Remembering MLB history's most famous breakups

Parting can be such unsweet sorrow

November 2nd, 2021

Tom Brady and the Patriots. LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers. There are countless examples of a franchise and a franchise icon parting ways under ... less than amicable circumstances.

Baseball history has seen its fair share of breakups over the years -- so let's look back at the 10 most infamous splits.

Frank Robinson and the Reds

Frank Robinson was already a legend by the winter of 1965. He'd won an NL Rookie of the Year Award at age 20, and an NL MVP Award at 25. He'd averaged 32 homers a year over 10 years in the Majors. And he was coming off a season in which he'd hit .296/.386/.540 for the Reds and made his sixth All-Star appearance.

So you can imagine his surprise when he learned that he'd been traded to the Orioles by Cincy GM Bill DeWitt. You can really imagine his surprise when he heard DeWitt's justification: "Robinson is not a young 30."

Robinson quickly fired back. "It was uncalled for," he said. "It seems I suddenly got old last fall between the end of the season and December 9." But his real response would come the next spring, when he embarked on one of the most ridiculous revenge tours the game has ever seen: .316/.410/.637, a league-leading 49 homers (including one that left the stadium entirely), an AL-leading 122 RBIs, his second MVP and his first World Series title.

Robinson would spend six seasons in Baltimore, hitting .300 with 179 homers, while the trade that brought him there would go down as one of the worst of all-time.

Tom Seaver and the Mets

Seaver was the Mets, literally -- after a decade in Queens that saw him win three NL Cy Young Awards and three ERA titles, fans started referring to him as The Franchise.

Of course, a nickname like that comes with certain financial obligations. Free agency had just been instituted, and prior to the 1977 season, Seaver asked that his contract be renegotiated to bring him in line with the highest-paid pitchers in the league. Player and team went back and forth for months; Seaver openly criticized the team for not spending more to build a contender, while the Mets continued to balk at a raise, much to the dismay of their fans.

It all came to a head on June 15, that year's trade deadline, when Seaver read a column in the Daily News claiming he was simply jealous of Nolan Ryan's higher salary with the Angels. The star righty immediately demanded out, and New York reached a late-night deal with the Reds that (along with a trade that sent Dave Kingman to the Padres) would become known as the "midnight massacre."

Seaver went 14-3 down the stretch for Cincy that season, including a return to Shea in which he threw a complete game while striking out 11.

Ozzie Smith and the Cardinals

At age 41, Smith was nearing the end of his career in 1996. Still, this was Ozzie Smith -- the Wizard, the back-flipping, line drive-snaring future Hall of Famer.

But the Cardinals had a new ownership group in town, along with a new manager, Tony La Russa. The team brought in Royce Clayton from the Giants over the winter, and after an open competition during Spring Training, La Russa gave Clayton the majority of starts at shortstop.

Smith and the team reached an agreement -- St. Louis would buy out his contract, and Ozzie announced that he would retire at the end of the season. That didn't mean that he would take his benching quietly, however: Smith didn't believe that he'd been given a fair shot, and he let reporters know it regularly. After one particularly impressive performance, he smiled at his locker and asked, "Well, who do you think should be playing shortstop tomorrow?"

The Cardinals' season ended in the NLCS, and while Smith remained close to the organization, things remained a bit frosty between he and his former manager.

Roger Clemens and the Red Sox

Clemens spent his first 13 seasons in the Majors with the Red Sox, winning three Cy Young Awards, an AL MVP Award and posting a 3.06 ERA. But as he got set to hit free agency in the winter of 1996, Boston knew that he was about to become the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, and that they probably couldn't afford that contract. Hey, it happens sometimes. No hard feelings, right?

Except, well, after Clemens agreed to a deal with the Blue Jays, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette offered the following quote:

The Red Sox and our fans were fortunate to see Roger Clemens play in his prime and we had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career. We just want to let the fans know that we worked extremely hard to sign Roger Clemens.

Seemingly innocuous, sure -- but that bit in the middle there? The thing about "the twilight of his career"? Clemens would remember that.

The righty made his return to Fenway Park on July 12, 1997, and he made sure it was a doozy, giving up just four hits over eight innings while striking out 16 -- and glaring up at the owner's box as he took his final walk off the mound.

Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners

Griffey started his career in Seattle, played with his dad in Seattle, won an MVP in Seattle. But his wife and children lived in Florida, and in the winter of 1999, The Kid turned down a massive contract offer from the Mariners and instead demanded a trade that would bring him back east.

"With our travel, I play on one end of the country, and they live at the other end," Griffey said. "I'd be flying all over the place. With Trey in school, it would even be tougher. I know people might ask about us moving to Orlando, but that's where we want to live. If we stayed in Seattle, I'd only have the offseason to do things with Trey, and sometimes it gets so wet it's tough to do things."

Mariners fans were upset that their star wanted out, and things escalated when new general manager Pat Gillick nearly struck a deal with the Mets -- only for Griffey to shoot it down. With Spring Training looming, the team finally dealt Griffey to Cincinnati, where his dad had starred with the Big Red Machine and he had been drafted out of Archbishop Moeller High School. Junior's eventual return to Seattle was a loud one -- he hit a pair of homers on June 24, 2007, including one off the facing of the second deck.

Tom Glavine and the Braves

Glavine put together quite a resumé as one of the engines of the Braves' '90s dynasty: five 20-win seasons, two NL Cy Young Awards and World Series MVP Award after pitching Atlanta to its first championship in nearly 40 years. But baseball is a hard business, and when the 36-year-old Glavine hit free agency following the 2002 season, he found that the only team he'd ever known wasn't willing to meet his contract demands: The lefty came in wanting four guaranteed seasons, and the Braves were only willing to give him two.

The two sides reportedly went weeks without speaking to each other, until Glavine finally asked for a face-to-face meeting -- during which he was reportedly angered by Atlanta's assessment of how much he had left in the tank. The Mets reached out with three guaranteed years, and that was that. Glavine spent four years with his former archrivals, picking up his 300th win and helping bring New York to the doorstep of the World Series.

Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox

Even after Boston's heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, Nomar was optimistic -- the Red Sox were so close to breaking through, and after negotiating over the prior offseason, he seemed so close to inking a new contract that would more closely match the salaries of peers like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Instead, the winter of '03 would wind up altering the course of baseball history. While Garciaparra was waiting for his new deal, the Red Sox were exploring a trade that would send Manny Ramirez to Texas in return for A-Rod -- with Nomar heading to the White Sox in a corresponding move to free up shortstop. That move was eventually nixed, meaning that Garciaparra had to start 2004 on a team that he knew didn't want him around.

An achilles injury to start the year didn't help, and neither did the sight of Nomar sitting in the dugout as Jeter dove into the stands to help the Yankees outlast Boston in a 13-inning thriller that July. At the Trade Deadline, the end finally came: Theo Epstein sent Garciaparra to the Cubs, but not before his former shortstop made his feelings known.

Frank Thomas and the White Sox

The writing was already on the wall in the middle of 2005, when Thomas, unhappy about not being in the lineup that night -- at age 37, he wasn't the everyday force that he once was -- skipped a pregame stretching session. Then, with the Big Hurt injured and unable to help Chicago during its postseason run, the team sent him a letter informing him that it had invoked a "diminishing skills" clause in Thomas' contract: His salary for next season would be drastically reduced, and he had a week to decide whether he wanted to become a free agent.

Thomas chose option B, although not without voicing his pleasure at how things were handled -- specifically, he felt that the team hadn't reached out to explain what was happening. The slugger wound up signing with the A's for 2006, where he promptly returned to Chicago in May and hit two homers.

Joe Torre and the Yankees

Torre had gone from unheralded -- a man who inspired "Clueless Joe" headlines before he'd ever managed a game for the Yankees -- to one of the faces of New York's 1990s dynasty. By the fall of 2007, though, things had been tense: The Bombers hadn't won a postseason series since 2004, and they hadn't won a World Series since 2000 (yes, we know, seven whole years).

After another ALDS exit in 2007, the team felt compelled to make some sort of move -- they offered their skipper a reduced salary for 2008, with incentives based on how far they advanced in October. But Torre turned it down, saying "I just felt the contract offer and the terms of the contract were probably the thing I had the toughest time with."

A few years and one juicy tell-all book later, Torre finally made his return to Yankee Stadium, to watch the unveiling of George Steinbrenner's monument in Monument Park.

Bryce Harper and the Nationals

This one didn't start out too bitter. Harper hit free agency expecting a record payday, and Washington -- having fallen short in the postseason and with a couple significant contracts already on the books -- wasn't willing to go as high as it needed to. Bryce became a Phillie, and said only good things on his way out.

Then it became time to head back to D.C. with his new club, and it quickly became apparent that things were about to get very, very spicy. There were T-shirts:

There were m̶a̶y̶m̶a̶y̶s̶ memes:

All sorts of shade was thrown at the city of Philadelphia:

Harper and his bat flip got the last laugh (well, not the last last laugh, but you get it), and launched a new rivalry in the NL East. Just, please, guys, put the duct tape away.