Set aside the pragmatism he brought to the steroid debate; more below on how the simple act of speaking up at all set him apart. Today, upon the official announcement of his retirement, is about framing the more important place in baseball history occupied by
The Chicago White Sox have been playing baseball for 109 years. From
This is no knock on
Well, oddly enough, some do have questions about Thomas, even though he ranks 18th alltime in home runs (521), 15th in OPS (.974) and ninth in walks (1,667) and owns raw numbers that run nearly in lockstep with those of
Thomas somehow has been underappreciated his entire playing career, starting when he went undrafted out of high school, continuing when he was cut from the 1988 Olympic team and continuing when the Orioles, Braves, Mariners, Phillies, Rangers and Cardinals all passed on him in the 1989 draft in favor of -- get this --
For most of the 1990s Thomas was a precusor to
So why was Thomas one of the more underrated legends of the game? His profile was harmed by having played most of his career as a DH (56 percent of his games). Never a great fielder, Thomas settled into a DH existence too quickly and too easily. The last time he played 100 games at first base he was only 28 years old.
In 2000, Seattle swept Thomas' White Sox in the Division Series, with the clinching run scoring on a walkoff squeeze by
Thomas also had a rather quiet second half to his career, though still very productive. In his 20s, Thomas led the AL in 23 offensive categories. In his 30s: none at all.
Thomas was also a bit of a dissident, a guy who was on his own program in a sport where "uniform" is much more than the dress code.
But marching to his own drummer never had more meaning for Thomas than when it came to the steroid issue, a uniqueness that puzzles even him. Thomas was one of the first voices to declare the emperor had no clothes, back in 1995 when the party line was to keep living a lie to make The Steroid Era possible. He called for testing back then, understanding that people's faith in the game was threatened. "At least it would get rid of the suspicions," he said.
That stance earned him an invitation to appear at the St. Patrick's Day Congressional hearing in 2005, the infamous one in which
"Thoughout my career, I have not used steroids. Ever," Thomas said in his opening statement. And then the members of Congress forgot about him, never calling on him again as he sat through the nine hours in a studio at the University of Arizona.
Two years later, Thomas, Schilling and three other unidentified active players at the time received a letter from Sen.
The baseball union was in full lockdown mode over the investigation. Its tacit position was to caution against cooperation with Mitchell. Even
One active player agreed to talk to Mitchell: Frank Thomas.
"I'm like, 'Wait a minute. Why wouldn't I talk to him?" Thomas said. "I didn't do anything wrong and I've got nothing to hide."
So one day after the 2007 season, Thomas sat down with Mitchell at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport. Union general counsel
At the end of the interview, Thomas sensed the scope of Mitchell's investigation.
"Is this thing pretty big?" he asked Mitchell.
"You wouldn't believe it," the former senator told him.
"Are you kidding me?" Thomas said.
Mitchell looked at the only active player who dared speak with him and replied, "Buckle your seat belt."
Thomas didn't have much worthwhile information for Mitchell. But in the least, he exhibited that cooperation -- the opportunity to speak up for a clean, fairly contested game -- doesn't mean naming names, the lame cloak players often hid behind.
Frank Thomas can be proud of his 19-year career and let sleep come easily at night. The White Sox will retire his number 35 (joining the Padres'