The 5: Pro athletes who made triumphant returns to Arizona
Phoenix doesn’t hold the same appeal as big cities like New York, Los Angeles or Boston. But as Valley sports fans know, it’s good living in the desert.
The professional athletes who get a taste of Arizona often find themselves coming back for more even though it’s sometimes not by their own accord.
Reliever Brad Ziegler found himself as the latest returnee to the Valley sports scene on Tuesday when the Arizona Diamondbacks acquired him in a trade with the Miami Marlins to make a push for the playoffs. He’s expected to make an impact as a member of a deeper bullpen.
Ziegler is not the first former Valley athlete to return with expectations. Here is a list of notable, impactful returns by athletes who’d already had a go-round — or two — in Arizona.
Suns PG Steve Nash (1996-98, 2004-2012)
The obvious first choice, Steve Nash was a first-round pick by Phoenix who in 1998 was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in a package that most notably included a draft pick that the Suns later used to draft Shawn Marion.
That was key to Nash’s 2004 return in free agency. Teaming Nash with Marion, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix turned a non-playoff squad prior to the point guard’s arrival into an NBA-altering team through the 2010 season.
During that span, Nash went from two-time All-Star with the Mavs to two-time MVP, defying the odds. Dallas, after all, didn’t want to pay Nash due to his age and complicated back injury.
With the Suns, Nash only made six more All-Star teams in his 30s. He compiled many of his career assists during that span to finish his career in 2014 as the NBA’s third all-time assist man.
Diamondbacks LHP Randy Johnson (1999-2004, 2007-08)
With five All-Star games and four Cy Young Award wins under his belt in his first stint with the D-backs, Randy Johnson made his Arizona return in 2007 after two years with the New York Yankees.
Of course, he wasn’t the same. Re-joining the Diamondbacks as a 43-year-old, the Big Unit battled a back injury in his first year away from the Yankees, playing in 10 games and recording a 3.81 ERA. The next season went better, as he started 30 games and went 11-10 with a 3.91 ERA. He recorded his 100th career complete game, the last of his career, in his final game as a D-back.
Johnson, a 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee who had his number retired by Arizona, would play for the San Francisco Giants in his 2009 farewell season but remains a familiar face at Chase Field to this day.
Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby (2004-09, 2013, 2017)
The veteran linebacker suited up not one, not two but three times for the Cardinals.
A second-round pick in 2004, Dansby developed into one of the most unique linebackers in NFL history as a playmaker in pass coverage and in rushing opposing quarterbacks. In the final season of his first stint with Arizona, he turned an overtime fumble recovery into a game-winning touchdown for the Cardinals’ Wild Card win over the Green Bay Packers.
All that earned him a then-record contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2010 — the five years and $43 million with $22 million guaranteed was the most ever paid to an inside linebacker.
After being waived by Miami, Dansby returned to Arizona two years later to put together his best season (at least on paper) with a career-high 114 tackles and four interceptions to go with 6.5 sacks.
Dansby, currently a free agent, played for Cleveland (2014-15) and Cincinnati (2016) before returning to the Cardinals last season, when his 20th career interception on Nov. 5, 2017, put him in the 40-sack, 20-interception club occupied by only four other players in NFL history.
Coyotes F Radim Vrbata (2007-08, 2009-2014, 2016-17)
Five of Radim Vrbata’s six seasons of 20 or more goals scored came with Arizona, and they came throughout various periods of his 16-year NHL career.
Traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Coyotes in 2007 for Kevyn Adams, he set career highs in goals (27) and points (56) in 2007-08 before he left to sign with Tampa Bay. He left the team to travel back to his home in the Czech Republic to be with his pregnant wife during his first season and before his second was put on the backburner when the Lightning moved on without him. With his intention to return to the NHL, Tampa Bay traded him to Arizona for David Hale and Todd Fedoruk in the summer of 2009.
During his longest of the three stints with the Coyotes, one of Vrbata’s best NHL seasons came in 2011-12, when he recorded a career-high 35 goals — a league-high 12 were game-winners.
He returned to Arizona as a free agent in 2016 and in November of that year recorded his 43rd career shootout goal, which at the time was an NHL record.
Diamondbacks INF Craig Counsell (2000-03, 2005-06)
Had he not been such a useful utility man, perhaps Craig Counsell would have found himself among the 15 players on Arizona’s 20th anniversary team.
Counsell finished his career with a .991 fielding percentage as a second baseman and used that solid defense at second, shortstop and third base for Arizona. En route to the D-backs’ 2001 World Series victory, he earned the MVP award in the NLCS after batting 8-of-21 (.381) with three doubles, five runs and four RBI over a three-game series.
Arizona traded Counsell to the Milwaukee Brewers — the team he currently manages — in a package to acquire Richie Sexson after the 2003 season, but Counsell returned to the D-backs as a free agent the next year.
Again playing all over the infield, Counsell was not utilized more in his career than the 2005 season. He played a career-high 150 games and had 670 plate appearances. That allowed him to record a career-high 148 hits, 34 doubles and nine home runs while batting .256.
Honorable mention: Micah Owings (D-backs – 2007-08, 2011), Kevin Johnson (Suns – 1988-1998, 2000), Dan Majerle (Suns – 1988-1995, 2001-02), Brad Ziegler (D-backs – 2011-16, 2018-present), Jared Dudley (Suns – 2008-2013, 2016-18), Zbynek Michalek (Coyotes – 2005-2010, 2012-15, 2015-17), Leandro Barbosa (Suns – 2003-10, 2013-14, 2016-17)