Saturday, April 28, 2018

San Diego's 10 Greatest Athletes

This weekend, the Mets play a series in San Diego against the Padres.

San Diego's 10 Greatest Athletes

Honorable Mention to Baseball Hall-of-Famers who played for the Padres but didn't make the Top 10: Willie McCovey, Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry, Ozzie Smith, Goose Gossage, Roberto Alomar, Rickey Henderson and Greg Maddux.

Honorable Mention to Fred Dean, defensive end, San Diego Chargers, 1975-81. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I might have put him in this Top 10 if he'd played his entire career for the Bolts. He later won 2 Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. Maybe Chargers owner Gene Klein shouldn't have traded him.

Honorable Mention to Bill Walton, center, San Diego Clippers, 1979-84 (plus 1984-85 in Los Angeles). Injuries prevented him from making much of a contribution for his hometown team, but he did have enough great moments in the NBA to make the Basketball Hall of Fame.

10. Ron Mix, offensive tackle, San Diego Chargers, 1960-69 (including the 1st season, in Los Angeles). He played in the AFL for its entire 10-season existence, helping the Chargers reach 6 Championship Games, winning in 1963, and making the All-Star Team every season except the last, 1969, when he was playing hurt.

After that season, he announced his retirement, and Klein made Mix's Number 74 the 1st number ever retired by a San Diego sports team. Then he signed a replacement, Gene Ferguson. Mix suddenly changed his mind, and said he wanted to play again. He asked to have his rights traded to the Jets. Klein instead traded him to the Oakland Raiders for high draft picks, and unretired Mix's number. It remains officially available for the Chargers, and was worn by All-Pro defensive tackle Louie Kelcher.

Ron Mix is 1 of 3 Jewish players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with 1930s Giants quarterback Benny Friedman and 1940s Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman. And while the also-Jewish Gene Klein unretired his number, subsequent owner Alex Spanos named Mix to the Chargers Hall of Fame.

9. Charlie Joiner, wide receiver, San Diego Chargers, 1976-86. He previously played 4 seasons each with the Houston Oilers and the Cincinnati Bengals. If he had spent his entire career with the Chargers, he would be much higher on this list.

A 3-time Pro Bowler, he caught 750 passes for 12,146 yards and 65 touchdowns, big numbers by 1970s standards. The Chargers named him to their team Hall of Fame, but have not retired his Number 18. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and in 1999, The Sporting News began its list of the 100 Greatest Football Players by selecting Joiner at Number 100.

8. Dave Winfield, right field, San Diego Padres, 1973-80. If he had spent his entire career with the Padres, he would easily be Number 1 on this list. Instead, he only spent the 1st 1/3rd of his career with them, but was arguably the best player in baseball over a 3-year stretch from 1978 to 1980, resulting in the Yankees giving him the 1st contract in baseball worth more than $1 million a year. (Nolan Ryan got the 1st contract at $1 million from Houston the year before.)

He was a 12-time All-Star, 4 with the Padres; and a 7-time Gold Glove, 2 with the Padres. Of his 3,110 career hits, 1,134 were with the Padres, who retired his Number 31, and elected him to their team Hall of Fame. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. The Sporting News listed him 94th on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999.

7. Junior Seau, linebacker, San Diego Chargers, 1990-2002. No defensive player had a more appropriate pronounciation to his name: Junior made many, many players "Say ow." A 12-time Pro Bowler, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1992, and was a member of the Chargers' 1994 AFC Championship team. He won another AFC title with the 2007 New England Patriots, but was on the losing side of the Super Bowl both times.

He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team. The Chargers named him to their team Hall of Fame and retired his Number 55. But he became the face of NFL brain trauma following his suicide. He did not live to see his election to Canton.

6. Dan Fouts, quarterback, San Diego Chargers, 1973-87. A few years ago, he was broadcasting a college football on ABC, proving color commentary for Keith Jackson, and it was pouring. Keith asked him if he'd ever played in weather as bad as that. "Keith," he said, "I played in the State of Oregon, where rain was invented!"

He was born and raised in San Francisco, a city which has had its share of weird weather, before becoming one in a long line of University of Oregon quarterbacks to brave the Pacific Northwest's climate. His 15 seasons in San Diego were his reward.

He was a 6-time Pro Bowler, and NFL Most Valuable Player in 1982. At the time he retired, his 43,040 passing yards were 2nd-most all-time, behind Fran Tarkenton and ahead of Johnny Unitas, who, interviewed on CBS' The NFL Today, called him the quarterback playing then that he liked the best. He led the Air Coryell attack that included Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow and John Jefferson, but couldn't get closer to the Super Bowl than defeats in the 1980 and '81 AFC Championship Games.

He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and named to the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team. The Chargers named him to their team Hall of Fame and retired his Number 14. He was 92nd on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, but did not make the 2010 list of the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players.

5. Kellen Winslow, tight end, San Diego Chargers, 1979-87. He's been called the greatest tight end ever. He made 5 Pro Bowls, and his 541 catches (leading the NFL -- as a tight end -- in 1980 and '81), 6,741 receptions and 45 touchdowns were the standards by which all later tight ends have been measured. His exhausting performance in the January 2, 1982 "Epic in Miami" has given that Playoff classic another name: "The Kellen Winslow Game."

He was named to the Pro Football and San Diego Chargers Halls of Fame, and the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time and 1980s All-Decade Teams. He was 73rd on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players and actually ranked higher, 67th, on the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players.

4. Lance Alworth, wide receiver, San Diego Chargers, 1962-70. The 1st great San Diego-based major league athlete, he was a 7-time All-Star, he was named American Football League Player of the Year in 1963, leading the San Diego Chargers to the AFL Championship -- the only time a San Diego team has ever gone as far as it could go at the major league level.

He caught 542 passes for 10,266 yards, huge numbers before the 1978 rule change regulating bump-and-run coverage. The Chargers made his Number 19 the 1st they retired, and he was elected to their team Hall of Fame. The University of Arkansas graduate was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and was the 1st player whose career was mainly in the AFL to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He was also named to the NFL 75th Anniversary Team and the AFL All-Time Team. He was 31st on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players and 38th on the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players.

Some people have suggested that trading "Bambi" (nicknamed because he "ran like a deer" to the Dallas Cowboys after the 1970 season led to The Curse of Bambi, dooming all San Diego teams.

Here's what's happened since: Alworth won Super Bowl VI with the Cowboys his 1st season in Dallas, the Chargers only reached the Super Bowl once in the ensuing 46 seasons and finally moved, the Padres have won only 2 Pennants and exactly 1 World Series game, while the NBA's Clippers, the ABA's Conquistadors/Sails, and the WHA's Mariners all moved, with the city not getting another major league basketball or hockey team since. Only the Padres are left, and they nearly moved to Washington in 1974, and probably would've moved if voters hadn't approved a bond issue for Petco Park following the team's 1998 Pennant.

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, running back, San Diego Chargers, 2001-09. A 5-time Pro Bowler, he was named NFL Most Valuable Player in 2006, when he set records for most rushing touchdowns (28), most overall touchdowns from scrimmage (31) and most consecutive games with a touchdown (eventually reaching 18 to tie a record).

Of his 13,684 rushing yards, 12,490 were for San Diego. Of his 624 catches and 4,772 receiving yards, 530 and 3,955 were for the Chargers. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team, and the Chargers elected him to their team Hall of Fame and retired his Number 21.

2. Trevor Hoffman, pitcher, San Diego Padres, 1993-2008. Formerly baseball's all-time leader in saves, he still holds the National League record with 601. In the 1998 season, he led the Padres to the Pennant every bit as much as Tony Gwynn did. Coming in to the tune of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells," "Trevor Time" became the most intimidating time in the League, especially in the postseason, when 64,000 fans would pack Jack Murphy Stadium, waving their white towels. Of course, he had to pitch to Scott Brosius in the World Series...

His career ERA+ was a whopping 141, his WHIP a nasty 1.058. He is a new inductee into the Bsaeball Hall of Fame in 2016 or '17. Maybe he was never better than Mariano Rivera, who broke his record, but he was better than just about every other reliever of the 1990s and 2000s.

The only bad thing I can say about him is that he bears a striking resemblance to my ex-brother-in-law, whom I'm not crazy about, and not because he's a Philadelphia Flyers fan.

1. Tony Gwynn, right field, San Diego Padres, 1982-2001. He started slowly, started in center field, and there was an interregnum in 1981 when the team had neither Winfield nor Gwynn, but someone must have had an appreciation for right field in Mission Valley, because, from the 2nd term of Richard Nixon to the 1st term of George W. Bush, there was nearly always a Hall-of-Famer playing right field for the Padres.

He helped them win their only 2 Pennants, in 1984 and 1998. His .394 batting average in the strike-shortened 1994 season remains the highest in MLB since 1941. It was 1 of 8 National League batting titles he won, tying Honus Wagner for the most in NL history. He collected 3,141 hits, leading the NL in the category 7 times, with a lifetime batting average of .338, the highest of any player whose career began after Ted Williams' in 1939.

The Padres retired his Number 19, and they dedicated a statue to him outside Petco Park. As well they should have: If not for his heroics in leading the team to the 1998 Pennant, that ballpark might not be in San Diego, and even the Padres might not be. He's not just Mr. Padre, he's the man who saved the Padres, and maybe major leagues sports in San Diego at all.

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