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Frank Lashes

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.

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1 ebrine   ~  Feb 23, 2010 9:20 am

Well said Jonny Strong Leg. Pinstripes of a different kind, but a career worthy of note.

2 bags   ~  Feb 23, 2010 9:28 am

Alex, where'd you find this guy? The dude can think and write...

Good stuff. Thanks Jon.

3 The Mick536   ~  Feb 23, 2010 10:17 am

Good start.

More unhappy to see Winfield go, I was. Loved Reggie almost as much as the Mick, but they were both such assholes. Still not sure Reggie wasn't dogging it in last year with the Yanks.

4 RagingTartabull   ~  Feb 23, 2010 10:21 am

I'm younger so my most painful Yankee divorce was Pettitte...but thats not so bad considering a) he came back and relatively flourished and b) his leaving netted us the draft pick that became Phil Hughes.

Although right around Thanksgiving 1998 I was all ready to denounce Bernie Williams as worse than Pol Pot before things turned around at the 11th hour.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 23, 2010 10:35 am

2) I met Jon through his brother, Chris. Chris went to college to Mike Carminanti, who I knew through his blog, Mikes Basebal Rants, which was part of All-Baseball and then Baseball Toaster. Murray, a longtime Banterite, also went to school with Chris and Mike. I once went to a game with them and had a great time. Jon is Chris' younger brother, a good writer, has a sharp mind, a sweet swing, and is, in general, one hell of a nice dude.

6 lentnej   ~  Feb 23, 2010 10:37 am

In the late nineties I took a gamble and "invested" in a stack of Thomas bubblegum cards. At the time I thought he could be the best hitter ever. This was right before his injuries and the fall off the cliff you describe. Now I keep my savings in a bank.

7 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 23, 2010 10:52 am

[3] It seems to me Reggie was too much concerned with looking bad to dog it. He's a big time "play the game the right way" so and so. But I was 6, so I wouldn't know what dogging it looked like. That was the year he brawled w/ John Denny after taking him yard, looked like he was trying that day.

For some reason, I've never cared if the player was an asshole. I've followed guys where you spend as much time defending them as you do cheering for them: Reggie and Iverson representing a lot of wasted breath over the years. But also Mariano and Jeff Green, where you could walk into a Boston (or Syracuse) bar wearing the jersey and not get a dirty look.

8 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 23, 2010 10:54 am

[5] Aw shucks, Al. Nice of you to say, but at least half of that last sentence is complete bunk on any given day, and that's the good days.

9 Shaun P.   ~  Feb 23, 2010 11:02 am

[6] At one time, my most prized possession was one of Frank Thomas's Upper Deck rookie cards.

He was an incredible hitter to watch and a favorite of mine too. Great piece, Jon.

10 mrm1970   ~  Feb 23, 2010 11:30 am

[5] Actually it is more attenuated than that. Chris and I went to college together. My big brother Mike went to college with Mike C. That's the connection.

Loved this story about Thomas. One of my fondest baseball memories was a night at Fenway in 1992, a game that started after 10 pm due to a rain delay. I lived three blocks away, so when I heard the game would be played, I bought some yutz's ticket stub and went into a game that had maybe 4,000 people in attendance. In his first at bat, Thomas homered over the screen above the Wall. Fenway still looked like Fenway then, and it was a purple sky because of the clouds and the arc lights. The ball just hung in the air forever. A gorgeous image.

11 rbj   ~  Feb 23, 2010 11:51 am

I thought for a few years that Frank Thomas could be the one guy capable of getting the triple crown. Don't see anyone doing that now, excepting, possibly, Albert Pujols.

12 The Mick536   ~  Feb 24, 2010 8:25 am

[7] In much the same way as Tiger has been defined by the 1997 article which we should have paid more attention to Reggie's bio that also set his visage in stone. The assholedness interferes with any post-or-pregame tidbits of wisdom they might impart, because they have told you their mensa/women scores. I believe in redemption, after self-revelation. Neither Reggie nor The Mick were friendly to their fans, in addition to not telling me something about the game which would make it more interesting, they lived lifes of lies and entitlement.

On that note, I am looking for more from Jeter, though I thought the SI pieces expanded my knowledge of him. I am also rooting for A-Rod, who after admitting, albeit weakly he shot up, and playing hurt, transcended the game and showed he was an adult and a team player. But like Johnny Depps character in the Scorcese movie Shutter Island, who knows if it took.

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