed out by GM Jerry Krause in a rebuilding effort.
When your team goes from ‘leading scorer Michael Jordan’ to ‘leading scorer Tony Kukoc’ you can expect that team to end up last in the Eastern Conference, even during a shortened 50 game lockout season.
3 1992-93 San Diego Padres
After Tom Werner, a former television executive, purchased the Padres in 1990 things began to go south for the franchise with the trades of pitcher Craig Lefferts, an inability to sign their 2nd round pick (Todd Helton) to a contract, All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez and eventual Hall of Famer Gary Sheffield to the Marlins for three guys no one’s ever heard of.
The Padres also traded Fred McGriff to Atlanta for three more unheard-of prospects. This insanity caused the Padres to lose 21 more games in 1993 than they did the previous season. Thankfully for Padres fans, by December 1994 Werner sold the team to a group led by John Moores and the Padres were in the World Series by 1998.
2 1995 Montreal Expos
The Expos were always a somewhat cursed franchise. Despite having perhaps the game’s best mascot ever, the Expos were perpetually mired in middle to last place NL East finishes throughout their existence. Their brightest year (or so it seemed) was the 1994 season, when a young, but talented Expos team posted a 74-40 record before that year’s MLB strike work stoppage put an end to their Cinderella season. Names like Pedro Martinez, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom were promising names in 1994 and the Expos rewarded their fans by selling off some of this talent for pennies on the dollar.
When the majors returned to action in 1995, many thought it would be a year of redemption for the Expos, but they never got that chance. Marquis Grissom was traded to division rival Atlanta. Their ace of 1994 Ken Hill was traded to St. Louis. They let Larry Walker leave after not signing him following salary arbitration. Finally, stud closer John Wetteland was traded to the Yankees for Fernando Seguignol.
Moises Alou took off via free agency in 1996 and Pedro Martinez went on to glory in Boston following the 1997 season.
The 1994 Expos practically never happened because of that year’s strike and the revenue-sharing argument at the heart of it that would, ironically, allow small market teams like the Expos to make some revenue in the cashgrab of Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, this proved to be the end of the franchise.
1 1997-98 Florida Marlins
Ah yes. The tour de force of all sports fire sales. Short version of all this: Huizenga goes all in during the '96 and '97 off-seasons by picking up names like Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Bobby Bonilla, Cliff Floyd and Moises Alou, shocking the world by coming into the World Series as the NL Wild Card to win it all in seven games against a very talented Cleveland Indians team (side note: NO BREAKS for Cleveland, ever).
Huizenga then decides to kill the souls of every young Marlins fan by selling all those guys mentioned and more for very, very cheap because the savvy owner of that Blue Chip mainstay, Blockbuster Video, could not foresee a time when attendance might go up, fan interest in the team might swell up in the aftermath of a World Series win and the Marlins might become a perennial contender that could yield greater ticket sales, TV or merchandising revenue. Instead, the Marlins got rid of everyone and posted one of the worst defending World Series teams in 1998, going 54-108. We doubt anyone will ever top this.