Editor's note: I've mentioned a couple times before that I hate Frank Thomas, and that there's a story behind it. I also said that when he was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, I'd share the story. I want to preface it with two points:
1) This story probably won't live up to the hype. He didn't spit on my grandma, run over my dog, or curse me out on my birthday. What he did was more weird than anything, but I was at an age where taking things personally and blowing them out of proportion came naturally.
2) Despite my "hate" for Thomas, I'm believe 100% that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He's either the best American League hitter of my lifetime or the second best, and it's lunacy to think he doesn't belong in Cooperstown.
Okay, here we go...
Frank Thomas is History's Greatest Monster
It was Monday, August 14, 1995. This was the summer after the awful labor stoppage that led to hundreds of missed games and a canceled postseason. I was 15 years old, a couple weeks away from starting my sophomore year of high school. A couple friends and I had decided to head down to Comiskey Park for that night's game between the White Sox and the California Angles. As you may recall, the Indians were steamrolling the American League that summer, but the Angles were in 1st place in the West, and I remember thinking the Tribe would have to face them in the playoffs.
The Angels took an early 7-0 lead, helped by home runs from Jim Edmonds and Chili Davis, but Chicago pulled back within one in the 5th, then pulled ahead in the 7th. In the top of the 9th though, closer Roberto Hernandez allowed California to tie the game, and in the top of the 10th, backup catcher Greg Myers (who managed to spend 18 years in MLB without ever getting 400 PA in a season) hit a go-ahead home run. All-Star closer Lee Smith came in for the Angels, and nearly four hours after it began, the game finally ended, an 11-10 loss for the White Sox, dropping them 24.5 games out of first place.
I'd never been a big autograph hound, but both of my friends were, so I'd brought a couple things too, and we planned to wait around outside the stadium for a while to see if he could bump into anyone. My friends knew of a gate players sometimes exited from, so we made our way over there.
Sure enough, not long after we got there, out came Lee Smith. His save that night was the 463rd of his career, by far the most by any pitcher in history. I figured that made him a lock for the Hall of Fame (it hadn't occurred to me that the guy struggling mightily as a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees that summer would go on to blow away Smith's record), so I was pretty excited. There was no one else by the gate with us, and Smith talked with us for a while in addition to signing. He asked how old we were, and if we played baseball, and he thanked us for coming to the game. Nice guy, that Lee Smith.
A few minutes later Ozzie Guillen walked out, cellphone at his ear. We were too young and too stupid to realize how rude it would be to ask him for an autograph while he was talking on the phone, so we went right ahead and asked. 7th and 8th grade Spanish hadn't helped me much, but I did understand "mamá," which I overheard as he asked the person on the other end of the conversation to hold on for a minute. At that point I felt a little guilty. I felt worse a minute later, when the phone fell from Guillen's shoulder and broke in two. Ozzie didn't seem phased though, and he shook each of our hands before leaving.
We met a couple other players too, young guys who'd only been up for a matter of weeks. Chris Snopek seemed more excited to be signing autographs than we were to be getting them. My friends wanted to swing by the players' parking lot, in hopes that we might get one or two more players to sign. Unlike the gate we'd been at, there were other fans along the fence next to the lot, though not very many. A couple kids a little younger than us said they'd met Ray Durham, Ron Karkovice, and Alex Fernandez, and I tried to weigh which location had led to the better players.
It had been a lot of fun, but it was after midnight, and I was ready to head home. Someone said Frank Thomas hadn't come out yet though, and we figured he was worth waiting a bit longer for. Eventually, the only people left were a pair of dads and their three kids, and the three of us. After a long wait, there he was, Frank Thomas... the Big Hurt... reigning two-time American League MVP. He was less than 100 feet away, and all of us (well, maybe not the dads) began shouting to him. A valet went to get his car.
It would have taken no more than three minutes for him to walk over, sign half a dozen autographs, tell us to work hard at practice and in school, and get back to his car. That said, it'd been a tough loss for the Sox, and after winning the division in '93 and being in 1st place when the strike began in '94, the team was now behind the Indians by a staggering number of games. It had a been a long game, played in stifling August heat, and I'm sure Frank was tired. If he'd gotten into his car and driven off, I'd have been disappointed, but understanding.
The valet returned, but instead of getting into his car, Thomas opened the trunk and pulled something out. We couldn't tell what it was at first, but one of my friends suspected it was baseballs that he'd already signed. One of the younger kids seemed on the verge of convulsions, minutes of uninterrupted screaming for Frank taking a toll on the little guy. Thomas hadn't grabbed a box of baseballs though, it wasn't a box at all. It was a small container... and a rag.
Thomas proceeded to spend the next five minutes carefully wiping down his car, all while we watched, dumbfounded. It seemed a strange thing to do on a hot, humid night, with the drive home still ahead of him. When he finished, Frank tossed the stuff back in his trunk and climbed into his car, closing the door. One of the fathers shouted something his 8-year-old probably shouldn't have heard as Thomas sped off into the night.
Frank may have had a clean car, but he'd made a powerful enemy...