How do you mend a broken heart? I don’t know a decent answer to that question, but after several decades my strategy has not deviated much from the one I formulated when I was 6: ignore the offending party as much as possible and try to get on with your life. Back in 1981, the original offending party was the Yankees, and following George’s decision to let Reggie trickle away following the season, I pretty much ignored them for the next 10 years or so – hat-tip to the Yanks for not being too interesting in those years.
When Reggie retired in 1987, I found myself oddly un-tethered from any team or player’s fortunes and my rooting interest free to land anywhere in the MLB. I initially gravitated towards the awesomeness of Don Mattingly, but I was too gun shy to submit myself to the Yanks again. Their whole non-Donnie situation reeked of flailing disappointment. I admired him dearly, but wished he played for another team. I also quickly got into and out of the Mets, like an aborted flirtation with cocaine, heard it might be fun, but the tragic warning signs were everywhere.
For me, it all came together in the mammoth figure of Frank Thomas. He stood out on the field like a skyscraper in a prairie. I guessed he was great well before I knew why he was great. And that process, learning about what he was doing at the plate that made him vastly more devastating than contemporary sluggers like Juan Gonzalez, represented a fresh and more sophisticated level of interaction with baseball.
Following Frank coincided with a high school baseball career in which I played 1st base and wore # 35. I wished I could emulate his approach at the plate, but in reality I could never muster nearly enough patience to pay a proper homage (there was also the 150lb weight difference, I could not have doubled as one of his legs). Frank went beyond trying to get a good pitch to hit. He sought the perfect pitch to annihilate – the strategy that Bonds version 2.0 perfected a decade later.
I went to Yankee Stadium on August 17th 1991 to see him just as his identity as the “greatest hitter since Ted Williams” was just entering the forge. On August 16th, we went 2 for 2 with 3 walks. On August 18th he went 2 for 4 with a massive homer and 4 ribbies.
On August 17th, as fate would have it, we locked our keys in the car – car running – in one of those parking areas that seem to materialize out of a vacant lot a half a mile from Yankee Stadium. By missing BP, we missed anything impressive Frank would do that day as he went 0-4 with 2 backwards Ks. That was just like the Yankees in those days; you couldn’t even depend on them to suck.
I had cared about Reggie’s statistical success somewhat aware that the majority of his iceberg was already underwater it was mostly about finishing touches. Watching Frank was something totally different. There was really no telling how high he might climb the leader boards – pretty much everything was on the table. His 1990-1997 was the best non-Bonds hitting I’ve ever seen, even with the strike robbing him of 70 games in the meat of his prime.
In those years, Thomas came to the plate as a truly unique figure. Here was a SEC tight end – he dwarfed Ted Kluszewski – who bent forward at the waist and followed every pitch into the catcher’s mitt like Wade Boggs. He stood far away from the plate but dove into his swing so he easily covered the outside corner his his long arms. And when the umpire expanded the strike zone on him, his angry eyes would dart upwards and shoot a stream of contempt right into his black mask.
When he finally decided to swing, he belted line drives all over the place. His homeruns in those years were products of his size, not his swing. Eventually, they were also a product of his home park. Over his long career on the White Sox in New Comiskey, Thomas belted 261 homers for an 81 home-homer bulge (he hit 441 total in those same years). But digging deeper reveals a more complex truth.
During the “right-handed-Ted Williams” years (1991-1997), he hit 135 homers at home vs 122 on the road. (and 108 home doubles vs 127 roadies, for a near symmetrical solution). His road numbers were just slightly worse than his Chicago totals: .329 vs .331, .447 vs .455, and .594 vs .626.
Then in 1998, Frank turned 30 and by all accounts it wasn’t a happy occasion. His career stopped being a Sherman’s March through the baseball record books and he began his rapid descent toward ordinary Hall of Famer. He still had the batting eye, but when he deigned to swing, he no longer had the reflexes to make contact with such great consistency. His strikeout totals went soaring (for him) and his batting average fell through the floor. During his 20’s he walked over 1.5 times for every whiff. He could only manage a .97 rate for the rest of his career.
Suddenly in 2000, he was unable to generate enough power to drive the ball out of opposing ballparks. From 2000-2005 he would hit 147 more dingers in a Chicago uniform, but only 39 cleared a foreign fence. 108 to 39.
I can only guess what happened. It looks like he fundamentally changed his game when confronted with his diminishing reflexes. He also had a nasty tear in his triceps, which definitely contributed to this mess. He knew what it took to pop it into the Windy City’s jet stream power alleys and kind of rebuilt his swing to take advantage. He lost 60 points of batting average in the transformation – a similar, though more pronounced deterioration to Jason Giambi post-2002.
He also got lost in the steroid fueled assault on baseball statistics. Numbers like his, that once boggled the mind, appeared annually and from multiple sources. Were there now 10 Ted Williams playing in one glorious golden age? Thomas was singular too soon to be championed by the emerging SABR community and was finished too early to compete with the 60 homer crowd.
In 1991 & 1992, Frank had one of two +1.000 OPS in all of MLB (Bonds had the other). In 1996 & 1997, the end of his reign, there were 15 such seasons in the American League alone. Looking backwards, he was a harbinger of the crushing OPS wave that fully engulfed us and has now spit us out on UZR shore. Due to his skin color and his defense, there are not a lot of other eras in which he could have come to prominence, but if he came up 10 years earlier, I think he’d have carved a more definitive niche in the game’s lore.
Luckily for me, I made my peace with the Yankees on August 14th 1993 when they retired Reggie’s number and officially buried the hatchet. Frank settled into his second phase as the Yankee universe expanded to swallow all else. But for many important years, he was my favorite player, the reason I would check the box scores in the paper and the conduit to a larger game beyond the game I knew so well. Thanks Frank.