If a sports fan should have a heightened appreciation for the play of a Tiger Woods or a Michael Jordan in today’s unforgiving media spotlight, what’s the proper response to a Frank Thomas? Thomas, like Jordan before him and Woods now, has faced steadily increasing scrutiny and pressure during his career. Unlike those two champions, he seems to have cracked.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the “Big Hurt”–easily the most evocative nickname of the current generation, in which nicknames have for the most part gone out of fashion–was the darling of the south side, a certain Hall of Famer. He is the first and only baseball player to put together seven straight seasons of hitting 20 homers, both driving in and scoring 100 runs, walking 100 times, and batting .300. Considering that he began that streak in his first full season in the majors, 1991, he seemed destined to be one of the game’s greats. But something went wrong, beginning with the media brouhaha over the nonunion labor he employed to build his Oak Brook mansion a few years ago. Last year his batting average dipped 82 points from his league-leading mark of the year before to an abysmal (for him) .265. The slump was largely blamed on the breakup of his marriage, which also received widespread attention. This year he vowed to regain his focus, but he never found the equilibrium that made him both a fearsome and an intelligent hitter. He raised his average back over .300, but his power suffered. He called it a season two weeks ago with a strained ligament in an ankle, a bone spur on a foot, and an aggravating corn on a toe. Surgery was required, but he admitted he could have played if the White Sox were in contention, which of course they weren’t. In 135 games, his 15 homers, 77 runs batted in, 74 runs scored, and 87 walks failed to meet his aforementioned standards, and his .305 batting average was still the second-worst mark he’s ever posted. In the papers, on TV, on sports-talk radio, and in bars, Thomas was called a quitter, someone who had succumbed to a hurt that wasn’t nearly big enough–this after being labeled the “Big Skirt” in the spring series with the Cubs and being booed at home this summer for the first time in his career.
There are rumors circulating that the team has all but consummated an off-season trade. Even TV announcer Ken Harrelson, who came up with the “Big Hurt” nickname, suggests Thomas might benefit from a change in scenery. I believe he would, but I’m not sure the same goes for the Sox.
Talk of a Thomas trade evokes memories of the Cincinnati Reds’ trade of Frank Robinson in 1965. Robinson’s statistics in his first ten years with the Reds aren’t quite as impressive as Thomas’s first ten years with the Sox, but they’re certainly comparable. He led the Reds to the World Series in 1962, when he hit 39 homers, drove in 136 runs, and batted .342 (none of which led the National League, which evidently enjoyed a banner year for batters), but he did lead the league with 134 runs scored, a .424 on-base percentage, and a .624 slugging percentage. Like Thomas, however, his batting average plummeted the next year to .259, and he fell out of favor with the fans and management. Though he rebounded, hitting 33 homers, driving in 113 runs, and batting .296 in 1965, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after that season–in what is widely considered one of the most one-sided deals in baseball history. Robinson went on to win the American League’s triple crown and most valuable player award in 1966, and he led the Orioles to their first world championship. With Robinson, the Orioles won three more pennants and another championship in the next five years. For Robinson, the Reds received Milt Pappas, a steady but unspectacular starting pitcher who had a couple respectable years before falling on hard times. He rebounded to finish his career in fine form with the Cubs, for whom he pitched the infamous near perfect no-hitter in 1972, but he was never the player Robinson was. It’s almost impossible to receive fair value for a player with the abilities of a Robinson or a Thomas, and the Sox would be foolish to think they could speed along their continual rebuilding process by trading him.
But they might not have a choice in the matter. Thomas’s whole demeanor this season suggested someone in a funk so deep only a total change could pull him out of it. I last saw him in person in a mid-August game against the Anaheim Angels, when the boos were just beginning. It was a cold, damp late-summer night in which the wind came blowing in off the lake bearing a mist that was almost tactile. Thomas hit one hard in the first inning, but the wind and humidity knocked the ball down and it was caught in deep center. He hit a rope straight at the left fielder his second time up, but the fans weren’t giving him any style points. “You suck, Frank!” yelled one leather-lunged guy. As the crowd was small and quiet–the “Com Ed Energy Meter” on the scoreboard was showing yet another power outage, this one in the grandstand–Thomas certainly heard him. Keep in mind that Thomas had won the game the night before with a hit in the Sox’ last bats, and he would go on to win this evening’s game, albeit less deservingly. He came up in the bottom of the eighth with the lead run on second base. “Let’s go, Frank!” yelled someone, perhaps even the guy who had yelled before. Thomas smashed a hard grounder down the third-base line. The third baseman snagged it but it was a tough play, and he threw the ball away trying to get Thomas at first, allowing the run to score.
It was symptomatic of the season that Thomas received little credit for the good, and would soon be blamed for the bad. When the Sox went into a horrendous slump, winning only 2 of the 14 games leading up to the announcement that Thomas was out for the year, he attracted most of the negative attention. Part of that was his own doing. Though statistics show Thomas hits much better when he plays first base, as opposed to being the designated hitter, he pulled himself out of a game after making a discouraging error and announced he didn’t want to play first again. Our know-it-all sports columnists immediately went on the attack, saying Thomas had to play first–even though this was a total reversal of what most of them had written just two years ago, that Thomas had to be yanked from the field and made a full-time designated hitter.
Me, I’ve always said Thomas should be left at first, that he makes up for any fielding deficiencies with his bat and that a team not only can live but thrive with him if it makes the necessary adjustments. He’s a more than reliable first baseman in an infield with steady players like Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen. His liabilities are magnified when he’s teamed with scatter-arms like Greg Norton and Mike Caruso (not to mention Ray Durham). A manager and a general manager are supposed to recognize such things and deal with them to get the most out of every player. I’m not impressed with Jerry Manuel’s work on that account, and I’m even less impressed with Ron Schueler, who may know talent but doesn’t seem to have a feel for how it all fits together. Witness his attempt to build a pitching staff with a bunch of clods fielding the ball behind them–it’s not something to instill confidence in a young hurler.
Thomas hasn’t said so–not publicly, anyway–but I believe he’s a player who has been poisoned by his surroundings. Here he was, on the way to his second straight most valuable player award–and, it appeared, his first World Series–when the 1994 strike, widely blamed on Jerry Reinsdorf, began. Since then, the team’s personnel moves have taken it backward. Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez: both overused early in their careers and discarded. Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez: traded in the 1997 “white flag” deal. Ventura: gone. The team has shown no inclination to take care of its own–except for Thomas. His long-term contract must be small solace when the team is using it as an excuse to get rid of everyone, including Albert Belle. Belle, in fact, is a prime culprit in a holistic diagnosis of Thomas’s ills. Thomas seemed to get along fine with the media before Belle arrived. Afterward things were different. Belle not only sneered at the media but looked down on any teammate who didn’t share his hatred for them. There was no middle ground, and it seemed Thomas sidled in that direction. Belle poisoned the entire clubhouse, Thomas included.
Thomas is being mislabeled a temperamental, hard-to-manage player–the same tag that was applied to Robinson in Cincinnati. In Baltimore, Robinson was an acknowledged team leader, and he went on to become the first black manager. What we have in Thomas is a player whose overall confidence has been badly shaken, and who finds himself playing for a team he doesn’t trust–on either a personal or a professional level. And why should he? Baseball stats maven Bill James, in a quote I’ve cited many times, once wrote that Thomas’s attributes–his ability to hit for power and average, to swing freely while demonstrating a keen sense of the strike zone–were a sign of “athletic intelligence.” Unfortunately, high intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean high confidence. Babe Ruth had the same skills, but was prone to periods of self-destruction. Ted Williams steeled himself with a manufactured confidence, but fell into distracting battles with teammates, the fans, and the media. It should be no surprise that Thomas too has struggled with his immense talents. Not every player of abnormal athletic intelligence is blessed with the iron will of Woods or Jordan (and having it leaves athletes open to gaffes such as Jordan’s baseball experiment).
The most tantalizing question in any measuring of the lopsided Robinson-Pappas trade is whether Robinson would have enjoyed the same career if he’d stayed in Cincinnati. Almost certainly not. Sometimes a place is contaminated for a player–just as sometimes a workplace seems contaminated for an embittered employee–and the only cure is to get out. Me, I think it should be left up to Thomas. If he wants out, Schueler should move him, and without dealing in the media, where his value will only decrease if it’s known he has to be traded. I, for one, am already preserving memories of Thomas–the wave of his bat behind his head, like the twitch of a tiger’s tail before pouncing; his almost dancelike rhythm in shifting his weight back and forth from swing to swing in batting practice; even his girlie throw, cocking the ball behind his ear and then leading with his elbow–against the possibility that he’ll be gone. Say it ain’t so, Big Frank. But if it is, so be it. The current Sox management not only deserves to rebuild without Thomas, it deserves to get a modern-day Milt Pappas in return.