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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sheriff investigates whether Michael Phelps smoked pot

(CNN) -- A South Carolina sheriff's office is investigating whether Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps smoked marijuana on the University of South Carolina campus.

Michael Phelps is facing a criminal investigation into whether he smoked marijuana on a college campus.

Michael Phelps is facing a criminal investigation into whether he smoked marijuana on a college campus.

Authorities will file criminal charges if the investigation determines that they are warranted, a spokesman said Tuesday.

"If someone breaks the law in Richland County, we have an obligation as law enforcement to investigate and to bring charges," Sheriff Leon Lott said in a statement.

"The Richland County Sheriff's Department is making an effort to determine if Mr. Phelps broke the law. If he did, he will be charged in the same manner as anyone else. The sheriff has a responsibility to be fair, to enforce the law and to not turn a blind eye because someone is a celebrity."

Phelps admitted "regrettable behavior" on Sunday after a British newspaper published a photograph of him smoking through a bong. The tabloid News of the World showed Phelps using the bong during what it said was a November party at the University of South Carolina, in Richland County.

Both university police and Columbia, South Carolina, police have said they would not pursue charges, according to The State newspaper in Columbia. It was unclear where the party took place, the paper said, or whether it was on the USC campus.

"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," said Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, in a statement Sunday.

"I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me," he said. "For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public -- it will not happen again."

The U.S. Olympic Committee also issued a statement that said in part, "Michael has acknowledged that he made a mistake and apologized for his actions. We are confident that, going forward, Michael will consistently set the kind of example we all expect from a great Olympic champion."

In 2004, Phelps was arrested on charges of driving under the influence in Salisbury, Maryland. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months probation. He also issued an apology after that incident.

Phelps is one of 12 Olympic athletes who have signed on to "My Victory," an initiative launched last year by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency aimed at keeping competitive sports clean.

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Record 98.7 million tune in to SB XLIII

NEW YORK -- Upon further review, Nielsen Media Research now says that the Arizona-Pittsburgh Super Bowl game was the most-watched in history.

NFL GameDay: Super Bowl XLIII highlights

NFL.com Video

The Steelers defeat the Cardinals 27-23 in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever.

Nielsen said 98.7 million people, on average, were watching Pittsburgh's exciting 27-23 victory Sunday night. That beats the 97.5 million who watched the 2008 game, which held the record for most popular Super Bowl.

On Monday, Nielsen had reported that this year's game had 95.4 million viewers -- impressive, but not a record-setter.

Nielsen explained the discrepancy of more than 3 million viewers by saying a more complete check of their records revealed additional viewership on some digital tier networks. The company hadn't been aware that they were showing the game.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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James Harrison Punching Aaron Francisco!

Harrison is a dirty player. Look at this video where he pummels Aaron Francisco who is about 100 pounds smaller than him. He only gets a 15 yard penalty. He should have been ejected from the game! That could have been the difference between the Cardinals winning versus what happened. Harrison had just had anger management and counseling too for hitting his wife! I suppose he wasn’t paying attention much!

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Eight key moments from Super Bowl XLIII

By Gregg Rosenthal

TAMPA, Fla. - Just wow them in the end. Like any good screenwriter knows, the final act is the only one that the audience remembers. And the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII was pure theatre, sublime football, an ending that would be rejected from by any studio for its sheer improbability.

Steelers-Cardinals was not a matchup that captured the country’s imagination before the game. But that’s one the beautiful things about football: you never know when a classic is going to break out. You just have to be there to find out.

Through three plus quarters, Super Bowl XLIII looked like an odd game full of penalties, missed red zone chances, and one incredible 100-yard play by James Harrison. By the end, there were so many brilliant plays piled on top of one another, it was hard to keep them straight.

Here are eight that we’ll always remember.

1. Santonio Holmes’ game-winning touchdown
62, Scat, Flasher. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as the Immaculate reception, but Holmes' play will go down right next to Franco Harris’ romp in Pittsburgh lore.

The play wasn’t initially designed to get Holmes the ball. Nate Washington and Hines Ward were ahead of Holmes on Roethlisberger’s progression.

But Roethlisberger had great protection in the pocket and was able to read the field. This was typical, as Pittsburgh’s maligned grunts played well all game. Roethlisberger looked inside quickly, but it appears Roethlisberger had Holmes in mind all along, no matter what coordinator Bruce Arians called for.

Sometimes it’s not about the play call. The perfect throw and catch can beat even the best defense, and that was the case here. Three defenders were covering Holmes — safety Aaron Francisco, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and cornerback Ralph Brown. Roethlisberger had about a six-inch window to throw into, and he nailed it on a perfect line over Brown’s out-stretched hand. Francisco, the night’s Bill Buckner, arrived just in time to push Holmes to the ground.

Holmes is listed at 5-feet-11, but he’s at least two inches shorter in person. He used every inch of that frame to stretch out and catch the ball with his fingertips. He won't buy a beer in Pittsburgh for the rest of his life.

Asked about the play after the game, despondent Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson just shook his head and said, “Great catch.” He took a deep breath, and we waited for him to say something else. He just kept shaking his head.

Like the David Tyree catch from last Super Bowl, the Holmes grab becomes less probable the more you watch it. That is a throw most coaches would probably say not to make. It had a greater chance of being intercepted than completed. It’s the type of throw and catch that creates legends.

2. Holmes’ first down to start the game-winning drive
Don’t let this play get lost in the shuffle. The Steelers still had 74 yards to go with 1:56 remaining, and were facing a third-and-six. Roethlisberger pump-faked, got safety Aaron Francisco up in the air, ducked under a possible hit, then found Holmes leaping for a first down grab over the middle. Holmes dropped a lot of passes this season while getting hit. This time he held on. If he didn’t, the Steelers were looking at one more play to save their season.

3. Larry Fitzgerald’s 64-yard touchdown
Fitzgerald’s touchdown, much like Randy Moss’ last year, was the storybook ending that wasn’t. It was the would-be championship moment that will finish as a footnote.

“It was like getting a chair pulled out from under you,” Fitzgerald said. “It just hurts to be able to get so close and fall short of your ultimate goal.”

The Steelers double covered Fitzgerald all game, but the Cardinals broke free in the fourth quarter by spreading Pittsburgh out.

“The play itself was another in-breaking, intermediate route, which they were struggling with once we went to it,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.

Right before the play, sage writer Tom Curran said, “They need to get Polamalu out of there.”

Troy Polamalu was shaded towards Fitzgerald, but got caught heading towards Steve Breaston on a sideline route while Fitzgerald exploded over the middle. They ran a similar play at least 10 times in the second half, often to other receivers. No one else can bust open a zone like Fitzgerald.

“I was thinking, he was way faster than I thought,” safety Ryan Clark said after failing to catch up with Fitzgerald.

4. Cardinals' safety on a holding call
This was an easy call for the official, but a crucial one with only 2:58 left in the game. It wiped out a remarkable throw and catch from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes for a would-be first down. The Cardinals, at the very least, would have wasted more time and had to burn times outs to get the ball back.

There was a healthy press box discussion whether the Steelers should intentionally take a safety while up six points if they got to fourth down. The holding call/safety came on third down, so we’ll never know what Mike Tomlin’s decision would have been.

5. Fitzgerald’s leaping one-yard touchdown
It’s easy to forget the game looked like a snoozer until the Cardinals went no huddle in the fourth quarter.

Fitzgerald’s touchdown, on third-and-goal from the one, cut the lead to 20-14 with 7:33 remaining. Ike Taylor was in perfect position to break up the jump ball, and got a hand on the ball and Fitzgerald’s body. Fitz somehow wrestled the ball away, using his facemask for a moment to cradle the ball. (Another Tyree-like moment.)

It’s telling that the Cardinals threw a low-percentage play like that to Fitzgerald rather than running the ball at the one-yard line with the game one the line. With Fitzgerald, the Cardinals have come to expect the unbelievable. Perhaps it wasn’t so low-percentage.

6. Harrison’s 100-yard return
“That’s the MVP being the MVP,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said, talking about Harrison’s game-changing play to end the first half.

Despite the crazy ending, this was the play the Cardinals and Steelers talked about the most after the game. It was a 10-point swing at minimum, and ruined the dominant second quarter Arizona played. “It was the difference in the game,” Troy Polamalu said.

Harrison wasn’t even supposed to be covering Anquan Boldin. “He was actually supposed to be covering the running back, but he read the play. That’s what you expect your MVP to do,” Clark said.

The Steelers had called a max blitz and Warner just threw the ball too quick.

The Steelers practiced their “transition offense” after interceptions in practice this week. It came in handy, though I doubt Harrison practiced hurdling over teammate LaMarr Woodley at the 30-yard line.

“I was tired as a dog,” Harrison said about the end of the run. “I’m not going to lie, it was a quarter tank. But I ended up making it.”

Kurt Warner admits he is still haunted every day by the Rams’ loss to the Patriots in 2001. This play will cause a lot more sleepless nights. He simply didn’t see Harrison, and he certainly didn’t think Harrison could return the ball 100 yards for the score.

7. Roethlisberger’s scrambling first down to Heath Miller
Third-and-10, first quarter, four minutes and 10 seconds left for the Steelers. Pittsburgh wasn’t yet in field goal range. Roethlisberger scrambled to his left, saw two defenders, sprinted right, was hit in the leg, stumbled, spun his whole body, and then rifled an 11-yard strike to Miller.

That is Roethlisberger in a nutshell: improvisational, impossible-to-take-down, making a play where none seem available. You can’t coach that.

If it wasn’t for that play, the Steelers are punting. They went on to score their only offensive touchdown in the first half later in the drive.

8. Darnell Dockett’s goal-line stuff of Roethlisberger
At 241 pounds, Ben Roethlisberger is built for more like a bruising goal-line anvil than an average quarterback. He tried to use all his poundage on a third-and-goal from the one on Pittsburgh’s first drive. After rolling out on a bootleg, Roethlisberger decided to keep the ball and took on Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. The two collided at the three-yard line, and Roethlisberger appeared to carry Dockett into the end zone.

This play set up a few themes in the game. Ken Whisenhunt challenged and overturned a touchdown, one of two huge challenges wins for the Whis. (He also overturned a Kurt Warner interception in the third quarter.) The Steelers came away with only a field goal because of short-yardage struggles. That would also happen again in the third quarter. The Cardinals holding the fort in the red zone kept them in the game, so they could make their fourth quarter comeback attempt.

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Andrew Bynum's injuries probably just bad luck

Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies

Lakers center Andrew Bynum is helped off the court after suffering a knee injury in the first quarter of Saturday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

By Shari Roan and Broderick Turner

The latest injury to Andrew Bynum probably has more to do with bad karma than inherently bad knees, medical experts said Tuesday.

The Lakers' 21-year-old star suffered his second major knee injury in two seasons Saturday when Kobe Bryant collided with him in the first quarter of the game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Bynum's two injuries are unrelated, however, and don't foreshadow a career punctuated by knee problems, sports medicine doctors say.
"They are two completely different injuries," said Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and a former team physician for the Philadelphia 76ers. "It's not like, 'oh my God, this guy has really vulnerable knees.' This is, by no means, career-ending. This will heal."

Bynum was diagnosed Monday with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee and will miss eight to 12 weeks of the season. In January 2008, he briefly dislocated his left kneecap when he came down on teammate Lamar Odom's foot. He missed the rest of the season and had surgery to remove cartilage debris from his left knee last May.

Bynum will not walk away from back-to-back knee injuries completely unscathed, however. His kneecap injury suggests that he is a bit loose-jointed. And both knees probably will be sensitive to contact injuries in the future, DiNubile said.

The medial collateral ligament, or MCL, is one of four ligaments that stabilize the knee during movement. It runs along the inside of the joint and keeps it from bending in. The ligament is typically injured if the knee jerks inward with the foot bent outward. Collisions are most often the cause.

"This injury is like a clipping injury in football," DiNubile said. "You're hit on the outside and the knee buckles inward. That can happen to anyone. But it's more likely to happen to someone who is loose-jointed."

MCL injuries are diagnosed in severity as grade one, two or three. The Lakers declined to identify the grade associated with Bynum's injury. However, the length of his expected rehabilitation suggests a grade-three injury, the most severe type, which is a complete tear of the ligament, DiNubile said.

Bynum and the Lakers, who signed him to a four-year, $57.4-million contract extension last fall, are probably fortunate that his latest mishap wasn't worse. MCL injuries are often accompanied by damage to the more susceptible anterior cruciate ligament. Medial ligaments tend to heal with rest, whereas ACL injuries usually require surgery.

"People hear a lot about the ACL, but that's because an injured ACL almost always requires surgery to fix. The MCL heals on its own," said Dr. Matthew Matava, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the chief team doctor for the St. Louis Rams.

"If you were to pick an injury to a knee, [the MCL injury] is probably one that is the least severe and has probably the best prognosis for the future," added Dr. Andrew Bulczynski, a sports medicine specialist at Marina del Rey Hospital.

MCL injuries occur frequently in sports but aren't that common among NBA players, said Dr. Walter R. Lowe, chief of sports medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the team physician for the NFL's Houston Texans. Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas suffered the same injury as Bynum in January and is also expected to be out eight to 12 weeks.

"This is one of those contact-related, freak things that really doesn't happen too often on the basketball court," Lowe said. "I was the team physician for the Rockets, and I saw one MCL tear in 12 years."

Bynum's previous injury, the dislocated kneecap, was more serious and may reflect a tendency toward that type of injury, DiNubile said. "Some people are more prone to have a kneecap that slips out. It's just how your body is built. He was probably a little bit predestined to that injury. This one is different. Anyone can have this."

It takes basketball players longer to return to action from an MCL tear than a football player because of the cutting movements and jumping involved in basketball, Lowe said. A mild medial ligament sprain would sideline most athletes for only a week or two. The eight-to-12-week time frame given for Bynum's recovery suggests the Lakers' physicians want him fully recovered before entering a game.

"Knowing what happened last year, they probably have a time frame where they don't want him to get re-injured," said Dr. Tim Gibson, an orthopedic surgeon at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley. "So I would think that they are trying to be very conservative."

Bynum's right knee could be a bit more vulnerable to injuries in the future, however, especially in the first few weeks after he returns, Matava said. "Those knees are often a bit looser," he said. "The ligament heals in a lengthened position. So it's more lax."

However, Bynum's biggest challenge may be mental, Lowe said. It will be important for him to shake any doubts that his knees will hold up to the rigors of the game.

"You would expect that he would be pretty bummed," Lowe said. "It's like deja vu from last year. That is frustrating, but it's part of the world of guys who play sports for a living. Most guys deal with those things mentally very well."

Bynum is scheduled to begin rehabilitation after a week or two of rest. Doctors prefer to keep athletes out of a cast in order to speed rehabilitation, DiNubile said. If a joint is immobilized, the scar tissue that forms around the injury is of poor quality and can cause problems in the future. However, when athletes are able to condition and strengthen the joint as it heals, the scar tissue tends to form in smooth bands that mimic the natural movement of the joint.

With a bit of luck, Bynum should be moving like himself on the court again soon.

shari.roan@latimes.com

broderick.turner@latimes.com


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Source: Dodgers make offer to Manny

By Jayson Stark

A two-year, $45 million offer three months ago didn't get it done. So on Monday, the Los Angeles Dodgers made a new offer to Manny Ramirez -- for one year and $25 million, according to a major league source.

Ramirez
Ramirez

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti confirmed to ESPN.com that he met with Ramirez's agent, Scott Boras, on Monday and presented the new offer in person.

Colletti declined to confirm any details of the offer. But the offer was confirmed by another source with knowledge of the discussions. It's believed that Ramirez and Boras were given a 48-hour deadline to accept the offer.

Boras and the Dodgers have haggled since November over Ramirez's worth, but they have been hung up mostly by the four to six years Boras has been looking for. So clearly, the Dodgers decided it was time to change tactics.

By offering Ramirez $25 million, they apparently believe they're sending a clear message that they want him back -- since that would make him the second-highest paid player in baseball this year, behind only Alex Rodriguez. It would also give Ramirez a chance to go back into the free-agent market next winter, when, presumably, the economy will have improved.

Judged only by the average annual value of the contract, the new offer is a step up from the Dodgers' previous offer. On Election Day, the Dodgers offered Ramirez $15 million for the 2009 season, $22.5 million in 2010 and a $7.5 million buyout or $22.5 million club option for 2011. So that contract would have maxed out at $60 million over three years if the Dodgers picked up the option.

However, Boras has consistently been seeking $25-30 million a year for four to six years. So it's uncertain how he and Ramirez will receive the Dodgers' latest negotiating twist.

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These guys were worth the big bucks

Baseball's first free agent was Catfish Hunter, declared a free agent after the 1974 season when Oakland A's owner Charles Finley failed to pay an insurance premium as required in Hunter's contract.

Hunter had won the AL's Cy Young Award in '74 after winning 25 games. He was 28 years old. You can imagine the demand for his services. According to accounts, the only team besides Oakland not to pursue Hunter was the Giants. A young owner of the Yankees named George Steinbrenner won the bidding war, signing Hunter to a five-year deal worth $3.35 million. That's an average salary of $670,000 per season. Considering baseball's highest-paid player in 1974 was Dick Allen of the White Sox at $250,000, you can see why baseball players were suddenly drooling over the huge pot of cash available to them if only they could eliminate the reserve clause (they would; the free-agency era began after the 1976 season).
Catfish Hunter

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Catfish Hunter left the A's to become baseball's first star free agent.

As for Hunter, he won 23 games in 1975, finishing second in Cy Young voting, and 17 more in 1976 as the Yankees returned to the World Series for the first time since 1964. Injuries limited Hunter the next two seasons but he did help the Yankees win the World Series both years. He retired after winning just two games in 1979, and while he was hardly an ace throughout his five-year Yankee tenure, it's hard to argue that King George wasn't pleased with his investment. With the Yankees shelling out $161 million for CC Sabathia and $180 million for Mark Teixeira, it got us thinking of baseball's best-ever free-agent signings. Buyer beware: It's much easier compiling a list of bad free-agent signings (check back next week) than it is of good ones. Here's our list of the 10 best, considering only players who changed teams. Reggie Jackson, Yankees, 1977
The background: Another former Oakland star, the A's had traded Reggie to Baltimore in 1976, knowing they would lose him anyway. The 1973 AL MVP, Reggie was already a controversial personality and would be turning 31 years old in '77. But he had finished second in the AL in home runs and first in slugging percentage in '76. The contract: Five years, $3.5 million. The reward: Yankees, meet Mr. October. Reggie famously blasted his three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series and then hit .462 in the 1978 ALCS and .391 in the World Series as they won it again. He signed with California after a poor 1981 season, but he left as a Yankee legend.

Goose Gossage, Yankees, 1978
The background: After coming up with the White Sox, Gossage was traded to Pittsburgh in 1977, where he had one of the greatest relief seasons ever: 11-9, 133 innings, 78 hits, 151 strikeouts, 1.62 ERA. He was acknowledged as perhaps the hardest thrower in the game (along with Nolan Ryan), and even though Sparky Lyle had won the AL Cy Young Award in '77 while serving as the Yankees' closer, the Bronx Bombers opened their wallets.

The contract: Six years, $2.8 million. The reward: Gossage paid immediate dividends, pitching 134 innings in '78 and saving the AL East tiebreaker game against the Red Sox. He was on the mound as the Yankees clinched their second straight World Series title. His ERAs in his six seasons in New York: 2.01, 2.62, 2.27, 0.77, 2.23, 2.27. Why did it take him so long to get into the Hall of Fame?

Pete Rose, Phillies, 1979
The background: Charlie Hustle was still going strong, even though he'd be turning 38 for the 1979 season: He was coming off a season in which he hit .302 with 51 doubles and had an NL-record 44-game hitting streak. He was arguably the most famous and most popular player in the sport, even though he wasn't a big home-run hitter and had the worst haircut in MLB history. The Phillies surprisingly signed Rose, and this 1979 story in Sports Illustrated shows how the Phillies' deal with their local TV affiliate helped justify their "big" expenditure.

The contract: Four years, $3.2 million. The reward: While the Phillies failed to make the playoffs in '79 after winning the NL East the previous three seasons, Rose (moved to first base in Philly) did play every game and hit .331. The next season, Rose wasn't really all that valuable -- he hit .282 with just one home run, not exactly stellar totals from your first baseman -- but the Phillies won their first World Series title in franchise history. In fact, going back to the franchise's debut in 1883, the Phillies had never finished first in the pre-World Series days and had been to only two World Series. Rose's hustle and leadership might have been the final ingredient the Phillies needed. Jack Morris, Twins, 1991
The background: One of the AL's top hurlers during the '80s, Morris had a couple of tough seasons with Detroit, going 6-14, 4.86 in 1989 and 15-18, 4.51 in 1990. The Twins had gone 74-88 in 1990, but had a couple of second-year starters to build around in Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani. They needed a veteran leader for the pitching staff. Morris signed with his hometown team. The contract: One year, $3.7 million. The reward: While the contract was for just one year, the Twins did make Morris the second-highest-paid player in the AL that season. He rewarded them with 18 wins, 247 innings, a 3.43 ERA and, of course, the greatest World Series Game 7 pitching performance in history.
Barry Bonds

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Barry Bonds in 1993 -- the year he led the NL with 46 home runs, a .458 on-base percentage and .677 slugging percentage.

Barry Bonds, Giants, 1993
The background: Bonds was the NL MVP with the Pirates in 1990 and 1992 and finished second in 1991, as the Pirates won the East all three seasons. Alas, Bonds hit just .191 with three RBIs in 20 postseason games and failed to throw out Sid Bream at home plate as Pittsburgh lost all three NLCS. Many believe the Pirates didn't re-sign Bonds because they had chosen instead to sign the less-talented (but white) Andy Van Slyke to a big deal (he had signed a three-year, $12.6 million contract before the 1991 season). Bonds, in a 1992 article in the New York Times, referred to Van Slyke as the "Great White Hope" and "Mr. Pittsburgh." He also indicated Van Slyke had received preferential treatment over Bobby Bonilla from Pirates management (Bonilla had signed with the Mets as a free agent after 1991). It's probably more accurate to suggest Bonds was unlikely to sign with Pittsburgh regardless of the Pirates' interest -- especially once the bidding hit record highs.

The contract: Six years, $43.75 million. The reward: The Giants had lost 90 games in 1992 but had an immediate turnaround, winning 103 games, although they lost the division title on the season's final day. Bonds won the MVP Award that season, hitting .336 with 46 home runs. It wouldn't be his best season with the club.

Greg Maddux, Braves, 1993
The background: Maddux had won 20 games and the Cy Young Award for the first time with the Cubs in 1992, going 20-11 with a 2.18 ERA. He was 26 years old, durable (he had never missed a start) and much-desired. The Cubs reportedly offered five years and $27.5 million and the Yankees even more, but he signed with Atlanta.

The contract: Five years, $28 million. The reward: The Braves made Maddux the NL's fourth-highest-paid player in 1993, always a risky proposition for a pitcher. He won 20 games and a second Cy Young Award. Over the next two seasons, he went 35-8 with a 1.60 ERA and won two more Cy Youngs. He slumped to fifth and second in the Cy Young voting in '96 and '97. How good was he during this peak? He allowed just 42 home runs over those five seasons. That's fewer home runs than Bert Blyleven twice allowed in a season.

Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks, 1999
The background: Seattle had traded Johnson to Houston at the trading deadline in 1998, and the Big Unit absolutely destroyed National League hitters, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts. While Johnson had made 34 starts in '98, there were lingering concerns about a bad back that had forced him to miss most of the 1996 season.

The contract: Four years, $53 million. The reward: The Diamondbacks, then entering their second year of existence, become immediate contenders, winning 100 games and the NL West title. They would trade for Curt Schilling a year later and win the 2001 World Series and another division title in '02. Johnson won four straight Cy Young Awards, going 81-27 and striking out 1,417 batters during his first four years in the desert. Manny Ramirez, Red Sox, 2001
The background: Ramirez had driven in a remarkable 432 runs over his previous three seasons with Cleveland (despite missing 44 games in 2000) and had hit a career-high .351 in 2000. Despite his physical and mental lapses in the field and on the bases, he and Alex Rodriguez were the two prize commodities in the 2000-01 free-agent market. The contract: Eight years, $160 million. The reward: Former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette stunned the baseball world with this deal (although it was nearly $100 million less than what the Rangers signed A-Rod for). In fact, the Red Sox themselves realized it was nearly impossible for a player to literally earn this kind of salary; after Duquette was fired, the new regime actually put Ramirez on waivers following the 2003 ALCS loss to the Yankees. Good fortune struck for Boston when no team picked him up, so they kept him. In 2004, Ramirez hit .308 with 43 home runs and 130 RBIs and finished third in the MVP voting … oh, and was named World Series MVP as the Red Sox ended some kind of curse. It's safe to say, with the Red Sox winning again in 2007 (with Ramirez driving in 16 runs in 14 postseason games), Boston would not have the two championships without Ramirez. Yes, every franchise can't afford $160 million; for the Red Sox, Duquette's folly proved fabulous.

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, 2001
The background: The biggest superstar in Japan, Suzuki had hit .385, .342, .356, .345, .358, .343 and .387 in his seven full seasons there, and had topped 20 home runs twice. Still, no Japanese position player had ever played in the U.S., and there were concerns the slightly built outfielder wouldn't be able to handle major league fastballs.

The contract: Three years, $27.125 million (including $13.125 posting fee). The reward: The excellent Web site fangraphs.com has Suzuki being valued at $102.9 million from 2002 through 2008, against actual salaries of $69.5 million. And those totals don't include 2001, when Ichiro made $5.7 million while winning the AL MVP Award and leading the Mariners to an all-time record 116 regular-season victories. He's been durable (200-plus hits and 100-plus runs all eight of his major league seasons) and superb on the bases and in the field (eight Gold Gloves). While his increasing salary -- $17.1 million in 2008 -- means he's now overpaid, the Mariners have earned a terrific payback on their initial investment.

David Ortiz, Red Sox, 2003
The background: He wasn't a true free agent in the standard sense; the Twins had non-tendered Ortiz, then turning 27, after a .272/.339/.500 season in 125 games. But every team had a chance to sign the lefty slugger, who had battled inconsistency and minor injuries in Minnesota. Boston signed him to provide help at first base and DH.

The contract: One year, $1.25 million. The reward: Even the Red Sox didn't know exactly what they had; Jeremy Giambi received as much playing time early in the season. Ortiz had just 117 plate appearances with two home runs through May before heating up. He hit 27 home runs the final three months, became a legendary fantasy waiver-wire pickup and finished at .288 with 31 bombs. The Red Sox made the ALCS, a love affair was born, and the next year Big Papi's heroics helped them win it all. Honorable mention: Bobby Grich (Angels, 1977), Nolan Ryan (Astros, 1980), Carlton Fisk (White Sox, 1981), Andre Dawson (Cubs, 1987), Kirk Gibson (Dodgers, 1988), Nolan Ryan (Rangers, 1989), Terry Pendleton (Braves, 1991), Vladimir Guerrero (Angels, 2004).

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