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When you leave a long-time employer, they usually give you things. Like a plaque, maybe. Or a lump sum 401k distribution and a pamphlet on COBRA. Or a party where all your former co-workers get loaded and admit to inappropriate longings.
The point is, they almost always give you something, even when your employment ends badly.
"He's an idiot. He's selfish. That's why we don't miss him."
That's what White Sox general manager Kenny Williams gave Frank Thomas back in February. Simple, inelegant, and final. And maybe it's true. Frank could very well be a selfish idiot. He certainly isn't perfect. He never was a useful defensive first baseman, he doesn't exercise conversational restraint, and his short tenure as a music industry executive didn't exactly yield a mantel full of Grammys. Also, his performance alongside Tom Selleck in "Mr. Baseball" lacked Úlan. These are not small failings.
But what Frank Thomas could always do is hit. And he reminded his former employer of this recently, hitting two homers and driving in seven runs during a three-game Oakland sweep of the White Sox. Frank's resurgence at age 38 -- and it's not his first, with another at 32, hitting 43 home runs, and yet another at age 35, hitting 42 -- has left a swath of devastation in which we can find the piece of the 2006 White Sox. This resurgence is alas the latest piece of evidence in case that's increasingly easy to make: Frank Thomas is the greatest organically-grown hitter of his generation.
Of course, no one wants to hear that. In the vast, awful universe of arcane sports debates, "Who's the game's best hitter?" is an essential question, and Big Hurt is never the answer. Instead, we look to myth and decontextualized statistics to find a response. Williams and Ruth are the names we reflexively reach for when we're talking about all-time greats. Or, if we're willing to consider Barry Bonds' age 36-39 seasons -- when he allegedly injected veterinary-grade hormones, ate the beating hearts of his victims, exposed himself to gamma ray bursts, and did various other irresponsible things -- then we give him the nod. Frank Thomas, who's been a vocal opponent of steroids longer than most writers and legislators, doesn't enter the discussion at all.
But here's the thing: Frank's peak years actually had no precedent. Between 1991 and 1997, he became the only player ever to score 100 runs, drive in 100, hit 20 or more homers, draw 100 walks, and bat .300 for seven consecutive seasons. His lowest on-base percentage during those seasons was .426. He finished among the top 10 in American League MVP voting each season, winning the award in 1993 and 1994. He's currently 11th on the all-time OPS list (on-base plus slugging), and he looks like a safe bet to pass 500 home runs sometime early next season (and he's talking 600). Not too shabby.
"We don't miss his attitude. We don't miss the whining. We don't miss it. Good riddance. See you later."
So fine, you're thinking. When he was in his mid-20s, Frank Thomas was great; now that he's old, he's still very good. But the best? Get over yourself. Well, if we sift through the all-time OPS leaders, we'll find only four guys above Frank who've been active at some point in the past 45 years. They're all active today, actually:
1. Babe Ruth, 1.164
2. Ted Williams, 1.116
3. Lou Gehrig, 1.080
4. Barry Bonds, 1.051
5. Albert Pujols, 1.047
6. Jimmie Foxx, 1.038
7. Todd Helton, 1.025
8. Hank Greenberg, 1.016
9. Manny Ramirez, 1.011
10. Rogers Hornsby, 1.010
11. Frank Thomas, 0.993
Maybe now you're indignant. Or you're slapping your monitor and saying "Stupid Page 2! Be funnier!"
Of those four active hitters, only Bonds has played well into the decline-phase of his career, and he's apparently been heavily medicated. Helton's numbers were radically enhanced by Coors Field, pre-humidor; these days, he's slipping fast. Manny is obviously brilliant, though when you account for park effects, Thomas in his prime was better than Manny in his. Jacobs Field in the late-'90s and Fenway in recent years were severely hitter-friendly; Comiskey was a solidly pitcher-friendly environment until 2000.
Pujols? Well, OK, he's a problem. That guy's pretty good. But through age 30, Thomas' career OPS was actually better. Frank has also posted an OBP of .450 or greater five times, something Pujols -- who, of course, may not have peaked -- has yet to do. Edge, Frank.
"We don't miss him, by the way. If you go out there and ask any one of my players or staff members, we don't miss him."
So, given his position on the all-time leader-boards, why don't we ever mention the Big Hurt when we consider the game's great hitters? There are three fundamental reasons:
Michael Jordan. Frank's best seasons overlapped almost perfectly with MJ's title years, when Jordan became the baseline standard for athletic superstardom in Chicago, and the Bulls were (with the notable exception of the '85 Bears) the greatest collection of human talent ever assembled for a common purpose. Jordan's standard was an utterly impossible one for a baseball player to meet. He won six championships and 10 scoring titles; Thomas won two division crowns, and consistently led the league in OBP and OPS. Not shabby, but not Jordan.
MJ's mid-career sabbatical should have allowed us all to recognize Frank's impossible talent, except
1994. Frank had his best season -- and it's one of the all-time best seasons -- the same year that everyone decided to hate baseball: the strike year. Or maybe it was the lockout year. Anyway, we were all pretty mad in 1994. Here's what Thomas' numbers looked like after 113 games and 399 at bats: 106 R, 141 H, 34 2B, 38 HR, 101 RBI, 109 BB, .353 AVG, .487 OBP, .729 SLG.
Those rate stats are obscene. That's a 1.217 OPS. In major league history, only seven players have posted an OPS greater over the course of a single season. Five of them did it before the game was truly integrated (Ruth, Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby), one of them isn't here to talk about the past (Mark McGwire), and the other thought he was maybe using flaxseed oil (Bonds). And that's it. If you concede nothing else to Frank, you need to give him 1994. In the modern, integrated era, it's the greatest 500-plus plate appearance season anyone's had. That we didn't fully appreciate it at the time has little to do with Frank, and a lot to do with the player/fan enmity that persisted until McGwire and Sosa saved/ruined baseball. And neither McGwire or Sosa did it with much
Girth. Frank's galactically big. He's listed at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds. Is it necessarily bad for a great athlete to be so large? No. But there has to be concomitant cuddliness. If you don't have cuddliness, you're wasting fat. And Frank's ratio of body mass to adorability is all wrong. If you're going to be big, be Big Papi. Or Charles Barkley. Or Gilbert Brown. Instead, Frank has been remarkably self-obsessed and almost willfully not adorable, grousing about the shortcomings of multi-million deals. That's rarely OK, regardless of mass.
Still, the guy rakes.
"I'm a general manager and I'm supposed to be above these things. But again, when is enough enough? He brought us to this point. So, OK, you want to play this game? You've got it. You got it. He's the Oakland A's problem right now."
More accurately, Frank Thomas is the Oakland A's MVP. His swing is still there, a terrible Hriniakian thing, as explosive and balanced and pained and perfect as it ever was. His glare is still a little absurd. He seems to be trying not to say the wrong things, which never comes easy. If, as Kenny Williams said, no member of the White Sox staff misses him, the same can't be said of their fans. They'll be debating (or lamenting) the Rowand/Thomas versus Anderson/Thome thing all offseason -- and the offseason for the White Sox begins October 2.
Frank's, of course, does not.
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