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Which player who debuted in the '90s will be the last man standing?

ESPN Illustration

Adrian Beltre waved bye-bye to baseball on Tuesday, ending a stellar 21-year career that began in 1998. That leaves 10 active players in the four major North American sports who debuted during the '90s.

Bartolo Colon is one of them. Most recently sharing the field with Beltre as a member of the Texas Rangers, Colon said he has every intention of playing a 22nd season in the bigs -- at age 45. And he's not the only player who started his career before the turn of the century still plugging away. Rick Ankiel, who debuted in 1999 and last played in 2013, is considering a comeback.

Who will be the last man standing?


MLB

Bartolo Colon, free agent

Pro debut: Colon made his major league debut April 4, 1997, a road start versus the Anaheim Angels. It was a bit of a rough one -- five innings, six hits, four runs, three walks and four strikeouts. He also allowed a home run, but picked up a no-decision in the Angels' 8-6 win in 11 innings.

Teammates of note: As a rookie in '97, Colon played for the American League champion Indians, who featured stars like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, David Justice and Omar Vizquel. But he also had two crafty 38-year-olds to learn from -- Orel Hershiser and ageless wonder Julio Franco, who went on to play until he was ... 49!

Vintage matchup: It looked like quite the mismatch. Colon was 14-12 with a 4.09 ERA for the Indians in 2001, but he was handed the ball in Game 1 of the AL Division Series in Seattle. If starting the postseason opener on the road wasn't enough of a chore, he had to do it against a Mariners team that went 116-46 in the regular season, setting the AL record for wins. And greeting him in the bottom of the first? A leadoff man named Ichiro, who hit .350, set the big league rookie record with 242 hits and won the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards. Go get 'em, Bartolo! Well, on that October night, Colon showcased why he would become a future Cy Young winner. He pitched eight shutout innings and whiffed 10 in a 5-0 Indians victory. Ichiro had three hits, but the rest of the Mariners went 3-for-28 versus Colon.

Why he's still valuable: Colon, who will turn 46 in May, isn't close to his All-Star form of 2016, but the hefty right-hander is still a horse. Since turning 40 in 2013, the man affectionately known as Big Sexy has averaged 29.5 starts in the past six seasons.

When will it end? "After Colon won his 246th career game on Aug. 8, thus setting a new mark for Latin-born pitchers, he declared that he still wanted to pass Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for tops in innings pitched. At that point, Colon still trailed Marichal by 60⅓ innings. He is not getting it done in 2018. So, Colon still wants to play, and once you account for ballpark factors, his age-45 season was in the neighborhood of league average. Someone will take him to spring training, hoping he can earn a spot because the beloved Colon remains a fan favorite." -- ESPN baseball writer Bradford Doolittle


NFL

Phil Dawson, Arizona Cardinals

Pro debut: Dawson's NFL debut was Sept. 12, 1999, the first game in the Cleveland Browns' expansion season. What a dud. As the Browns' place-kicker, he didn't see the field as they were handed a 43-0 shutout defeat by the host Steelers. Dawson scored his first NFL points the following week, hitting a 41-yard field goal.

Teammates of note: Dawson spent his first 14 NFL seasons with the Browns, from 1999 to 2012, so it's not as though he played with a bevy of superstars. The team had just two winning seasons in that time, after all. Instead, here's the uber-long list of quarterbacks who mostly failed to win in Cleveland during Dawson's time there: Tim Couch (1999-2003), Ty Detmer (1999), Doug Pederson (2000), Spergon Wynn (2000), Kelly Holcomb (2001-04), Jeff Garcia (2004), Luke McCown (2004), Trent Dilfer (2005), Charlie Frye (2005-07), Derek Anderson (2006-09), Ken Dorsey (2006-08), Brady Quinn (2007-09), Bruce Gradkowski (2008), Colt McCoy (2010-12), Jake Delhomme (2010), Seneca Wallace (2010-11), Brandon Weeden (2012), Thad Lewis (2012) and Josh Johnson (2012).

Vintage matchup: In the 2002 season, Dawson participated in the Browns' only playoff game since the franchise resumed operations in 1999, and he didn't disappoint. He made all three extra-point attempts and went 2-for-2 on field goal tries, including drilling a 24-yarder at the start of the fourth quarter to put the visiting Browns up by 13 over the Steelers in an AFC wild-card game. But the Browns surrendered three fourth-quarter touchdowns and fell 36-33.

Why he's still valuable: Dawson, 43, still has a dynamite leg, including connecting on a 57-yard field goal for the Cardinals in 2017. He made 4 of 5 attempts from 50 yards or longer last season, and since turning 40 in 2015, he's hit on 8 of 11 tries from that range. His opportunities have been limited in 2018, however, with the Cardinals' offense having struggled throughout the season. Dawson also has battled a hip injury, recently missing his first game since 2009.

When will it end? "The 43-year-old Dawson just might be entering either his last season or one of his last seasons in the NFL. He's in the final year of a two-year deal with the Cardinals, which will pay him $3 million in 2018. But what might be the deciding factor is that he's coming off his lowest field goal percentage since 2006 and the worst season of his career kicking extra points. If he can't rebound this season, jobs might be tough to come by next year." -- ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss

Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts

Pro debut: Vinatieri scored the first points of the Patriots' 1996 season during his NFL debut. He booted a field goal and an extra point in New England's 24-10 home loss to the Dolphins on Sept. 1, 1996.

Teammates of note: Before he teamed with two of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, Vinatieri played with the likes of Drew Bledsoe (1996-2001), Tedy Bruschi (1996-2005) and Hall of Famer Curtis Martin (1996-97) in New England.

Vintage matchup: Prior to becoming a Super Bowl hero, Vinatieri showed in the 2001 playoffs how reliable he can be. Even in a blizzard. With the Patriots trailing the Raiders 13-10 in the final minute of their AFC divisional round game, Vinatieri blasted a 45-yard field goal off the snow-packed turf at Foxboro Stadium and into swirling winds. The kick hugged the right upright and sailed through to send the game into overtime. His 23-yard field goal with 6 minutes, 35 seconds left in OT delivered the Patriots to the AFC title game and help make him a household name.

Why he's still valuable: Vinatieri, a three-time first-team All-Pro and four-time Super Bowl champion, has shown no signs of slowing down. This season, Vinatieri set the NFL record for most career points and most career field goals made, passing Morten Andersen for each mark. The 45-year-old has made at least four field goals from 50 or more yards in five of the past seven seasons, including a combined 12 of 15 from 2016 to 2017. Vinatieri, who also is No. 1 all time for most postseason points scored, appears a shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When will it end? "As far as retiring, he said he's taking it on a year-to-year basis. Vinatieri is still kicking at a high level and he feels rejuvenated after a coaching change during the offseason." -- ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells

Note: Falcons kicker Matt Bryant was eligible for the 1999 NFL draft but wasn't selected. He made his NFL debut in 2002 with the Giants.


NBA

Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks

Pro debut: On Feb. 5, 1999, Carter was victorious in his first NBA game, scoring 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting as the Raptors earned a 103-92 road win over the Celtics.

Teammates of note: Wing defenders were likely wiped out after games against the Raptors from 1999 to 2000. Not only did they have to keep up with the high-flying Carter, they had to deal with the explosive Tracy McGrady, who turned 21 at the end of the 2000 season. In 2001, Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon joined the Raptors for his final NBA season. He was 39 years old.

Vintage matchup: Vince Carter vs. Michael Jordan -- a North Carolina fan's fantasy. Well, the matchup between two of the most athletic Tar Heels (and players) in history actually happened four times from 2001 to 2003. Carter's Raptors split those four contests against Jordan's Wizards, with the youthful Carter winning the scoring battle each time. Carter, who averaged 40 minutes in each contest (11 more than Jordan), registered 23.5 points per game. Jordan scored 14 per game, including just 4 in their last matchup in 2003 -- his final season in the NBA.

Why he's still valuable: The days of Vinsanity might be long gone, but the 2000 slam dunk champ can still punish the rim at 41 years old. In fact, his bucket that entered him into the 25,000-point club came on a two-handed stuff at the end of regulation on Nov. 21, 2018. His true value to NBA teams, however, is with the experience he brings. Which is why the Hawks, who are into the second year of their roster rebuild, signed Carter to a one-year contract in July. He opened the season as the team's starting small forward.

When will it end? "This is probably Carter's final season before he transitions to broadcasting full time. He said this summer that he's '90-something percent' sure he'll retire at the end of the season." -- ESPN NBA reporter Tim MacMahon

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Pro debut: Nowitzki didn't exactly wow the crowd during his NBA debut Feb. 5, 1999. He started but played just 16 minutes in the Mavericks' 92-86 road loss to the Sonics. Nowitzki finished with 2 points on 0-for-5 shooting and failed to grab a rebound. He recorded 4 assists.

Teammates of note: Nowitzki was fortunate enough to have played with two of the top point guards in the modern era in Dallas. He and Jason Kidd (2008-12) helped lead the Mavericks to the NBA championship in 2011. Nowitzki also played with Steve Nash, who was then a rising star, from 1999 to 2004.

Vintage matchup: Nowitzki revolutionized the power forward position as a big man who could take opponents away from the paint and do damage with long-distance shooting or with quick drives. So, how did the German fare versus the much more physical presence in Hall of Famer Karl Malone? While Malone won 12 of 21 regular-season meetings -- their first coming in 1999, when Nowitzki was 20 and the Mailman was 35 -- Nowitzki led the Mavericks to a 3-2 series win over Malone's Jazz in their only playoff meeting, in 2001. Nowitzki averaged a whopping 43 minutes per game in the series and recorded 23.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest.

Why he's still valuable: While Nowitzki has yet to play in 2018 because of an ankle injury, and has seen his production and minutes drop in recent seasons, the 40-year-old big man remains a tough cover on the perimeter. He shot 41 percent from 3-point range last season, and his presence on the floor still commands respect and opens up space for his teammates to operate.

When will it end? "Nowitzki doesn't plan to make a decision on whether to retire until after this season. 'I'm going to leave the door open on if I'm going to play another [season], but I'm going to approach this as if there's no tomorrow,' Nowitzki said, citing how his body feels as the primary factor on whether he'll come back for a 22nd season." -- ESPN NBA reporter Tim MacMahon


NHL

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

Pro debut: Chara played his first NHL game on Nov. 19, 1997, helping the visiting Islanders earn a win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. The defenseman played 11 shifts in that game.

Teammates of note: As a rookie with the Islanders, Chara likely got a lesson in leadership from Trevor Linden, who played 19 NHL seasons. Linden, who was named a captain of the Canucks when he was 21 years old, served as the president of the NHL Players' Association for eight years. He also served as Vancouver's president of hockey operations the past four years. Playing with Daniel Alfredsson for four seasons in Ottawa likely was a thrill for Chara, too. Alfredsson had a Hall of Fame-worthy career, which included recording 100 points in 124 career playoff games with the Senators.

Vintage matchup: Chara met The Great One late in his rookie season -- and Chara helped blank him. The young defender played 12 shifts in a 3-0 victory over Wayne Gretzky's Rangers on April 4, 1998. Even spent 15 minutes watching from the penalty box that night. It was Gretzky's second-to-last season in the NHL, but he was still great indeed. He led the league in assists with 67 -- the 16th time he achieved the feat in his career.

Why he's still valuable: Well, who wouldn't want a 6-foot-9, 250-pound defenseman? Oh, and one who can still play at a high level. Proof of that came when the Bruins signed their 41-year-old captain to a one-year extension for $5 million in March. Chara, who won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman in 2009, is considered to still have one of the NHL's hardest shots. He won the hardest shot competition at the All-Star Game skills competition five times in a row, from 2007 to 2012. (There was no All-Star Game in 2010 due to NHL player participation in the Winter Olympics.)

When will it end? "Is 'never' an option? Chara led the Bruins in ice time (22:54 per game) and continues to be the best on-ice mentor in the league, setting the example for rookie sensation Charlie McAvoy last season. He's changed his training regimen and his diet, going nearly all plant-based. He's on a one-year contract with Boston for 2018-19. If and when the end arrives, Chara is ready: He has a real estate license and has already acquired several waterfront condos in Boston." -- ESPN hockey writer Greg Wyshynski

Matt Cullen, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pro debut: Cullen played for the first time in the NHL on Oct. 28, 1997, skating two shifts for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Ducks and host Maple Leafs finished in a 2-2 tie.

Teammates of note: Cullen, a center, learned about how to pressure offenses right out of the gate. In the first four seasons of his career, he was able to watch Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne skate on the wings for the Ducks. Both were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017.

Vintage matchup: It took Cullen all of three career games to record his first point. And he did it against the stiffest of competition. Cullen assisted on a Selanne goal in the first period of the Ducks' game Nov. 2, 1997, against the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings won their second straight Stanley Cup title that season, one that featured the blossoming Chris Osgood in goal. Osgood finished seventh that season in the voting for the Vezina Trophy, which honors the NHL's top goalie. Osgood finished his career 12th in league history in regular-season wins.

Why he's still valuable: Cullen has been a steady role player throughout his career, which includes winning three Stanley Cup championships. He remains productive, scoring double-digit goals in each of the past three seasons, which is why the Penguins reunited with the 41-year-old on a one-year deal. He had spent the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons with Pittsburgh before signing with Minnesota on a one-year pact last season.

When will it end? "It was supposed to end in Minnesota, Cullen's home state, but his usage by the Wild and occasional healthy scratches left Cullen wanting something more for his final curtain. Since Pittsburgh was wanting more from its bottom six forwards as well, this match was made. Cullen assumes it'll be his last NHL stop, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 'I'm not going to formally announce anything before the season starts, but I think this probably is it.'" -- ESPN hockey writer Greg Wyshynski

Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

Pro debut: Luongo was selected fourth overall by the Islanders in 1997, making him the highest-drafted goaltender in NHL history. And in his NHL debut, he showed why he was so highly thought of. Luongo stopped 43 of 44 shots Nov. 28, 1999, leading the visiting Islanders to a 2-1 victory over the Bruins.

Teammates of note: In his rookie campaign -- his only season with the Islanders -- Luongo had the imposing Chara in front of him on defense. But he likely learned about how to compete against big-time scorers in practice the following two seasons, playing with Hall of Fame right winger Pavel Bure in Florida.

Vintage matchup: Luongo and the Canucks sailed into the 2011 playoffs as the West's top seed and showed their strength by winning the first three games of a best-of-seven series versus the Blackhawks. But Luongo struggled as Vancouver dropped the next three games; he was even benched during Games 4 and 5 and didn't start Game 6. He got the call in Game 7, and boy, did he deliver. Luongo stopped 31 of 32 shots as Vancouver won 2-1 in overtime. Luongo helped lead the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, where they fell to the Bruins in seven games.

Why he's still valuable: Injuries slowed the 39-year-old Luongo the previous two seasons, limiting him to a combined 75 games, but he remains effective when he gets regular playing time. Luongo, a five-time All-Star, has posted winning records in each of the past four seasons with the Panthers.

When will it end? "As the saying goes, 'Follow the money.' Luongo signed his massive 12-year, $64 million contract during those halcyon days of long-term, cap-circumventing contracts. He's playing this season with the Panthers having seen his base salary drop from roughly $6.714 million last season to $3.382 million. It drops all the way down to $1.618 million next season. The way these contracts were structured, that's always been the assumed end point. And his heir, James Reimer, is signed through 2021." -- ESPN hockey writer Greg Wyshynski

Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs

Pro debut: Forget the minors, Marleau was thrust into the mix by the Sharks immediately after they selected him No. 2 overall in the 1997 draft. Marleau went directly to the NHL and debuted Oct. 1, 1997. At 18 years and 6 days old, he took three shots and played 13 shifts in a 5-3 home loss to the Oilers.

Teammates of note: Marleau played with Selanne for three seasons and has had several other teammates with Hall of Fame-worthy careers, including Owen Nolan, Gary Suter, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Vernon, Vincent Damphousse and Joe Thornton, who was selected ahead of Marleau in the '97 draft.

Vintage matchup: Call it the game that Marleau came of age. In the 1999 playoffs, Marleau recorded a goal and an assist to help the Sharks earn a 7-3 road victory and tie their series with the Avalanche at 2-2. But the points by Marleau weren't in garbage time. He beat legendary Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy with just under two minutes left in the second period to tie the game 3-all, then assisted on the Sharks' go-ahead goal early in the third. Pretty clutch, especially for a 19-year-old.

Why he's still valuable: Marleau, who turned 39 in September, doesn't appear set for a farewell tour around the NHL. Known for his durability, Marleau has scored 25 or more goals in four of the past five seasons. And he's still clutch, too. Last season -- his first with Toronto after spending 19 in San Jose -- Marleau became the eighth player in league history to record 100 game-winning goals.

When will it end? "After the 2020 season. Marleau's three-year deal with Toronto smacks of one last big contract before skating away from the NHL. His incredible durability, having played every game of every season since 2009, is laudable. It also means there are a lot of miles on those Canadian tires." -- ESPN hockey writer Greg Wyshynski

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

Pro debut: Thornton, the top pick in the 1997 NHL draft, made his debut for the Bruins on Oct. 8, 1997. He took one shot and played 10 shifts in a 3-2 road victory over the Coyotes.

Teammates of note: Thornton played his first three seasons in Boston with a fellow first-round draft pick who became a superstar -- defenseman Ray Bourque. Bourque won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1980 and was a five-time Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.

Vintage matchup: Two months into his career, Thornton sent a message to the rival Flyers, who were known for their physicality. Thornton notched his first career goal against the Flyers, and perhaps that stuck in the mind of Philadelphia powerhouse Eric Lindros. During the 2003-04 season, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lindros, who was traded to the Rangers in 2001, cross-checked "Jumbo Joe" in the head, which started a fight between the two. Thornton suffered a fractured cheekbone from the hit and missed three games.

Why he's still valuable: At 39 years old, Thornton hasn't slowed down much, which is why the Sharks decided to bring him back for a 14th season. Thornton has recorded 50 or more points in four of the past five seasons and had 13 goals and 23 assists in 47 games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

When will it end? "If he can get through the 2018-19 season without a prolonged injury absence -- he claims he'll be fully rehabbed from tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee in January -- it's plausible that Jumbo will be back for an additional season after he turns 40. While there was some thought that Thornton might go home and piggyback on the Maple Leafs to challenge for that Stanley Cup ring that eludes him, he said, 'I bleed teal' when re-signing with the Sharks this summer." -- ESPN hockey writer Greg Wyshynski