On Friday, Andy Pettitte announced that he was coming out of retirement after one year of relaxing down in Texas. It remains to be seen how his comeback with the New York Yankees will fare, but there have been many precedents set, with athletes returning to play after sitting out a season or two, and many different types of unretirements as well. There are the will-he-or-won't-he faux retirements of Brett Favre and Roger Clemens, who never missed a full season before "coming back." There is the publicity-stunt variety of Satchel Paige (who pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A's in 1965 when he was approximately 59 years old) and Minnie Minoso (who twice briefly played for the White Sox, three games in 1976 and two games in 1980, so he could say he played in five different decades). There are the coaches who thought they could help their teams by inserting themselves in the lineup (Bob Cousy scored five points in seven games while also coaching the Cincinnati Royals in the 1969-'70 season, and Yogi Berra went 1-for-9 while also acting as coach of the New York Mets in 1965). There's Jim Bouton, who reappeared with the Atlanta Braves for five games (1-3, 4.97 ERA) as a knuckleballer in 1978 after last playing in 1970, and David Cone, who also went 1-3 (6.50 ERA), in five games with the Mets in 2003. There's Jim Palmer who only lasted two spring training innings in his ill-fated comeback after already being elected to the Hall of Fame. And there's a long line of boxers and cyclists who have come and gone and come back again. But here are the Top 5 most successful comebacks in team sports.
5. Guy Lafleur: After 14 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, six Stanley Cups, three Art Ross trophies, two Hart trophies, leading the NHL in points three times, retiring in 1985 as the Habs' all-time leading scorer and being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, Lafleur came back to the NHL in 1988. He played one season for the New York Rangers, scoring 18 goals with 27 assists for 45 points in 67 games, and then two more with the Quebec Nordiques (34 points in 39 games, and 28 points in 59 games). Lafleur didn't do anything special, or win any awards or championships, but he was still one of the top offensive players on the Rangers and Nordiques before retiring for good.
4. Mario Lemieux: One of the five greatest players ever to play in the NHL, Lemieux was stricken with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the prime of his career. He played 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins (and missed all of 1994-'95 while recovering from radiation treatment), won two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythes, six Art Ross trophies, three Harts and countless other awards as well. He retired after the 1997 season, and, after the mandatory three-year waiting period was waived, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame that same year. Meanwhile, the Penguins' owners were going bankrupt, with Lemieux owed $30 million. He struck a deal wherein he became the majority owner of the team. And in 2000, he decided to unretire, and became the first-ever owner/player. In his first year back, he recorded an astounding 76 points in 43 games. He ended up playing parts of five seasons his second time around, battling injuries throughout, but whenever he was on the ice, he was still one of the best players in the game.
3. Michael Jordan: First off, we're talking about his first retirement, not the second one when he came back to the NBA to play for the Washington Wizards. Whatever the reasons for leaving the NBA right in the middle of his career -- exhausted from his celebrity status? despondent over the death of his father? and there have been whispers that he struck a deal to avoid being suspended for gambling -- Jordan walked away and attempted a professional baseball career, playing for the minor-league Birmingham Barons and batting .202 in his one year of play in the summer of 1994. With the words "I'm back," he returned to the Chicago Bulls late in the 1994-'95 season, and torched the New York Knicks for 55 points at the Garden in his fifth game back. Jordan's Bulls won three more titles from '96 to '98, and then he quit again. Only to return to the NBA one more time. Jordan bought into the Wizards after retiring from the Bulls, and, inspired by Lemieux's comeback as owner/player, he played two final seasons with the Wizards before calling it a day for good.
2. George Blanda: The Grand Old Man gets put ahead of Jordan because after he came back a second time, he played an eye-popping 16 more seasons. Blanda began his career with the Chicago Bears in 1949, briefly played for the Baltimore Colts in 1950 and then went back to the Bears from '50 to '58. He lost his starting quarterback job after getting injured and was mainly used as a kicker his last four years in Chicago. He didn't see eye to eye with owner/coach George Halas and retired after the '58 season. When the brand-new AFL began play in 1960, Blanda unretired and joined the Houston Oilers, leading them to consecutive championships in his first two years back. He was the AFL MVP in 1963, and was one of the league's top quarterbacks in his seven years with the Oilers. In 1967, he moved on to the Oakland Raiders, as a kicker, but he was also occasionally used as a backup quarterback, and played until 1975 when he was 48 years old. Blanda was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
1. Gordie Howe: Mr. Hockey earns the top spot because when he retired the first time, he had played a full career and was already 43 years old, so when he came out of retirement he really came out of retirement. Howe was a member of the Detroit Red Wings for 25 years (1946 to '71), winning four Stanley Cups, six Art Ross trophies, six Hart trophies, played in 22 All-Star Games and held just about every scoring record there was. After two seasons in the Red Wings' front office, he was lured back to action by the Houston Aeros of the WHA, in 1973, where he joined his sons, Mark and Marty, in the new league. And he was better than ever, winning the MVP award (which was eventually named after him) in his first year and the equivalent of the Stanley Cup (the Avco Cup) his first two seasons. Notching over 100 points twice and 90-plus points two more times in his six seasons in the rival league proved that he wasn't just a novelty attraction. He played four seasons with the Aeros and two with the New England Whalers before returning to his old league for one last hurrah when his Whalers (with the Oilers, Nordiques and Jets) joined the NHL. Howe scored 15 goals and added 26 assists in his final season of 1979-'80, and he skated on a line with 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky in the All-Star Game that year. When Howe played his last-ever game in the NHL, he was 52 years old.