Stats obsession helped push Frank Thomas to great heights
BY RICK MORRISSEY Staff Columnist July 24, 2014 9:01PM
At a glance
What: Baseball Hall of Fame inductions
Class of 2014: Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
On TV: MLB
Updated: September 23, 2014 3:59AM
There was a time there — oh, from 1990 to 2008 — when Frank Thomas’ obsession with personal statistics might have led people to wonder what baseball cap would appear on his Hall of Fame plaque.
A White Sox model?
Or one that simply said “Frank’’?
What most people didn’t fully grasp was that his single-mindedness drove him to work hard on his craft, made him great and, ultimately, helped his team.
Baseball is a team sport in the loosest sense. The national pastime rewards acute self-absorption. That seems almost un-American, but it’s true. Selfishness can lead to the greater good of the group. Thomas simply was more obvious about his statistical neediness than most.
He’ll be inducted into the Hall on Sunday — as a White Sox — and it will be interesting to see whom he’ll thank in his speech. Frank Thomas for making this all possible? No. Time has a way of hammering perspective into some reasonable facsimile of reality, and we’ve seen that from him since his retirement in 2008.
We know there will be a big place in the speech for Walt Hriniak, the former Sox hitting coach whom Thomas revered. I expect him to have nothing but good to say about Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who spent years putting up with the brush fires that always seemed to flare up around Thomas. If time does indeed heal all wounds, then maybe Thomas will have kind words for Sox executive Ken Williams, who famously called Thomas “an idiot’’ after the Big Hurt criticized Reinsdorf in 2006. How about the managers and teammates over the years who thought of Thomas as selfish?
Is there any getting beyond all the unpleasantness? There is, and we’ll see it Sunday, when a 46-year-old man, far removed from a 19-year career heavy on perfectionism, shows his gratitude. That’s the beauty of induction day. You can make a lot of things right with a heartfelt sentence or two.
Hriniak understood Thomas’ obsessiveness better than anyone.
“I looked at it as a plus, not as a minus,’’ he told me in December. “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.’’
In the heart of hearts of most ballplayers, what would they choose — a World Series ring or induction into the Hall of Fame? My guess is the latter, which evokes a certain immortality and would back up the contention that baseball is an individual pursuit dressed up as a team sport.
The only way Thomas wouldn’t have turned into a great hitter is if someone permanently had tied his arms down. Many of his 521 home runs were line shots to left field. There were several reasons for that. He didn’t change the plane of his swing much and, because of his 6-5, 240-pound frame, he didn’t have to swing for the fences. He hit the ball hard naturally, and, naturally, the ball went out of the park a lot, though not at the expense of his average.
That need to be perfect, to swing at only those pitches that would give him the best chance of getting a hit, was why he led the American League in walks four times. And whom did it help? His team.
The numbers for a seven-year span, from 1991 through 1997, were just ridiculous, and they’re what propelled him into the Hall. In 1994, he led the American League in six categories. Who knows what he would have done had the season not been shortened by a strike?
I forgot this, perhaps conveniently, while constructing a Chicago-centric version of Thomas’ story: He was good even after he left the Sox after the 2005 season. In 2006 with the A’s, he hit .270, had 39 home runs and 114 runs batted in and finished fourth in the A.L. Most Valuable Player voting — at the age of 38. The next season in Toronto, he hit .277, had 26 homers and knocked in 95 runs.
That’s how good Thomas was, how driven he was. It must have been exhausting.
The hard work is over now, with all the good and bad that went with it. Time for him to let down his guard for good and let everybody in.