A supernova amongst glimmers of hope and fallen stars...the Sox gain a face.
1990-2005, Chicago White Sox
Sixty games in 1990 had proven three things: (1) the Sox Front Office had limited run production by not taking heed of Frank's historic Spring performance, (2) had Frank played the entire season he would have easily taken the AL ROY (possibly MVP), and, (3) most importantly, Frank was more than prepared for the Big Show.
[Editorial: I contend the Sox could have won the Division in 1990 had they brought Frank up at the beginning of the season. Frank's 60 game WAR, extended across a 162 game season suggests his presence had great potential to stem the tide toward a White Sox lead over Oakland.]
In 1991, Big Frank picked up swinging where he had left off, and quickly rose to become the fresh-faced star of the organization. Having smacked the last White Sox dinger in Old Comiskey Park, on April 22nd, Frank earned the distinction of whacking the 1st White Sox homer at the new park. Despite being at the top of the pack in the Division in most major categories at the All Star break, Frank was not enough of a household name to garner All Star selection, but would increase his superhuman performance in the second half. With a Majors leading 138 walks under his belt, Frank reached base more than 300 times (the 38th such performance in the game's history), topping all of baseball with an on-base percentage of .453, an OPS of 1.006, and an OPS+ of 180. While Frank became a major bogie on every baseball radar, his dominating performance was somewhat overlooked, as he finished his first full season in the Majors only 3rd in MVP voting, but earned his first Silver Slugger Award.
Frank's second complete season mirrored his first, leading the AL in several major statistical categories and finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting; however, unlike before, the name Frank Thomas had started to become more widely known amongst the MLB fan base. It could be argued that Frank's biggest honor of the season was Ken Harrelson's more unofficial recognition of the man as "The Big Hurt," after Frank laid serious wood on a deep home run that season. Frank's proven consistency provided him a greater audience, and he began to receive both the benefit of star power and the critical eye of journalists. To maintain this popularity going forward, the challenge would be in finding a way to set his personal bar even higher than he had previously achieved; he had to prove he deserved his new found moniker.
As baseball got under way in 1993, the media, knowing Frank had a two-season history of "slow" Aprils, insisted something seemed amiss with the Big Hurt. Frank had driven in a few runs and batted a couple of multi-hit games, but his average floundered around .200 and he would remain in a home run drought for most of the month. On April 26th, there was a spark; the Big Hurt mashed his first round tripper of the season and from that point forward, his bat was hot. By June 16th, Frank's average climbed above .300 and home run total had jumped to 12; at All Star Break - during which Frank made his first All Star team - the Big Hurt stood at .302, having swatted 20 homers, with an OBP of .410 and OPS of .970. Though Frank had found his swing, displacing any rumors of demise, the second half of '93 was to be much more impressive, allowing Frank to bolster his numbers toward a second career Silver Slugger Award. August 31st, in his first at bat in an away game versus the Yankees, the Big Hurt blasted Sterling Hitchcock's 2-2 pitch to deep left-center, scoring himself and Joey Cora, marking his 100th such trip around the bags. Hitting .317/.426/.607/1.033 - with 41 dingers, 126 runs, 128 RBI, and 112 walks - Frank surprisingly failed to lead the Majors, or even the League, in a single major statistical category for the first time in his career. Despite this, Frank would go on to win the AL MVP, garnering 100% of 1st place votes; a testament to his consistency and dominance spanning 4 seasons.
Beyond personal achievement, with Frank holding down the offense and Jack McDowell's 22 win performance anchoring the defense, the White Sox won the AL West for the first time in 10 years, earning the right to face the defending champion Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series. The Sox dropped the first two games at home, but were able to take games three and four in Toronto; notably in the top of the sixth of game four, with no one on and one out, Frank Thomas took a 2-2 pitch deep to left center field for his first career post season home run. Down 3 games to 2 as the Sox returned home to New Comiskey, Toronto's Dave Stewart would pitch a 5 hit gem to permanently eliminate the Sox and thrust the AL pennant upon the Jays for a second straight year. In his 27 plate appearances during the best of seven series, the Big Hurt batted .353; an amazing feat considering Toronto pitched around the man, earning him an unheard of 10 walks through six games. While MVPs are nice, a World Series birth would have likely been better; but that's what they make "next season" for.
In 1994, Frank left the concept of "Slow April" in the dust, as he smacked 8 home runs and allowed his average to dip below .300 for just three days that month, and never again for the remainder of the season. His eye for picking pitches was so trained that he frequently batted over .380 and talks of "Triple Crown" were whispered throughout the ranks. Frank was humming on all cylinders, and, at the break, his 32 home runs and .383/.515/.795/1.311 stat line earned him a second All Star Game birth.
While Frank was at the top of his game, the relationship between the Commissioner's Office and Player's Association was at an all time low. In response to a proposed salary cap suggested to improve the financial standings of small market teams and the Commissioner's mismanagement of baseball as a whole, the Union followed through with the threat of an August 12th walk off. The resulting strike would last 232 days, effectively killing the White Sox playoff hopes and Big Frank's history making stretch. The Big Hurt finished the abridged 113 game season with a .353 batting average, 38 home runs, and 101 RBIs; he led the American League and all of Baseball with 106 runs, 109 walks, a .487 on-base percentage, and OPS of 1.217; furthermore, he led the AL with a slugging percentage of .729 and OPS+ of 212. Despite the shortened season, Frank was awarded a third Silver Slugger and the repeat honor of AL MVP, with 95% of the first place votes. At the time of the strike, the White Sox were first in the newly formed Central Division, with hopes of besting their '93 ALCS performance; "next season" wasn't to be.
With March approaching and no end to the strike in sight, the MLB prepared for the 1995 season by creating teams of substitute players comprised of minor leaguers, semi-professional players, and retirees. These replacements reported to Spring Training and baseball attempted to go about business as usual, though it had virtually no fan support. After more than 200 days on the picket lines, with hope for resolution all but lost, Major League Baseball and the Player's Union were able to come to salary terms, and individual caps were taken off the table. Due to the encroachment of the strike into the new season, baseball would be shortened to 145 games, but fans would have a post-season for the first time since 1993. Finally, on April 26th, Sox opening day, the Big Hurt was able to move forward in his storied career. Despite the interruption and loss that came with a shortened season, Frank's 1995 was much like his previous years; he was selected for a 3rd straight All-Star team, winning the Home Run Derby in Arlington. Amazingly, Frank would finish the season just 2 walks under his career high - leading all of baseball - with 136, and achieved a personal best (and MLB topping) 29 intentional free bases. His final stat line was .308/.454/.606/1.061 and 40 home runs, keeping up with outside expectations, but he would fall to 8th in MVP voting for the year, marking an astounding 5th straight year in the top 10. While Frank was his "typical" self, the White Sox failed to make the playoffs, beginning what would become a drought for the remainder of the '90s.
1996 was another Big Hurt kind of year. On June 9th, visiting Camden Yards, Frank hit his 200th career home run against Jimmy Haynes' 1-2 pitch in the 7th, bringing Tony Phillips home to score 2. On September 15th, Frank introduced Boston locals to the real "Green Monster," bashing 3 home runs with Hulk-like intensity, each against Tim Wakefield, all deep into left field. Interestingly, for the first and only time in his career, Frank did not start a single game in the DH role; though he did pinch hit once, while sitting out game two of a double-header against Milwaukee. Shockingly, going .349/.459/.626/1.085, with 40 round trips, 134 RBIs, and 109 walks was only good enough for Frank to again finish 8th in MVP voting. Another sub-par White Sox season had reflected poorly on Frank and his MVP-worthiness; a theme he had seen and would continue to see, despite annual Major League domination at the plate.
With Frank being the perennial "it" bat in baseball for the greater part of a decade, the magnitude of his 1997 performance came as a shock to no one; it was expected from a man named Big Hurt. In fact, this expectation caused his bat to be widely overlooked, despite being alarmingly commanding in comparison to his contemporaries. Just before mid-way through the season, Frank was hitting as high as .395, and had smacked 9 home runs in May alone. After May 16th, Frank's average would remain above .340 for the remainder of the year. As a two time MVP, with multiple Silver Slugger Awards and five straight All-Star appearances, many observers found it surprising that the Big Hurt's AL batting title - .347 on the year - was his first. Frank also led the league in OPS and OPS+, 1.067 and 181 respectively, and topped the MLB with an on-base percentage of .456. Repeat command such as Frank's could not win pennants on its own, and the White Sox's generally dismal run support and failure to make the post-season again hindered the man, as he went 3rd in MVP voting, falling behind Western Division leader Seattle's Ken Griffey, Jr. and Wild Card New York Yankee's Tino Martinez.1998 would prove the old saying, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." Names like McGwire and cross-town-rival Sosa had replaced the "Big Hurt" in positive media circles, and his star began to fade a bit. When Frank's name was in the Chicago media, it was always critical and usually more about his personal life, seeming to underscore his baseball strife. Greg Norton's advancement to an almost permanent place on the White Sox roster meant, for the first time, Frank would be known as the designated hitter, not first baseman. While the Big Hurt had earned his name for his prowess at the plate, rather than his normalcy on the bag, not having a regular spot in the field took its toll. Whether his "slump" was psychological or physiological is up for debate; and though his power numbers were respectable and his walk count remained high, for the first time, he would finish a season batting under .300 and failed to lead the AL in a single statistical category. 29 home runs, 109 runs and RBIs, and 110 walks notwithstanding, something was amiss; however, notably, Frank did achieve a career high 7 stolen bases by season's end.
While Frank's role as a more permanent DH was here to stay, his time spent on the bag was more evenly split in 1999. With extra time in the field, the Big Hurt's plate discipline saw vast improvement over his '98 campaign, but his power numbers continued their steep decline. With less focus was placed upon Frank's personal life, infighting between Frank and Skipper Jerry Manuel was the hot media topic. On the road against Oakland on August 7th, down 6-0 in the 6th, the Big Hurt took Kevin Appier's 1-1 pitch deep left on the fly, marking his 300th career round trip. The Sox fell 11-1, and Frank's home run drove in the only run for the visiting team. Though his per game totals were more typical of what White Sox fans had come to expect from the man, many were critical of Frank and what they summarized as a lack of focus. Despite missing 27 games due to a major foot injury - and subsequent season-ending surgery - gradual improvements sparked glimmers of hope that the Big Hurt had some gas left in the tank. He finished his 135 games with a .305/.414/.471 stat line, and pitchers were intentionally throwing off the plate again, allowing Frank to regain some control of the corners.
2000, a new millennium*, a renewed Frank Thomas. Acknowledging his size and age had taxed his lower body, Frank took to his DH spot with greater enthusiasm...he had something to prove. With Frank manning the ship and a bevy of young talent, the White Sox would find themselves contending for the first time in 7 years. Healthy, Frank's batting average never fell below an astounding .320 in 159 total game appearances (157 starts). The Big Hurt had 2 grand slams, and four multi-home run games, three of which fell across a 10 day stint. Frank Thomas was again, the talk of baseball; his star had risen. Finishing the season .328/.436/.625/1.061 with 43 homers, 44 doubles, 115 runs, 143 RBIs, and 112 walks, Frank earned a fourth Silver Slugger Award and was named The Sporting News AL Comeback Player of the Year. With 95 wins, the White Sox tied for the most in baseball and took the AL Central, facing the Wild Card Mariners in the American League Division Series. Despite leading the AL in runs scored through the season, the Sox struggled to ignite their bats and fell in the best of five series, 3-0. Frank walked four times in 13 plate appearances, but failed to gain a single hit in the series. A below average post-season performance loomed over the Big Hurt during MVP voting, who took four fewer first place votes than winner Jason Giambi, and fell to second in voting at 73%, versus the winning 81% share.
With ten mostly complete seasons under his belt, Frank Thomas had transformed from a baby-faced phenom into a seasoned veteran. In that time span, Frank Thomas had the most productive bat in baseball, finding a way to get on-base more often than any of his contemporaries. At first glance, Frank looked like the prototypical power hitter, but examining his career, through 2000, with a wider angled lens uncovered the most complete hitter of the decade. Frank had hit for average, while being a top three power hitter in the game; by definition, Frank had met the requirements of a Hall of Fame career. However, debate still remained.
2001, unlike other "down" years for Big Frank, was essentially a complete loss. After falling and tearing a tricep on April 27th, Frank sat out of the lineup - with criticism from teammate David Wells - to rest the muscle. If injury can have good timing, this one did. Frank's torn muscle ultimately allowed him to spend a few final moments with his ailing father Frank Thomas, Sr., who passed on May 4th. Upon returning to the White Sox camp to rehabilitate his tricep, what was a major tear became a complete separation, and Frank's muscle detached and rolled up in his arm. Needing surgery, Frank was placed on the disabled list permanently, and his season was over at 20 games played.
Muscle tears and repairs can be the death blow for an athlete's career; scar tissue limits mobility, reduces strength, and can cause adhesions to surrounding tissue. The Big Hurt's arms were his work tools, and from his time on DL to the pre-season of 2002, Frank's focus was on breaking down scar tissue and increasing his flexibility and mobility in order to prevent similar injuries in the future. In 2002, a more flexible Frank was a healthier Frank, as even with decreased arm strength, the Big Hurt on a weak day was stronger than the average ox. Across 148 games Frank belted 28 home runs and 29 doubles; while his averages had fallen, he still found his way to 247 total bases. Frank's needed offensive contribution wasn't enough to patch the holes in a White Sox bullpen that squatted on .500 all season; 2002 would go down as a rebuilding year.
In 2003, the Big Hurt saw the return of some power; he ripped a career high 42 home runs, with 105 RBIs and 100 walks. While his averages had settled to more human proportions in comparison to his first 10 years, Frank still displayed great plate discipline and a will to get on base. On July 25th, Frank earned his 400th career home run, sending Jorge Sosa of Tampa Bay yard on an 0-1 pitch in the 5th. For the first time since 2000, Frank received MVP consideration, finishing 15th in American League voting.
2004 could have been a new new beginning for Frank. Jerry Manuel was replaced by former teammate Ozzie Guillen as team manager, and Frank seemed to have a history of healthy productivity under his feet. Hitting for his highest average since his epic 2000 season, the Big Hurt suffered a major blow when a recurring ankle injury slicked his treads midseason. Frank was done for the year, and the White Sox had to move ahead with the tools they had at hand.
Post Seasons have defined the careers of many Hall of Famers; without the dynastic fortitude of a high producing team, many great players would be remembered as simply, good. Frank's was the opposite story. Historically a member of teams with little run support and underdeveloped bullpens, Frank had been great, when his surroundings struggled to be acceptable. The White Sox that Frank Thomas walked into during the Spring of 2005 looked vastly different than most teams he had played with throughout his storied career. The additions of Jermaine Dye, A.J. Pierzynski, Juan Uribe, Tadahito Iguchi, and Carl Everett over the previous year had shifted the team from a game of brute offensive power to speedy defense. While Frank was an effective full-time designated hitter, he stuck out as a relic of the old regime in the eyes of the White Sox Organization. Frank played only 34 games, when in late July his ankle again sidelined him for the remainder of the season. In a short amount of time, the Big Hurt raked 12 home runs, earned 16 walks, and drove in 26 RBIs; at the time of his ankle break, his slugging percentage was a solid .590. Fortunately for the fans and organization, this White Sox team wasn't built around a single star; this team was built upon athleticism and consistency. While the loss of Frank's bat would decrease offensive production, the team's core was solid and went on to win 99 bouts, making it all the way to the World Series. In a best of 7 against National League Champs the Houston Astros, the Sox swept the series in 4, convincingly bringing the City of Chicago its first World Series title since 1917. Frank would not play in the post season, but was an ever-present motivator and leader for a Championship team on which he made positive, though short-lived, contributions. Frank could smile.
In his 17 years as part of the White Sox organization, Frank Thomas had never experienced free agency, but with a diminished roll and rocky relationship, suspicions flew regarding the Big Hurt's future on the South Side. Rather than "risk" the final year of Frank's contract, the organization opted for a buyout, and Frank was without a home for the first time in his career. The decision would propel one party into the 2006 post season and leave the other at 3rd place in the division. Again, Frank could smile.
First Home Run at New Comiskey
The House that Frank Built