In Honor of Frank Thomas
I do not pretend to have any unique insight on Frank Thomas. The last few months of praise for Thomas, culminating in his induction to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, run contrary to my childhood memories of snarky Tribune articles saying that he wasn’t a winner, or Yankee fans insisting that Don Mattingly was better. I almost don’t know how to handle it. My perspective had always been, “You don’t realize just how good Thomas was.” But now that he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer and guys like Jeff Bagwell still can’t get in…well, it’s certainly a change of pace.
Perhaps it is also indicative of my perspective that the primary emotion I felt when I heard the 2014 Hall of Fame announcement was relief. We have seen very strong candidates torn down by unsubstantiated rumors. We have seen ballots where writers refuse to vote for anyone who played after 1990. The excellent @Leokitty has compiled many of the public ballots here – and a quick look reveals that a number of writers voted for Jack Morris or Jeff Kent and left Frank Thomas off of their ballot. Then there are the people who think the designated hitter isn’t a real position, and the list goes on.
As a result, as much as Frank should have been a sure thing, until the actual result was locked in he was not a sure thing. I was relieved that I didn’t see an article theorizing that Frank’s strong anti-PEDs stance was actually a ruse to cover his own use, as I feared would happen. I was relieved that he would not be left to languish by missing the cut, and then join the increasing flock of deserving players stuck down on the ballot taking votes away from each other.
And then I realized what a drag it was to feel that way. I started actually thinking about Thomas’ career from the beginning – his intimidating presence in the batter’s box, the excitement of knowing he was coming to bat again, standing in the on deck circle with that huge rusty piece of rebar, watching him take pitches an inch off the plate, muscling pitches that would be groundouts for most hitters over the infield for singles, and – of course – ripping bombs out of the park.
Sports media has a long and impressive tradition of trashing the best player on a team that isn’t making the playoffs or winning championships. For much of Frank’s peak, various things beyond his control kept the White Sox from the playoffs. The Cleveland Indians were a juggernaut for much of the decade. The 1994 playoffs were canceled. The 1998 White Sox did not have a single starting pitcher with a league average ERA. Given all of that, and the fact that the Cubs were owned by the biggest newspaper in town, and that they had their own failures that they wanted to draw attention away from, Frank often became a target for snarky, lazy articles. None of them rang true to me, even as a child – his big, warm smile and sublime hitting were all I needed as proof against the Tribune writers saying he was holding the team back, or a bad leader, or sulky, or not as good as Mark Grace. Even in years where Thomas’ batting average slipped a bit, his walks and power still made him elite. And on the list of things that kept the White Sox of the 90s from ultimate success, Frank Thomas was obviously at the very bottom of the list to anyone with any common sense.
That’s part of why it was so cruel when Thomas couldn’t stay healthy for the 2005 season when his supporting cast would truly come together for one of the few times in his career. But – it is easy to forget – that without the 34 games Thomas did play in 2005, the White Sox may not have made the playoffs at all. For 105 PAs, Frank added .219/.315/.590 with 12 home runs – good for an OPS+ of 131. The ’05 White Sox thrived on their excellent pitching and defense, complemented by an offense that was perfectly fine, but was hardly dangerous or a strength of the team. With Frank, though, they were explosive. They would go 24-10 with him in the lineup, scoring 5.5 runs a game, including offensive outbursts of 15, 12, 12, 11, and 10 runs. Without Frank, the White Sox could out-execute and stifle teams to beat them 4-2. With Frank, they were absolutely burying the opposition. Frank’s OPS+ of 131 would be second on the team only to Paul Konerko‘s 136 that year.*
*I’m not counting Joe Bochard’s 3 singles and 2 doubles in 12 plate appearances as qualified.
The White Sox had the best record in the American League that year – but it still was close at times. The Cleveland Indians put on a huge push in August and September before being swept to end the season and get pushed back to 6 games behind the White Sox. There also wasn’t a big margin for error, as the Yankees and Red Sox both posted 95 wins that season. Without that surge in June and July where Frank gave the White Sox a dangerous offense to go with their otherwise championship-caliber roster anyway who knows what might have happened?
So although we didn’t get to see a full season of Frank on a championship team, he gave them a much-needed boost, and absolutely deserves the ring he received.
There was always the danger of injustice in Thomas’ career. 1994 and 2005 were, in some ways, taken away from him. After the 1993 playoffs, Frank would not get a chance to play in the postseason again until 2000, through no fault of his own. He was increasingly overshadowed by gaudy home run totals by guys like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa – even though Frank was often a better hitter anyway. At other times, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. were the ones grabbing the headlines away from Thomas as the best hitter in the majors. And hey – they deserved it. It brings us back to the fact that the 1990s had some pretty crazy, elite hitting talent floating around and sometimes it served to diminish the awe that Thomas’ hitting deserved.
But, now – much like when Konerko squeezed his glove on the final out in the 2005 World Series – it is official. Complete. It cannot be undone. Frank Thomas is a first ballot Hall of Famer, and it is an absolute joy to think about.
Frank Thomas brought me tremendous happiness throughout his career, and it is wonderful to share that with others, and to see that euphoria in his face when he talks about how it feels to be in.
Congratulations, Big Hurt. You are a legend.
(Photo Credit: Brian Kersey, Associated Press)