Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | February 14, 2010

Frank Thomas Calls It Quits

On Friday, after 19 years in Major League Baseball and being forced to sit out a year due to a lack of interest in the Free Agent market, Frank Thomas officially retired from the game of baseball.

In the wake of the news breaking there have been a lot of articles about this that have been almost universally positive, which I am happy to see considering I’ve always had the feeling that Frank was generally mistreated by “popular perception” during his playing career. Thomas was my favorite player of the latter half of my childhood into adulthood, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that he was the last player to come along for me that acquired that “awe”. The “it”. The hold that pro athletes have over children and adolescents that tends to recede into adulthood (for most people anyway), where they acquire a somewhat mythical nature. A “childhood hero”, if you will.

I quite enjoy baseball these days — In fact, I might even say I enjoy the game more now than I have at any other time in my life. Yet at my age and disposition, while I’d be delighted to meet a player or players I view them as essentially my equals. Without counting each individual, I’d be willing to guess that anywhere from 40-55% of the players currently in the league are younger than I am and virtually all but the very youngest (think Rick Porcello) and the very oldest (think John Smoltz) are essentially in my peer group. On a personal level, it is simply tougher to generate the same feelings of attachment to people who given a different circumstance might have been in the same classroom as me at any given time.

Thomas was one of the last players to really capture my imagination in a time where these guys weren’t just “my peers who happen to be good at baseball”, but “guys I saw on TV who could do the amazing”. And while there has been plenty of deserved talk about Thomas’ accomplishments on the baseball field, many of which I will get to momentarily, on this occasion of his retirement I want to give my short, generally insignificant Frank Thomas story. While it may be “generally insignificant”, it was very significant to me and one of the coolest moments of my adolescence. It was from this experience that I always rooted for Frank Thomas going forward, even though he played for a White Sox team that during that period of time was always (literally) fighting with the Tigers.

The story actually starts on April 11, 1997. It was a Friday night. I was 16 years old and at that time I was in the last stages of being subject to official “bedtimes” by my parents. However, on Friday I was always permitted to stay awake indefinitely, and that particular night on ABC Nightline was airing a special called “Baseball in Black and White”. It was a mash-up of different stories and interviews about race and the role it was playing in baseball and had played in baseball, conducted as part of the 50 year anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s integration of the game. I was watching the Nightline special that night and Ted Koppel interviewed Frank Thomas for the show. I’d be a liar if I wrote here that I can remember what was said. What stands out most in my mind is that night I saw Frank Thomas on TV, speaking articulately to Ted Koppel about race in baseball. Thomas was a big star, but it isn’t like I spent most of my days with Frank Thomas being top of mind. However, having seen him on Nightline the night of the 11th going into the 12th, he was top of mind for me at that time.

The following day (April 12th) it rained mercilessly during the morning and early afternoon. I had just gotten my driver’s license one month prior and so every weekend to me was an opportunity to go somewhere or do something and expand my World. On that particular day I decided to go to the Mall to purchase a new album and generally walk around and hang out. The ability to just pick up and go to the mall was still a new experience for me. I called one of my friends and asked him if he wanted to come to the mall with me and he told me that he was sleepy and planned on taking a nap. Undeterred, I decided to go alone.

I entered the Mall and made an immediate beeline for the record store, where I quickly made my purchase and exited. As I was exiting the store into the concourse, I looked up and to my complete and utter shock I saw Frank Thomas walking right in my direction. In another time or under another circumstance I may not have trusted my memory. I may have thought to myself “Wow, that guy looks like Frank Thomas”, but I’d have probably just had that thought and continued on. However, having just seen him on television the night before I was absolutely sure that this was the real Frank Thomas. I approached him and said “Excuse me, are you Frank Thomas?”. He stopped, patiently, and said “Yes I am.”

All of a sudden a combination of shock and awe washed over me. I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog that my high school years of the late 90s — 1997-2000 in particular — Was the low point of my lifetime in terms of being a baseball fan. Much of that has to do with the negative experience I had playing for my high school team, but in general that is the only time of my life I can recall not really paying very much attention to what was going on or caring very much. This is important because my ignorance of the day-to-day led me to ask the stupid first question I asked him: “What are you doing here?”

Not knowing the Tigers and White Sox were in the middle of a series at that time (due to my aforementioned ignorance of the day-to-day), all I could think about was that the guy I’d seen on TV last night was standing in Fairlane Mall in a suit in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. It didn’t make sense. He patiently replied “Oh, the game got rained out today so I figured I’d come hang out”. After that I asked him a series of questions, none of which I remember. I don’t remember his answers to them either. What stands out most to me is the fact that I was a babbling sixteen year old kid with a CD in his hand who’d basically stopped him in the middle of the mall on a Saturday afternoon when he was minding his own business. For that, he was patient with me, smiled, and engaged me in conversation as if I hadn’t interrupted his day. I also remember wanting his autograph — This was before I got older and changed in my attitude towards autographs* — And being disappointed that I had nothing for him to autograph, nor a pen. All I had was my CD (and I declined a bag, so I didn’t even have a shopping bag for it) and a twenty dollar bill. In those days, $20 was a fortune for me, so I wasn’t going to lose my twenty for a Frank Thomas autograph. In any event, I became self-aware of the fact that I’d stopped this man in the middle of his afternoon and he wasn’t really there for my amusement, and so I found a way to end the conversation. I was ecstatic. It made my day, week, and month. As I grew older I came to appreciate his kindness and patience to indulge my being a fan, which made me respect him even more and want to root for him and his success even harder. And so goes the story of how I became a fan of Frank Thomas.

 

* – These days I no longer get joy or amusement out of autographs. They’re just words on a piece of paper. I much prefer to get pictures of people and especially pictures WITH people instead of autographs. One notable exception is that I do like autographs on special items. For example, I once had Brandon Inge autograph a scorecard from a game that I attended where he got a triple and a Grand Slam in the same inning. More than that, I particularly like to get autographs of photos I have with players. I see it almost like double dipping. I have an autographed photo of me and Ernie Harwell, as well as an autographed photo of me and Brandon Inge. I think I enjoy autographs in those circumstances because I like seeing the reaction of the person signing when you ask them to sign a picture of you with them. Or asking someone to sign a ticket from the day they almost pitched a no-hitter (Mike Maroth). Or asking someone to sign a scorecard from the game where in a post-game interview you ripped fans in the city for not coming out to the game and supporting the team (Dmitri Young). Essentially, I like making personal connections, and a simple autograph on a piece of paper doesn’t do it for me. If I do get an autograph, I like it to be of something special that made me connect with that player as a fan in the first place.

 

Now “The Big Hurt” has called it quits, and it makes me slightly sad. He is a top tier Hall of Famer, and one of the few players for which there was little debate about it as his career was coming to a close. This created a special situation where late in his career anytime you saw him play you knew you were watching a great Hall of Famer, even if he was no longer at the top of his game.

This is a man who retired with a career line of 301/419/555 and a wRC+ of 158. In his first eight seasons (if you include 1990, which wasn’t a full year), he never posted a wRC+ under 173. Think about that. In the first eight years of his career he was no worse than 73% better than the average hitter. To put that in perspective, Barry Bonds never posted a figure as high as 173 until 1990, his fifth year in the league (176) and Albert Pujols didn’t do it until 2003, his third year in the league (189). For their careers, Bonds was 177 and Pujols is 173. Early in his career, that was just the minimum bound for Thomas. He only had one season in his career in which he was a below average hitter, and in that year he only played in 20 games and came to the plate 79 times (2001). He had 2,468 hits, 521 home runs, 495 doubles, and more career walks than strikeouts. He’s a two-time league MVP who was probably robbed of a third MVP in 2000. He’s 21st all-time in OBP, 25th all-time in slugging, 15th all-time in OPS, and 26th all-time in wRC+.

In short, Thomas was as someone recently put (I wish I could remember where I read the quote and who said it): “The monster of a player that Boston writers tried to tell us that Jim Rice was”.

While I’m very much on record as being completely apathetic to the steroid abuse in baseball and generally hostile to the steroid witch hunt, I think it is important to those who participate in the farce that Thomas was a champion for stringent drug testing and was always willing to talk to Congress or Mitchell or anyone else who wanted to talk about drug abuse in the sport. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he was clean, but it certainly ought to keep him out of the witch hunts until concrete proof is offered.

Frank Thomas was one of the greatest pure hitters in the history of the game. In my one experience with him, I found him to be a polite and kind man who indulged a 16 year old in speaking with one of the true stars of the game walking around in a shopping mall. He won a championship on a team where he couldn’t participate as much as he would’ve liked due to injury and was disgracefully swept out of town. When Toronto told him that he was done in 2008, he signed with Oakland and showed that he was a slightly better than league average hitter, even at age 40.

The last time I saw Frank Thomas play was September 10th, 2007 as a member of the Blue Jays. He got a single off of Kenny Rogers and a walk off of Joel Zumaya. Both would lead to Blue Jay runs. I did not know then that it would be the last time I would see him play.

The game will miss the Big Hurt, but we’ll see him again in Cooperstown in five years.

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Responses

  1. I always thought Frank Thomas never fully received the attention he deserved while he was playing. He was always sort of taken for granted. Now that he was retired, we can take the time to fully appreciate his greatness. Should be a certain first-ballot HOF’er. Thanks for the great blog-post. Bill


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