National / Sports / February 17, 2010

Pondering the Big Hurt and adolescence

Frank Thomas debuted when I was a baby — August 2, 1990. Saddam invaded Kuwait the same day. H.W. was in the White House. Joe Montana led the 49ers to the Super Bowl. It was a strange year.

When I first played Little League in 1995, I wore number 35 in Frank’s honor. If you were a baseball-loving kid anywhere near Chicago in the 1990s and didn’t love the hell out of Frank Thomas, we need to talk.

He was MVP twice, back-to-back in 1993 and 1994. He should have won again in 2000, and would have, if not for a roided-up Jason Giambi. He won the batting title in 1997. Frank’s age for his first full seven seasons — 23 to 29 — were remarkable. His batting line was .330/.452/.604, he walked 835 times and only struck out 528 and he had an OPS+ of 182. OPS+ measures your OPS against league average, accounting for ballpark and other factors; 100 is league average, 182 is 82 percent better than league average — that’s insane.

Think of how preposterously good Albert Pujols is. Frank was better. What was Albert’s OPS+ in his first seven full seasons? 167.

Is Frank the best right-handed hitter of this era? Easily. Last 20 years? Yep. 30? 40? 50? Yep. He and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are incredibly close — though Aaron and Mays are more propped up by slugging numbers while Frank was much better at avoiding outs. I’ll put him against anyone not named Rogers Hornsby. Taking away positional adjustments, there’s no doubt in my mind that the 1990s Frank Thomas was the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.

How on Earth is there anyone my age that likes the Cubs more than the Sox?

Frank is, unquestionably, the sole reason I became a White Sox fan. When he went into his decline — right around the turn of the century — I started to watch fewer games. Soon enough, I didn’t really care at all. The years 2002 and 2003 passed by and I barely even noticed they played. Then something happened.

In August of 2004, my parents’ marriage fell apart. The fighting was so bad that I would lie in my room and listen to the radio broadcast of every Sox game. All of a sudden, I was back into baseball. In 2005, they got divorced. My dad moved out some time in July — the White Sox were the best team in baseball. I didn’t miss a game.

When I woke up every morning, the only thing that could make me smile was the knowledge that the White Sox were going to win the World Series. And I just knew. I think everybody knew. They were an amazing ballclub.

I watched the final out of the World Series with my mother. My mom, more than anyone else in my family, got me into baseball. She taught me how to pitch. We played catch every day for hours. When she taught me how to throw a splitter (I was eight, if I remember correctly), she encouraged me to throw it in the dirt. I would. She’d always drop out of her stance to block it — sometimes it caught her in tender places. But she always threw it back and told me to never leave the ball up.

Sharing that with her, the World Series, when my family was being ripped apart at the seams, was the most precious moment of my entire life. Nothing meant more to me than that championship. I had no Angels in the Outfield illusions — I didn’t think Mark Buehrle or Aaron Rowand or Joe Crede could save my family or bring my dad back. I knew those days were over.

Sports are the ultimate escape. Their significance in the world is often overblown (see: Katrina and this year’s Super Bowl), but their ability to allow someone to feel joy and happiness and success when they are struggling to pick up the pieces or rationalize their place in the world is not. That is their greatest utility.

So, Frank Thomas, in a roundabout way, thank you for helping me through the worst year of my life. If not for you, I could have been some spray-tanned, collar-popped Cub fan.

E-mail Kevin at: kmorris@knox.edu

Kevin Morris


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