Friday, September 30, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #12: Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas was the best hitter the American League has had in the thirty years this project is focused on. He finished his career with a batting line of .301/.419/.555 and a wRC+ of 154, a figure which puts him among the top 20 in baseball history. He hit 521 home runs and 495 doubles. He scored 1494 runs and had 1704 RBI. He hit massive home runs, and he combined that awesome power with patience and plate discipline held by few players in history, which helped him draw 100+ walks in ten different seasons, a total topped by only Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams. In 1993 and 1994 Thomas became the first player since Roger Maris in 1960 an 1961 to win back-to-back American League MVP Awards. There should be no doubt about Thomas' excellence as a hitter. Having said that, allow me to also say this:

There's no player I've hated more than Frank Thomas.


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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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It was Monday, August 14, 1995. This was the summer after baseball's labor stoppage led to hundreds of missed games and a canceled postseason. I was 15 years old, soon to begin my sophomore year of high school. A couple friends and I went to Comiskey for a White Sox/Angels game.

The Angels took an early 7-0 lead, helped by home runs from Jim Edmonds and Chili Davis, but Chicago came back and eventually took the lead. In the top of the ninth though, Sox closer Roberto Hernandez allowed California (Remember when they were the California Angels, not the ridiculous Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim? Those were the days.) to tie the game, and in the top of the tenth, Greg Myers (who managed to spend 18 years in MLB without ever getting 400 PA in a season) hit a go-ahead home run. All-Star closer Lee Smith came in for the Angels, making it an 11-10 loss for the White Sox, dropping them to 24.5 games behind my beloved Indians, who were steamrolling the American League that summer.

I'd never been a big autograph hound, but my friends were, so we planned to wait around outside the stadium for a while to see if he could bump into anyone. We met Lee Smith, whose save that night was the 463rd of his career, more than any player in history at that point. (Who could've known a guy named Mariano Rivera, struggling mightily as a starting pitcher for the Yankees that summer, would go on to blow Smith's record away.) Smith talked with us for a while, thanked us for coming to the game. Chris Snopek, who'd made his MBL debut just two weeks earlier, was at least as excited to be signing autographs as we were to be getting them. Ozzie Guillen came out, cellphone at his ear. We were too young and too stupid to realize how rude it would be to interrupt him, so we went right ahead did. It turned out he was talking with his home, which made me feel a little bad. I felt a lot worse when the phone fell from his shoulder and broke. If it bothered him, he kept it to himself, which was kind.

We eventually wandered over to the fence around the players' parking lot. There were a number of other fans there at first, but a few at a time they drifted away until the three of us, three younger kids, and two dads were the only ones still there. Frank Thomas hadn't come out yet, and we figured he was worth waiting a while longer for. Sure enough, after a few minutes more, there he was, the Big Hurt, reigning two-time American League MVP, maybe 100 feet away. A valet went to get his car.

It would've taken him no more than three minutes for him to walk over, sign half a dozen autographs for the kids pleading his name, tell us to stay in school, and get back to his car. He didn't make any move towards us, or even acknowledge that we were there. The valet returned, but instead of getting into his car, Thomas opened the trunk and pulled something out. We couldn't tell what it was at first; one of my friends suspected it was baseballs that he'd already signed. It wasn't a box of baseballs though, it wasn't a box at all. It was a small container and a rag. Thomas proceeded to spend the next five minutes carefully wiping down his car, all while we watched, dumbfounded. It seemed a strange thing to do on a hot, humid night, with the drive home still ahead of him. When he finished, Frank tossed the stuff back in his trunk, climbed into his car, and sped off into the night.

I was livid at the time, indignant in the way only a 15-year-old can be. I swore up and down that I would write letters to the Tribune and Sun-Times, outing Thomas as a colossal jerk. In my younger years, I found it helpful to be able to attach incredibly strong emotions to things. The things I liked, I loved. The things I didn't like, I hated. In that way, Thomas served a productive purpose for me, giving me a figure to aim at without being able to do any actual harm to anyone.

It's been more than twenty years since that night; I can't say I still hold a grudge against Thomas. In part my having gotten over it is that I want to believe I've been forgiven too. I know I was sometimes casually cruel to other kids when I was young, and sometimes a real son of a bitch to my friends through my teen years and into my twenties, telling myself we were all having fun when I must have known not everyone was, and I quietly hope no one hates me for it.

Frank Thomas was 27 when he took that rag to his car while half a dozen children screamed his name, a year older than I was at the time of what I consider my last serious transgression against a friend, when I reacted poorly to the proposition of one friend of mine beginning to date another, and in effect went back on an offer to let one of the friends live with me for a few weeks. There's not an explanation that really justifies my behavior in that situation. I was frustrated at feeling like an important friend had pulled away from me, jealous that I was single at a time when I really didn't want to be, but I should have been better.

I'll go to my grave without knowing why Frank Thomas did it, but at some point I reached a place where I became more prone to giving people some benefit of the doubt. Joe Posnanski tells a story from the time he spent with the legendary Buck O'Neill. They were at a ballgame together, and a grown man caught a foul ball that a nearby child might otherwise have caught. Posnanski was disgusted by the man's behavior, while O'Neil offered, "Maybe he's got a boy of his own at home... Maybe his kid is sick." I try harder than I used to to view the world as Buck did. That night had been a tough loss for the White Sox, months into what had long since become a tough season. It had a been game, played in a stifling August heat. Frank was probably tired. Maybe a few minutes caring for his car was a moment of calm for him before a long drive home, where perhaps a boy of his own was sick in bed.

Of course it's possible there was none of that, and that he really was just being a bastard. And if that's the case, so be it, because I've gotten much more satisfaction from the story than I ever would've gotten from a scorecard with Thomas' signature on it.

The man was handy with a bat, and he was handy with a rag.

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