- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Barring a sudden reduction in beer prices ("Crazy Pohlad is slashing prices across the board -- beer normally $6.50 a cup now just $6.49 a cup!"), the signing of Frank Thomas should be considered the biggest bargain in baseball this season.
For the low, low, low sticker price of $500,000, the Athletics signed a should-be Hall of Famer with 448 career home runs, 1,450 RBI, a .307 career batting average, eight top-10 finishes in MVP voting and one of the last great nicknames in baseball. Sure, there was a lot of mileage on the Big Hurt, and the incentives/sales tax/power windows/TruCoat sealant pushed the contract up over $2.5 million.
But even in Oakland that was a relatively painless price when Thomas hit 39 more home runs with 114 more RBI in another MVP-caliber season. And then added two more home runs Tuesday in Oakland's 3-2 Division Series opener against Johan Santana and the Twins.
And even with the incentives, the Athletics still paid Thomas less to lead them to the American League West title than the White Sox paid him not to play for them this season (a $3.5 million contract buyout).
Can you smell a "Moneyball" sequel?
"I'd like to take full credit but I can't," general manager Billy Beane joked in the Oakland clubhouse. "He wanted to come to Oakland."
True, but it's not as if Thomas had all that many options after playing only 34 games and batting .219 in 2005 due to a broken foot. As Oakland manager Ken Macha said, "Really, all 30 teams could have had him."
Thomas can't play in the National League where there is no DH, so that eliminated 16 teams. And many of the remaining 14 teams in the American League either had a DH or were scared off by the injuries that kept Thomas on the disabled list much of the previous two seasons. In short there were so few teams interested in a 38-year-old slugger with bad feet that even the Twins considered signing him.
Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, the Twins passed, choosing to go with Rondell White instead (he was not a bargain). Thomas understood the decision. He said his doctor warned him that playing on turf would slow his return from the broken foot (like Thomas actually spends much time on the field these days) and that Oakland's warm weather and grass field were a much better fit.
The loss was a tough one for the Twins not only because they could have signed the guy who did most of the damage Tuesday for Oakland, but because of who they had on the mound. The Twins had won Santana's previous 23 home starts, the longest such stretch by any team in the modern era. The last previous time Santana lost a game in the Metrodome was Aug. 1, 2005. But he gave up two runs in the second inning -- the solo home run to Thomas on a 3-1 changeup followed later by a Marco Scutaro run-scoring double -- and that was about all it took thanks to starter Barry Zito baffling the Twins.
"First blood means a lot," Zito said, "especially when you're playing on the road and the fact that we could get if off that guy [Santana], [who will win his] second Cy Young this year, and he is unbeaten here, and you can just keep going down the line."
"That was a lot bigger for them than for us," third baseman Eric Chavez said of the outcome. "With Francisco Liriano out, there's a lot more pressure for them to win with Santana out there than there is for us. We still have three top starters to go."
Well, it's not like either team is following up their Cy Young winners with the 1970 Orioles rotation. Oakland's remaining possible starters (Esteban Loaiza, Dan Haren and Rich Harden) all had ERAs above 4.00 as did the Twins'. Minnesota starts the wonderfully named Boof Bonser (7-6, 4.22) in Game 2, trusting that he'll keep them from going down 0-2 in the series.
"Even though he has a name like Boof," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, "he can be a bulldog."
Thomas started slowly for the Athletics and was hitting .178 when he returned to Chicago for the first time in late May. He homered twice in his first game against the Sox and was back to his old form the rest of the season.
"I think going back really helped him," Chavez said. "He hit those two home runs, and that's when the floodgates opened. I think he was able to shut the door [on his past]."
It can't be easy to open the floodgates and close the door at the same time, but Thomas is a special hitter (his lifetime .990 OPS is 11th all-time). Plus, he insists beating up on his old team had nothing to do with his resurgence.
"[My teammates] think that," Thomas said. "But I just missed a lot of baseball in the last year and a half. Plus, I didn't have spring training. Only eight big-league camp at-bats. It was all about getting my timing back."
"This season was the shortest six months of my life. Joe Morgan told me that sometimes change was good, and he was right."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Jim at jimcaple.com
Frank Thomas continued his remarkable comeback season by powering the A's to a win in their Division Series opener.