Big Hurt Feelings

During my teenage years, my room was plastered with posters and memorabilia of mainly two different Chicago athletes: Michael Jordan and Frank Thomas.  During much of the 1990s, it wasn’t that far-fetched to believe that Thomas and his contemporary Ken Griffey Jr. would redefine baseball for a generation in the same way that Jordan redefined basketball.

Indeed, Frank Thomas put up a ridiculous array of across-the-board offensive numbers at the plate for the first decade of his career with a rare combination of power and patience at the plate that could only be compared to Ted Williams.  In the 105-year history of the Chicago White Sox, Thomas holds the club career records for home runs, RBI, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks, doubles, and total bases (along with the highest career batting average of any Sox player who played after 1950).

Even if he didn’t end up redefining baseball, judging by his statistics and physical dominance at the plate during the 1990s, Frank Thomas is the best player in White Sox history.  No other player in the American League in 2005 had been with the same team longer than him.  Yet, Sox fans seem to be more relieved than in angst over Thomas’ recent signing with the Oakland A’s.  It was as if what felt like a drawn-out divorce finally came to its conclusion.

From a team blueprint standpoint, not re-signing Thomas was the correct decision.  He had been injury-prone for the past several seasons and it would have been difficult for Kenny Williams to depend on the designated hitter coming back, particularly when the Sox clearly needed take steps to improve their lineup.  Jim Thome is the better risk in terms of being able to come back from a serious injury.

I don’t feel good, however, about two things.  First, as delirious as I’ve been about the White Sox world championship, it was tough to not see Frank Thomas as an integral part of that team.  Imagine if the ’85 Bears had gone through their romp to the championship but Walter Payton was injured on the sidelines the whole season (of course, the next worst thing actually did happen when the Fridge got a rushing touchdown in Super Bowl XX while Payton didn’t).  This is essentially what happened with Frank Thomas and the Sox last season.  It would have been nice to see if Thomas could be a major contributor to the White Sox bid to repeat in 2006.

Second, Jerry Reinsdorf has parted ways with yet another star athlete on negative terms.  Thomas said yesterday that he was most hurt by the fact that Reinsdorf never called him once in the offseason to let him know the direction the Sox were heading.  The City of Chicago could create a veritable hall of fame stocked with players that have had messy breakups with the Bulls and White Sox during the Reinsdorf era: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Carlton Fisk, Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, and Ozzie Guillen to name a few.  The only saving grace is that most of those guys have ended up mending their relationships with Reinsdorf over time (and in the cases of Pippen and Guillen, they actually returned to their teams as a player and a manager respectively).  I just wish Reinsdorf could find a better way not to have an acrimonious relationship with almost every talented player he’s ever had on his two teams.

As for the Big Hurt, there might be no place in baseball that he’ll be more appreciated than in Oakland.  Frank Thomas is the perfect portrait of the “Moneyball” player that A’s GM Billy Beane lusts for – a guy with a high on-base percentage that draws a lot of walks and hits for a lot of power.  Beane is the one person in the majors that truly doesn’t care whatsoever that Thomas has no speed and can’t play defense.  The A’s GM has finally been able to sign a player who arguably fits his Moneyball profile better than anyone in the history of baseball, much less just the players that are active today.  Beane has got to be ecstatic to have Frank Thomas, so at the very least the slugger will get some love from his new organization.

Hopefully, Frank Thomas will be able to return to Chicago within the next five to ten years and be able to look back positively on the greatest career in White Sox history.  On a personal level, he was my favorite baseball player for most of my life and it will be disheartening to see him in another uniform.  Mentally, I’ve blocked out the fact that Michael Jordan ever played for a team other than the Bulls (from my perspective, the NBA didn’t exist from 2001 to 2003).  I’m going to have to do the same for Frank Thomas – he’ll always be a member of the White Sox to me.