Frank Thomas was one of the greatest hitters I have ever seen play the game of baseball. I’ve said this before. I’m not the only person who feels this way because he’ll be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. The Big Hurt played his first full season with the White Sox in 1991, when he hit .318 with 32 homers, 109 RBI, and led the American League in walks (138), OBP (.453), and OPS (1.006). That’s a pretty good year. Good enough for Frank to finish 3rd in the AL MVP voting. Through 1997, he never hit lower than .308 (’95), fewer than 24 homers (’92), or knocked in less than 101 RBI (’94, thanks Labor Issues). Then 1998 came along. Even though he played in 160 games that year, and hit 29 homeruns with 109 RBI, Frank Thomas only hit .265. The year before, he led the AL with a .347 batting average. An 82 point drop from one season to the next is kind of unusual for a seemingly healthy, future Hall of Famer in his 9th season in baseball.
I tell you all of that just to tell you this story.
In the spring of 1998, I was a junior at Arizona State, living in the campus apartments a few blocks from Sun Devil Stadium. My roommate that year, Pat, was “dating” a girl he met while working as “security” at the Rockin’ Rodeo in south Tempe. This girl’s father had Angels Spring Training season tickets, and she gave us two tickets to a White Sox/Angels game. Let me tell you, even though it was Spring Training, I have never been closer to the action than I was that day. We were sitting in the 1st row, right behind home plate. I don’t remember the section number, row of the seats, but I’d guess that they were Section 1, Row 1, seats 1 & 2. You get the idea?
It’s a sunny spring day in Tempe, and we’re jazzed to be sitting that close. Neither of us care a whole heck of a lot about either team–me being a Giants fan & Pat, being from western Idaho, a Mariners fan. We were just happy to be at a free baseball game. The game starts, and there’s only one thing I remember about it: my incident with Frank Thomas and Albert Belle.
At some point in one of his at-bats, Frank Thomas took a called strike. Now, I’m used to talking to my TV and sitting up in the 3rd deck of Jack Murphy Stadium, saying things to players who under no circumstances can hear me. So my natural reaction was to say “Don’t worry, Frank, it’s only Spring Training.” I swear to you, Frank Thomas’ head swung around so fast I didn’t know what was going on. He actually heard me. And he glared at me. On the next pitch, Frank Thomas swung, and popped weakly to second base. As he was trotting back to the dugout, Frank Thomas was looking at me.
In case you didn’t know, Frank Thomas went to Auburn University where he played baseball. And football. He was a tight end on the Auburn football team. He’s a big guy. According to Baseball Reference, he’s 6’5″, 240 pounds big.
I don’t remember Frank Thomas playing in the field that day. When he wasn’t the Designated Hitter, he was over at first base. That’s what he did. Since it was a Spring Training game, I’m guessing he was in fact the DH that day. What I do remember is looking over at the White Sox dugout, seeing Frank and Albert Belle sitting on folding chairs at the edge of the dugout, glaring me. Both of them. If you’re not sure who Albert Belle is, google him. Let’s just say the guy had issues during his playing days. To see Frank Thomas and Albert Belle staring at you for several innings can be a tad unnerving. At some point in the game, I leaned over to Pat and said “we can go any time.” When people around you notice those two guys watching you, it’s time to go.
I doubt Frank Thomas remember any of this, but I can tell you this much: it’s going to take a pretty damn severe head injury for me to forget it or the look on their faces. Congrats on the Hall of Fame, Big Hurt. You earned it!