Brian Urlacher gets to join a club with Michael Jordan and Carlton Fisk-elite players with unpleasant departures from Chicago sports teams. Since the negotiations for the former Bear ended last week, Urlacher has not been shy about talking to several media outlets. Maybe it is the shock after playing his entire thirteen year career with the Bears that it’s over. Brian’s version of the contract talks doesn’t paint a pretty picture of how he perceived it was handled. Because the Bears have not addressed the process, the only account comes from Urlacher. So it’s best to leave it to Urlacher to throw the stones. No matter what, it was going to be a no-win situation for the team. Getting rid of a future Hall-of-Famer has historically been a public relations nightmare. Generally, it takes a while before the player and team will reconcile, if they ever do.
It has to be difficult for a player that at one time was an elite player to make an honest account of their skills and ultimately their worth. When the team is forced to make the decision to go in a different direction, it is awkward and difficult.
Twenty years ago, the White Sox had a situation that is similar to this one. The Sox had a future Hall-of-Famer behind the plate, Carlton Fisk, with diminishing skills, was a prideful man, not the easiest of baseball personalities. However, we had a terrific rapport during his tenure on the south side. Fisk and the team were not in sync in 1993, he believed he could still contribute, the Sox felt otherwise. On June 28, 1993, Fisk broke Bob Boone’s mark for most games behind the plate (2,226) and the club had a nice celebration to honor him. The highlight was watching Bo Jackson ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle from the bullpen to home plate. Despite the gifts and the recognition of the feat, the underlying feeling was Fisk’s days were numbered, six days to be exact. After that homestand, the White Sox went to Cleveland and Fisk was released by the team over the phone. Imagine how humiliating that had to be for Fisk. (He also had to make his own travel arrangements) Adding insult to injury, when the White Sox were in the playoffs that fall, Carlton Fisk was refused admittance to the clubhouse by security. He did reconcile with the White Sox several years later and has been involved with the team since then. They even erected a statue honoring Fisk on the US Cellular outfield concourse.
Michael Jordan’s decision to leave the Bulls for the second time was another ugly split. The Bulls had just won their sixth title (1998) and the team was dismantled. Blame was all directed at General Manager Jerry Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Coach Phil Jackson all departed and the NBA had a prolonged lockout. Jordan announced his retirement in January ‘99, his second departure from the Bulls. MJ never resisted the opportunity to tweak his former team. He unretired again in 2001 and sadly played two seasons for the Washington Wizards. It didn’t tarnish his whole career, but he was clearly not the same player.
Urlacher saw his former teammate Pro-Bowler Olin Kreutz leave the Bears a couple of years ago. Kreutz was unhappy with his contract offer and hooked up with New Orleans, until he retired midseason. Urlacher has been fortunate that he has never had to go through free agency, until now, and that reality must be unsettlingly. Finding out if you have any value on the football field with another NFL team can be unnerving, especially approaching his 35th birthday and having some injury questions. Salary caps in football, hockey and basketball make teams wary of keeping veteran players unless they have some sound belief that the player can contribute. So Urlacher may have to decide to either take a contract for less money, just to prove to the Bears they made a mistake. Or retire, since Urlacher said he turned down the Bears one year-two million dollar deal because it isn’t worth putting his body through game preparation for those dollars.
Urlacher’s future is still undetemined, but the Bears have moved on after signing Denver free agent linebacker D.J. Williams. Everyone is replaceable, even Brian Urlacher.