February 18, 2010
Tom Glavine was not the only player to announce his retirement last week, as Frank Thomas, the Big Hurt, also said his goodbyes to playing. Like Glavine, Thomas missed out on the 2009 season, so his announcement was not a surprise either, but it's still sad to see him part from the game.
Frank Edward Thomas was born on May 27, 1968, the same day as Jeff Bagwell. The two share many common links throughout their career outside of this, in terms of production, peak, and position, and it's somewhat a shame that Bags couldn't hold on as long as Thomas in order for the two to be inducted into the Hall of Fame during the same ceremony, just to bring things full circle. Thomas attended Auburn on a football scholarship after failing to be selected in the 1986 amateur entry draft in baseball. The baseball coach at Auburn, Hal Baird, knew better though, and Thomas ended up playing for that team as well. Thomas hit .359 as a freshman, and he played for the United States in the Pan-Am Games in 1987, though football coincided with those games and forced him to leave early.
It's hard to believe, but Thomas failed to make the cut on the 1988 Olympic baseball team-instead, he just took home Southeastern Conference MVP honors for hitting .401 with an .801 slugging percentage. By the time his college career was over, this former tight end had set the school record for homers with 49 and was selected seventh overall by the Chicago White Sox in the 1989 amateur entry draft.
Thomas didn't spend much time in the minors-he debuted in the majors during his first full season of professional ball. Over those 60 games, he would hit .330/.454/.529, sealing his place in the White Sox lineup despite his lack of experience. He made his presence felt league-wide in his second season, finishing third in the AL MVP voting thanks to a .318 average, a league-leading .453 on-base percentage, and 65 extra-base hits (including 32 homers). Thomas would win the Silver Slugger award which, along with the OBP crown, he would do four times throughout his career.
During an equally impressive 1992 season, Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson, who many of you know as the homer to beat all homers for his work announcing White Sox games, nicknamed Thomas the "Big Hurt," which is easily one of the best nicknames of the '90s and the kind of thing that needs to happen more often in today's bereft-of-great-nicknames game. If Frank Thomas had debuted in 1998, his nickname would be "F-Thom."
The 1993 and 1994 seasons would see Thomas start his page in the history books, as he won back-to-back MVP awards. He was just the second first baseman to do this, after Jimmie Foxx-a player whose career mirrored Thomas' in many ways-though Albert Pujols has done so as well in the years since. Thomas was also a victim of the 1994 players' strike, along with Matt Williams, the Montreal Expos, everyone hoping an AL West team would finish atop the division with a sub-.500 record, and everyone hoping to see the World Series that year. Thomas was hitting .353 with 38 homers and 101 RBI at the time of the strike, which put him in contention for the triple crown-no one has been as close as Thomas since, given the league leader for average (Paul O'Neill) was at .359, the home-run leader (Ken Griffey Jr.) was at 40, and the RBI leader (Kirby Puckett) was at 112. To point out a random Bagwell/Thomas connection, both players led their respective leagues in slugging in the strike-shortened campaign, and did so with Bondsian figures (Thomas at .729, Bagwell at .750). Thomas' slugging was the highest by an American Leaguer since Ted Williams posted a .731 mark in 1957, 11 years before Thomas was born. Thomas also pulled this trick with his OBP that year, as his .494 showing was the best of anyone since Williams '57 mark of .528 (this just in: Ted Williams was pretty good, even at age 38).
Thomas appeared in five straight All-Star Games from 1993-97, and he also finished in the top 10 in MVP voting from 1991-1997. During that stretch, he hit .330/.452/.604 with 250 homers, 235 doubles, and 835 walks, plus 119 intentional passes. In this stretch, he hit at least .300, drove in 100 runs, walked 100 times, was driven in 100 times, and hit 20 homers-that's seven straight years of this. Ted Williams is the only other player with at least five. To tie it to Bags again, he had a very similar stretch from 1996-2001, but just missed on batting average by a few points in 1997 and 2001.His career would slow down in 1998 and 1999, with Thomas "only" posting EqA's of .294 and .292. Things would pick up for him again in 2000, though, as he hit .328/.436/.625 with 43 homers and 191 hits, a career high on both accounts. Though he would come close again in the future, it was to be his final season with an OPS over 1000. For his efforts, Thomas was awarded the AL Comeback Player of the Year award.
Things would fall apart for Thomas again in 2001 though, as he would appear in just 20 games due to a tear in his triceps-this followed the death of his father earlier in the week. Thomas would return from the injury in 2002 and play a different style of baseball. Instead of a masher capable of a high average, Thomas turned into a power and patience hitter who was productive even without lofty batting averages. He hit just .252 in 2002, but hit 28 homers (and had 58 extra-base hits) to go along with his .361 OBP. The best example of this may have been 2005, when Thomas hit all of .219 but still managed a slugging percentage of nearly .600 and an OPS over 900. Sadly, he missed his one shot at a World Series due to injury, and wasn't even on the playoff roster. He did, however, throw out the ceremonial first pitch against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series which, as Thomas mentions in an article from Jerry Crasnick, was "One of my proudest moments in the game" thanks to the ovation the fans gave him.
Sadly, this was the end of Thomas' storied career with the Pale Hose, and his exit was not pretty. A feud erupted with owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Kenny Williams about not being open with Thomas about their lack of desire to have him back. Though things have since cleared, it was sad to see a player so important to the team's history treated thus. Thomas would sign with the Oakland A's for $500,000, and they were rewarded well for a relatively small investment thanks to him hitting .270/.381/.545 with 39 homers, which resulted in a fourth-place finish for AL MVP and second-place finish in the AL Comeback of the Year voting to Jim Thome.
Thomas would depart for the Blue Jays that winter, and though his first year was productive, his second was cut short by a clause in his contract. Manager John Gibbons benched Thomas for an indefinite amount of time, supposedly due to performance-Thomas was hitting below the Mendoza line at the time, but he had appeared in just 16 games and had hit three homers. The Big Hurt was not quiet about the fact he felt it was contract clause-related. His contract stipulated that 376 plate appearances would automatically vest his $10-million option for 2009. Not wanting to get stuck with the tab or let the story drag out, the Jays cut bait immediately. Thomas would re-sign with Oakland, and though he improved his line to .263/.364/.387 over the next 55 games, injuries would cut short his season and effectiveness and, as it turns out, his career.
Thomas leaves behind an impressive resume, with multiple MVP awards, four Silver Sluggers (at different positions, no less), and a few spots in history alongside impressive names. He's one of four players (Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Mel Ott being the others) to have a .300 career average, 500 homers, 1,500 RBI, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks over their career. He was the 21st player to reach 500 homers, and is one of the few with that many homers and a .300 career average (the others, besides those mentioned above, are Foxx, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez). Thomas was also the star of a 1995 baseball video game-one major star for a sports game was a big thing in the 90s-one that featured what I like to call the "Jonah Keri mode" where the 1994 Expos were able to play in a fictionalized World Series. Appropriately, the game was titled "Frank Thomas' Big Hurt Baseball."
My favorite Frank Thomas memory comes from my time growing up watching the Red Sox. Tim Wakefield and Frank Thomas had some epic matchups over the years, as random as that may seem. Thomas had two three-homer games, both against Wakefield, but generally the knuckler was the one who made the Big Hurt look silly, with some horrific and ugly swings at floaters. Thomas has been quoted as saying he loves facing knuckleball pitchers just because you know what's coming, but in the knuckler's defense, that doesn't mean you know where it's going. One example came in a game-and I can't figure out when this was using Google or Retrosheet, so if someone can pinpoint it, that would be appreciated-where Wakefield struck out Thomas with a sidearm knuckler, the first time I had seen Wakefield use that pitch. Thomas looked shocked as it came towards the plate, and did nothing with the pitch. He stared at Wakefield with a look on his face that said, "Are you serious? Sidearm?" while holding back a big smile after the whiff, and Wakefield hid his grinning face behind his glove as he waited for the ball to come back from the catcher.
That moment has always stood out to me-Thomas just had an embarrassing on-field moment, and it took all he could muster to avoid bursting out laughing with the guy who just struck him out. The fact that you knew he looked forward to these matchups-and would get the better of Wakefield before his career ended-makes it that much sweeter in retrospect. I don't know what you think of when the Big Hurt comes up-besides clear-cut Hall of Famer-but that's my memory of choice.