Frank Thomas cemented status as first-ballot Hall of Famer early on
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org | @MorrisseyCST December 18, 2013 9:13PM
Chicago White Sox's Frank Thomas follows through on a home run against the Seattle Mariners on July 30, 1994 in Chicago. (AP Photo/John Swart)
HURT SO GOOD
Frank Thomas had a dominant run from 1991 through 1997, which included MVP awards in 1993 and 1994.
HR RBI OBP Avg.
1991 32 109 .453 .318
1992 24 115 .439 .323
1993 41 128 .426 .317
1994 38 101 .487 .353
1995 40 111 .454 .308
1996 40 134 .459 .349
1997 35 125 .456 .347
*Bold type indicates AL leader
Updated: January 8, 2014 12:41PM
Frank Thomas played seven years in the big leagues. Oh, his stats will tell you that he played much longer for the White Sox, but for the purposes of the Hall of Fame, he played only seven. They were all that was necessary.
I’m judging Thomas solely on 1991 through 1997, not because I think the other 12 seasons hurt his cause, but because the seven-year stretch he put together was so devastatingly wonderful that it makes the rest of his career meaningless, Hall-wise. For all I care, he could have retired at 29 after the ’97 season and become a traveling salesman. In my mind, he already was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Ballots are due at the end of the month, and mine will have check marks next to first-timers Thomas and Greg Maddux, who were both transcendent. I’ll also vote for Tom Glavine. None of the three, as far as I can tell, was a creation of performance-enhancing drugs. More about that later.
Thomas hit .330 during that seven-year stretch, with a high of .353 in 1994, the second of his back-to-back American League MVP seasons. He never finished lower than eighth in the MVP voting in those years. His .347 batting average led the league in 1997. He led the AL in on-base percentage and walks four of those seven years. He hit 250 home runs and had 823 RBI during that span.
The numbers are ridiculous, and they go on and on. At one time or another during his seven-year assault, he led the AL in 11 different categories. In 1994 alone, he led the league in six categories.
There will be voters who hold his latter seasons against him. I don’t want to make it seem like those years were bad. He hit .328 with 43 homers and 143 RBI in 2000, when he lost another MVP award to juicer Jason Giambi, but never came close to that in the last eight years of his career.
I don’t care. I don’t care that as a first baseman he made a great designated hitter.
For those seven years, those seven astounding years, he was the best player in baseball.
“He was the greatest hitter that I ever saw,’’ said Walt Hriniak, the Sox’ hitting coach from 1989 to 1995. “As far as getting a base hit, Wade Boggs was the best that I ever saw. But as far as all-around ability, if you had to take one guy that you’d want in your lineup, Frank would have been the guy I would have taken.’’
This is a hitter who not only could read a pitch as it approached the plate, he could tell its fortune: You’re about to be hit a long, long way. We almost — almost — took those line-shot home runs to left field for granted.
Thomas declined to be interviewed for this column, which is the prudent route. If you’re considered a borderline first-ballot inductee, you don’t want to say anything that might hurt your chances. And the Big Hurt has been known to say things.
He played 60 games for the Sox his rookie year, hitting .330, then really took off in 1991 at 23, starting that seven-season riot of hitting.
How does somebody come to the big leagues and make such a profound impact right away? Baseball usually doesn’t lend itself to immediate excellence. There are pitchers to learn. There’s a brutally long season to survive. It’s supposed to be a difficult game that eats its young.
Thomas would finish with a career batting average of .301 with 521 homers and 1,704 RBI. He could probably recite those numbers in his sleep. He was sometimes criticized for being obsessed with his stats, but baseball is a statistical feast, and he wasn’t going to miss many meals.
“I looked at it as a plus, not as a minus,’’ Hriniak said. “He was constantly looking at the stats in the papers. Pete Rose was the same way. Pete Rose knew what everybody was hitting, how many hits they had, because he wanted to get more hits than anybody else and lead the league in hitting. Pete Rose was a winner. Frank was the same way. That’s the way he motivated himself.’’
Thomas played during the Steroid Era, and the list of those eligible for election this year is riddled with players who have been linked to the use of PEDs: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. Then there’s another group of eligible players that sets off raised eyebrows when the topic comes up.
The Big Hurt was big when he was little, as they say, and he stayed big his whole life. His numbers didn’t vary wildly from year to year. He was simply a great hitter who had injury problems. If you automatically believe that the injuries in the latter part of his career were a result of steroid use, I feel sorry for you and your cynicism. And that’s coming from a professional cynic.
When Thomas left town in 2006 after 16 years with the Sox, there wasn’t a whole lot of love to be found — not from him, not from the team, not from Chicago. Something about his self-absorption and thin skin, if I recall.
But thanks to time and distance, that was all forgotten. His career and especially those seven years weren’t.