Frank Thomas memories

As we bask in the tear-stained glow of Frank Thomas’ induction into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, the staff of The Catbird Seat share their favorite memories of the greatest White Sox they have ever seen. We tried to make a rule of one memory per person. We failed. Matt didn’t contribute because he hates Frank Thomas.

Collin: My memories of the White Sox — and of baseball in general — begin in earnest around the year 1996. While I attended games in years prior, probably as early as 1993, and watched games with my dad, I don’t have a lot of solid memories of Frank as a rookie, of the ALCS against the Blue Jays or of the unfortunate way ‘94 ended.

In 1996 I was 9 years old and finally starting to understand the game as somewhat of an observer, so the first memory of Frank that sticks out in my mind — and I’ll use Baseball Reference as a bit of a refresher on the date — is Sept. 15, 1996.

On that day, Frank Thomas was invincible.

The White Sox were playing in Boston and Tim Wakefield was on the mound. This was my first real look at Fenway Park and I remember being in awe, even just from watching on TV, of the gigantic Green Monster. I didn’t quite understand at the time that, while the wall towered over the rest of the stadium, it wasn’t impossible to knock a ball over the wall as it stood closer than most normal left field walls.

If that weren’t enough for me to take in, Wakefield’s odd delivery — my dad did his best to describe the intricacies of the knuckleball to me — was fascinating. How could a ball that moved so slowly and was delivered seemingly so simply give big league hitters fits?

Wakefield’s knuckleball didn’t give Thomas fits on that day at Fenway.

1st inning: Thomas homers over the Green Monster off of Wakefield.

3rd inning: Thomas homers over the Green Monster off of Wakefield.

5th inning: Thomas homers over the Green Monster off of Wakefield.

It was an unbelievable sight, particularly for a baseball-obsessed 9 year old. Thomas could take that crazy dancing ball and hit it over the highest point imaginable. And not just once, not just twice, but three times!

The White Sox ultimately lost the game, as Baseball Reference’s box score reminds me, but it didn’t matter. To that 9 year old, Thomas solved the riddle of the knuckleball and conquered the unconquerable Monster.

My other Thomas memory occurred 10 years later at a game I was lucky enough to attend. It was the year after the 2005 World Series title and Thomas was back at U.S. Cellular Field for the first time in a different uniform.

I remember being way up in the upper deck, but among 40,000 White Sox fans to give Thomas a standing ovation when he stepped in the batter’s box against Jon Garland for his first at-bat in Chicago as a member of another organization.

So what did he do? If you’re reading this, I’m sure you know, but he launched a solo home run that gave Oakland a 1-0 lead. Sox fans, of course, stood and cheered the entire time he rounded the bases, a particularly odd sight for a visitor.

In the fifth inning he duplicated the feat, taking Garland deep for the second time — another solo shot — that extended Oakland’s lead to 4-0. Fans stood and cheered once again, though slightly more subdued this time.

The White Sox ultimately won the game, coming back from a 4-0 deficit to win in 10, but the story of the night was Thomas’ return. He put on a show and got a deserved welcome from a packed Cell full of fans who appreciated his Hall of Fame career.

James: There’s not an immediate signature Frank Thomas memory that comes to mind for me. He’s not David Freese. He didn’t win a playoff game (though he did tie Game 4 of the ALCS) or hit a walk-off blast to clinch a playoff berth. He had his clutch moments, but wasn’t particularly known for them, since a machine has no sense of the moment. I remember him popping out with the bases juiced to end Game 2 of the ALCS when he was with the A’s in 2006 and my heart just ached for him. That was his chance.

If anything, Frank was the first to teach me about sample size. My older sister is my only sibling, and being the oldest, she got first pick of anything, including who she got to pick to be her favorite player. So her favorite Bulls player was Michael Jordan and mine was Scottie Pippen, and her favorite White Sox player was Frank Thomas and mine was Robin Ventura. Robin gave me plenty to love, and I got into plenty of trouble emulating him by sprinting toward a stuffed White Sox ball on the floor, grabbing it all in one motion and firing off-balance toward the fireplace (which I had decided would play the role of Frank) before flying into the living room couch. But most of the time, I was keenly aware what a raw deal this was. I cheered for a very good player, and my big sister got a legend. If you were a White Sox fan your favorite player was Frank Thomas, I just had to pretend like Robin was just as good like he was my kid or something.

My only respite from this was going into games in person, where for the handful of games my family would make it out to every year, Robin had a tendency to go bezerk, where Frank seemed like he must be pressing to impress my sister. This came to a head on April 22, 1996. The Sox roughed up Bobby Witt of the Rangers for five-run first inning, of which neither Frank nor a slow-starting Ventura took much part in, but Robin teamed up with Harold Baines for back-to-back shots to put the nail in Witt’s coffin in the sixth, once again giving me the upper hand on my sister, in terms of seeing our favorite player perform for us. When Ventura homered again off a young Rick Helling in the eighth, and Frank and Karkovice were the only Sox starters without hits (Frank walked, of course), she had just about had it. As much as I don’t like to revel in my sister’s displeasure, I was a bit amused, because I knew her complaints were absurd--no one would ever use one game to argue Frank wasn’t awesome.

Frank was so huge, he needed so little extension to smack something four miles, I felt like we hardly ever saw him get unmoored. Hawk was always saying “He just muscled that one into center field” or “he didn’t even get all of it and he got it out of here,” or “he just poked that one to right and it carried out.” “Well, let’s see him, get all of one and see if leaves the stadium, dammit!is what I always thought. To top it off, Frank was so unfailingly patient, that it seemed like he wasn’t even interested in selling out for a moonshot. For a dinger-loving child this was very frustrating, and Frank’s unfailing perfection encouraged this kind of selfishness.

So, I always treasured August 13, 1993. The Sox were fending off the Kansas City Royals in the AL West and trailing at home after that contemptuous little jerk Mike MacFarlane* had put the Royals up with a sixth-inning home run off Jason Bere. Trailing 4-2 by the time the eighth had come, and with Royals closer Mike Montgomery trying to work a two-inning save, the Sox started a rally with back-to-back hits from Ron Karkovice and Warren Newson, and shot ahead for good when Monty hung Frank a breaking ball, and I mean really hung it. Frank seemed to lurch and extend his arms in a way he almost never got to, and rocked his hips forward and out as he connected, sending a booming two-run, go-ahead shot out to left. As SportsChannel fired up the replay, it showed the ball disappeared in the second half of its flight, into a cloud of fog that had begun rolling into the stadium. “He hit it into the night,” Wimpy cackled. That’s an image and description that has never left me. It seemed magical, like Frank had banished the ball with a spell.

*I don’t think Mike MacFarlane is actually a contemptuous little jerk. He was a very good offensive catcher. Hawk just called him a “Sox Killer,” and I took it very literally, and he moved strange, like a spider. Growing up, I was afraid of spiders.

Nick: As far as individual memories go, I always will remember seeing him and Raines go back-to-back at Yankee Stadium in...I think ‘95. Oddly, another one of the specific memories I have of him was not with the White Sox, but rather when he was with Oakland in 2006 and he hit two homers off of Johan Santana while in the process of sending home the hated Twins in the playoffs.

The fact that I will always think of Thomas as someone who never got enough credit may belie my age. He won his back-to-back MVP awards when I was 6 and 7-years old respectively. After that it was an exercise in his performance very slowly eroding into his 30s, and it seemed like no matter how well he did he would just be compared unfavorably to when he was better.

In many ways he was a symbol of injustice - blamed when the White Sox pitching was never good enough to support what was usually a good or very good offense. The hometown newspaper literally owned the local rival, and that local rival was insecure and looking for excuses - so they, a team usually winning 70-or-so-games would write hit pieces about the best player on the South Side team winning 80-or-so games. Thomas probably didn’t deserve to win the MVP award in ‘97 over Ken Griffey Jr - but he definitely deserved to finish ahead of Tino Martinez for second.

That’s what’s so crazy about his Hall of Fame process. All of a sudden everybody appreciated him ahead of guys who sometimes - fairly or unfairly - overshadowed him in the latter half of his career.

A guy who had so many almosts- only won a World Series while on the DL, finished lower in MVP voting a few times than he should have, had the World Series canceled when he was the best hitter on the planet, the 2000 team collapsing in the playoffs, etc. - all of a sudden cracked the Hall on his first try when so many deserving players did not. Guys like Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, who were frequently Thomas’ equal in many ways, are in danger of not making the Hall after multiple tries.

A horrifying injustice was avoided. Thankfully. And at the end of the day, this was a guy who was just a pleasure to watch play - the pitches in on his hands that he would muscle over the infield, the walks on pitches just a hair off the corner, and of course the titanic bombs he crushed to be followed with that glowing smile...I’m so glad and lucky to have watched him play. There are a lot of “almosts” in his career, but fortunately, he got this one and it was a no-doubter.