Injury-Shortened Sox Seasons: Big Hurt misses 2005 and fractures Chicago ties

In the first of our looks back at the damage done when South Siders miss time, it's a peek at the abridged campaign Frank Thomas was forced into during the greatest season of the century
Publish date:

The world may continue to spin despite COVID-19's upheaval on general normalcy, but what isn't spinning quite yet are baseballs. For now, perfectly roped moonshots orbiting into outfield seats or breaking balls rocketing from a pitcher's fingertips into the catcher's leather – with that all-so-satisfying pop – are nowhere to be heard.

While there are a myriad of indications Major League Baseball will occur on this planet sometime this summer and in some capacity – no updates yet on the status of Jupiter's league – it still looks to be six-to-eight weeks off at minimum.

What that means is that without a doubt, baseball will feature a shortened slate of games, with it now virtually impossible for a full, 162-game season to be played. In other words, one could say that the 2020 season will be fractured.

While there are only a few examples of shortened professional baseball seasons in the past, with games being shaved off due to labor disputes or even war, truncated seasons on the individual player front are much more common.

And fractured seasons in that sense usually come from true physical fractures themselves, most commonly in the wrists, fingers, or feet. Then there are pulled hamstrings, concussions, inflammation, and for pitchers: the dreaded UCL elbow tear, which often leads to Tommy John Surgery and is the most common reason for professional players missing extended periods of time.

Of course, there are other culprits to shortened seasons, such as suspensions due to on-field misconduct or the use of PEDs, personal issues, or actual illness – those terrifying moments when players are diagnosed with tumors, cancer, or the like.

For the purposes of this ongoing, weekly series, I'm going to examine some of the most consequential shortened seasons in Chicago White Sox history. 

To manage the topical scope, the study and my surgical dissection of seasons sliced short will be limited to those felled purely by injuries and with incidence occurring only in the 21st Century. 

But before this turns into an epidemiological paper, it's time to get to the heart of this specific piece: "The Big Hurt," Frank Thomas, missing out on a significant portion of the 2005 championship run and the ensuing fallout – all due to a pesky, fractured left foot.

It's worth noting that one of the most iconic shortened seasons in league history (1994) actually intersected with one of the most iconic shortened seasons for a player, and that player was also Thomas. 

The prolific right-handed slugger was mashing an absurd .353/.487/.729 (1.217 OPS) over 113 games with 34 doubles, 38 home runs, and 101 RBIs as the power numbers. The most primitive extrapolation of that pace shakes out to season of 48 doubles, 54 homers, and 144 RBIs. 

As history would have it, a labor crisis ended the 1994 season prematurely and it never resumed, dashing a historic pace for Thomas and what some opine would have been a World Series title for the AL Central-leading, 67-46 White Sox. 

Thomas would still go on to win a consecutive MVP and Silver Slugger Awards for his 1994 efforts, but how did he fare in the season in which Chicago actually won the title?

The short answer: Not so well. 

The injury that caused one of the South Side's most legendary players to miss out on taking a single at-bat in the 2005 playoffs actually dates back to 2004.

What was diagnosed as a left-ankle injury on July 7 sidelined Thomas for the duration of 2004 season, in which he was on track for yet another 30 home run year and at the time led the American League in OBP (.434). The initial injury actually occurred on June 15 when a sharp ground ball stung him at first base, but Thomas wasn't shut down until three weeks later.

Thomas would have offseason surgery on the ankle in October, and the procedure would cause him to miss the start of the 2005 season, with him eventually making his debut on May 30. 

The 37 year-old only played 34 games and remained hampered by the aforementioned ankle injury before being effectively ruled out for the season after re-aggravating his left foot, except this time with the diagnosis of a fracture. 

While his overall production was lagging, Thomas was still bringing his patented power and walking a decent amount, sporting a .219/.315/.590 line. It's a small sample, but his 12 home runs extrapolated across the remainder of the season had him on track for 23 home runs, so it's reasonable to expect he could have returned to form and been a force in the in the middle of the order, pushed the 30-home run mark.

Instead, the injury derailed Thomas' entire season, and July 20 would be his last game on the field for Chicago. 

He was visible during the championship run, and of course was showered in the champagne and a notable presence in the entire narrative given his rich history with the White Sox, but the injury had a few implications that are interesting to consider in hindsight.

To start, there were no monster Frank Thomas home runs gracing national television during Chicago's 11-1 playoff demolition tour. Could you imagine the team with a healthy Big Hurt? Maybe they even win 100 games, and go 12-0 in the playoffs. (OK, the latter is hyperbolic, but you get the point.)

More quantifiable ramifications involved Carl Everett moving into the primary DH role and turning in a serviceable season with 23 home runs and a .745 OPS. In the playoffs, he hit .300 (12-for-40) and had an .889 OPS in the World Series. 

The most provocative implication from this injury-shortened season wasn't just how it influenced the championship narrative, but how it altered the entire career arc of Thomas – temporarily fracturing his relationship with the White Sox and producing a variety of other downstream effects.

Thomas' injury caused the White Sox to shake up the team during the offseason, with the front office officially passing the face-of-the-franchise torch to Paul Konerko by prolonging his stay in Chicago with a five-year, $60 million deal.

With first base solidified, general manager Ken Williams consummated a blockbuster trade – shipping out gritty center fielder Aaron Rowand in exchange for star slugger and Peoria native Jim Thome, who would go on to be an integral part of the lineup for the next three seasons, which included his famed "Blackout Game" blast onto the center field concourse in the 2008 AL Central tiebreaker.

Bringing in Thome marked the end for Thomas in black and white, with the White Sox opting to buy out his $10 million 2006 player option for $3.5 million. The injury-battered Thomas went on to sign a $500,000 deal with the Oakland Athletics that had the chance to balloon to $3.1 million.

Things reached an inflection point when Thomas was incensed that White Sox owner and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf didn't call to tell him he wouldn't be coming back prior to the Thome trade, umbrage which publicly spilled out onto newspapers during spring training. 

It seemed like standard operating procedure to show a little respect for such a historic figure for the South Siders, and he had every right to voice his displeasure in not being given a courtesy call.

Rather than cooler heads prevailing, Williams fired back in a pretty "frank" way himself so to speak, coining the now infamous colloquialism "Stay out of White Sox business" and calling the Chicago superstar an "idiot."

Well then. Talk about a fracture. Thomas subsequently sued two White Sox team doctors independently contracted through Rush University, citing that an initial misdiagnosis of his injury in 2004 compounded the issue, causing him to lose out on his player options and the opportunity to play during the 2005 playoffs. He'd later reach a confidential settlement with Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush in 2011.

All the moving parts meant upstart Brian Anderson got his shot in center field full-time with Chicago in 2006, but he struggled mightily and never found his footing in the majors while Rowand was rather pedestrian in Philly save for a break-out 2007 season.

Meanwhile, Thomas had a resurgence in Oakland, slashing .270/.381/.545 with the A's to go along with 39 home runs and a fourth-place MVP finish.

The Athletics made the playoffs in 2006 buoyed by his production, while the White Sox missed October despite notching 90 wins and Jim Thome doing his part with 42 home runs and a 1.014 OPS. 

Frank Thomas, 52 home runs shy of 500 when leaving Chicago, would meet that elusive mark with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009, while Thome would remain a middle-of-the-order force for the White Sox into that same season before a midseason trade to the Dodgers.

In a weird repeat of history, Thome – a future Hall-of-Famer like Thomas, – also had interest in coming back to the White Sox, for the 2010 season. But similarly to Thomas' fate, Thome was shown the door by Williams (reluctantly, as manager Ozzie Guillén was pressing for a more flexible roster) in favor of Mark Kotsay, who turned in a paltry .683 OPS.

A 39-year-old Thome instead reluctantly signed with the rival Minnesota Twins and hit .283/.412/.627 with 25 home runs across 109 games – ultimately helping to power the Twins over an 89-win Chicago team in 2010. He'd also hit his 600th home run with Minnesota the next season.

Speaking of 2010, time evidently heals all wounds. Thomas actually signed an honorary one-day contract with Chicago in the 2009 offseason to retire as a member of the club.

His No. 35 was ceremoniously retired that August, went into the Hall of Fame with a White Sox cap in 2014, and now works as a studio analyst covering the team for Reinsdorf part-owned NBC Sports Chicago.

Sometimes there's injury, sometimes there's insult to injury, and sometimes people get the short end of the stick. But the prevailing takeaway is that disrupted seasons can cause seismic ripple effects for years to come, ultimately changing the course of baseball history. 

That's what happened in 2005 with Thomas, and it's only reasonable to expect COVID-19's leaguewide shortened season will have its share of unpredictable butterfly effects and divergent history. All that will be good fodder for keyboards over the next decade, as the world continues to spin and baseball fans eventually swirl in the revisionist history to come.