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Thomas has something to prove
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
The scattering of free-agent names is November ritual. Jim Thome, Tom Glavine, David Bell, Jamie Moyer, Greg Maddux, Hideki Matsui, Cliff Floyd, et al, have their names strewn in papers and on talk radio from Tucson to Tucumcari, Presque Isle to Tijuana.
But for Frank Thomas, who dominated the art of hitting from 1991 through 2000, these are quiet times. He was made a free agent when the White Sox exercised their "diminishing skills" clause in his contract, which gives him until Dec. 7 to explore the market and decide whether to return to Chicago at a fraction of his former contract.
"I'll admit that I was a little surprised, and maybe a little hurt when it happened," Thomas said. "I shouldn't have been, because there had been some media speculation about it, but it's happened. It's history. I'm not looking back, I'm looking forward. I have a lot to prove, and I intend to prove it. Believe me."
Thomas has holed himself up in Las Vegas, where he is working out four or five hours a day. "I'm working the way I did when I was playing football (at Auburn), the same kind of conditioning," says The Big Hurt. "I want to be in the best condition I've ever been in baseball. It's been long enough, I want to go back to playing defense (something he's done 37 times since the 1998 season). I believe I can play six more years, and I want them to be consistent, productive seasons that restore my name. It hasn't been easy, but I know what it takes, and I will do it."
The man was great. From the time he arrived in Chicago in 1990 through the 1997 season, he was compared to Ted Williams. He won back-to-back MVPs. He batted over .340 thrice. The Big Hurt was simply one of the great offensive forces in the game.
Thomas ranked first in average and on-base percentage, second in hits, RBI and walks, third in runs and fourth in total bases and slugging among all major league players for the decade.
Then came two average years. He batted .265 with 29 homers and 109 RBI in 1998, following by 15 homers in '99. Then, after a winter's work and help from his former batting coach Walter Hriniak, he bounced back in 2000 with a .328/43/143 season that re-established him, and helped drive the White Sox to the best record in the American League.
But on April 27, 2001 Thomas dove for a ball hit by Ichiro Suzuki and suffered a torn right triceps that ultimately cost him the rest of the season.
"I never had any idea how serious an injury it was until it happened to me," he said. "I worked hard to come back and thought I was right, but I wasn't. I knew that when I tried to hit in the early season. The strength wasn't back. It took a lot longer than I ever imagined. Because of that, I tried to make adjustments that resulted in my losing my swing. My swing was much longer, and I developed a bad mechanical flaw. It wasn't even close to being the same swing."
To make things more frustrating, as Thomas struggled to find his swing and his professional dignity in 2002, he found himself in the crossfire of criticism from teammates -- in one specific case, Paul Konerko -- and the media.
"The clubhouse business was private and should have remained private," Thomas said. "It was resolved. It's just not my style to retaliate in public, or say things about my teammates. I have always tried to be a good teammate and deal with things behind closed doors, out of the public. And I will continue to act that way. But as far as my teammates, the issues were quickly resolved, and were more misunderstandings than anything else."
Finally, near the end of August, Thomas began to find his swing. "I finally felt strong in the last month, and after a lot of work trying to find my swing it started to come back," he says. "There's a lot involved -- my feel for the strike zone as well as the mechanics. I felt like myself. Finally."
In September, Thomas batted .359 with six homers, a .480 on-base percentage and a .654 slugging percentage -- Big Hurt Numbers.
"I know that I am back and will put up my old numbers the next few years, no matter where I play," Thomas says. "Because of all I've been through, I will never forget what it's like to fall back, so I think for the rest of my career, I will always feel as if I have something to prove."
There haven't been many Thomas rumors. Baltimore reportedly has some interest, but the Orioles would have to unload a couple of contracts in the first base/DH area, which might be impossible. Boston is trying to sort out fiscal problems.
So Thomas may return to the White Sox on Dec. 7 for whatever he can work out with owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
"I have no problem with Jerry, he has always treated me very well," Thomas said. "If I go back there, I go back there, but no matter where I play, I have a lot to prove. With the way I felt in September and the condition I'm driving myself towards, I have no doubt in my mind that I will prove it."
The Maddux model of consistency
Alou the right guy to replace Baker
Magowan, who was wrongly accused of planting the story about former manager Dusty Baker's IRS problems, was delighted to be able to move on to Felipe Alou.
"He was the only name we had until we had made up our minds whether or not he still had the fire," Magowan said. "He assured us he did, and the six-to-eight hours Brian (Sabean) spent with him convinced Brian. We didn't want to even discuss anyone else as long as Felipe was out there. And we've really been pleased with the response of former Giants like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds."
Every Giant official acknowledges that they couldn't just get anyone to replace Baker. Alou brings stature and respect. He could be a key figure in getting the best out of Livan Hernandez, Felix Rodriguez, Pedro Felize and Ramon Martinez.
And because Alou was the first player born and raised in the Dominican Republic to make it to the majors, he is a huge figure in that country and may help the Giants develop a greater presence in that baseball breeding ground.
Angels GM Bill Stoneman marvels at the fact that Magowan, Sabean and Ned Colletti all had the decency to come to the Anaheim clubhouse to congratulate him and Mike Scioscia after the seventh game. "It took a lot," says Stoneman. "It was clear Peter was pretty shaken."
But Stoneman has been applauded across baseball for having the class to bring back former GM Bill Bavasi and scouting director Bob Fontaine, who developed most of the world championship team, for the final weekend and honoring them.
"Bavasi never got enough credit for all those contracts he got signed way below market price," Boras said. "He did a great job. How he cannot be at the top of everyone's search list for general manager is beyond my comprehension."
Will Dusty rock the boat in Chicago?
It will be fascinating to see how Alou fits in with the Giants, Baker fits with a developmental club in a harsher spotlight and how Buck Showalter pulls in the reins on a myriad of difficult decisions he may be forced to make on Carl Everett, Juan Gonzalez, Chan Ho Park and Pudge Rodriguez.
Contending clubs want experienced managers, but it is interesting that the Mariners were blown away by Bob Melvin, who originally went in for an interview as an afterthought and ended up winning the job over 11 other contenders. Melvin is highly intelligent, reasoned and respected, and his work as the bench coach on a world champion was invaluable.
Around the majors
Rick Ankiel has been working hard this offseason at the Cardinals' facility in Jupiter, Fla., but is still experiencing pain in his throwing elbow and may have to go back to Dr. Andrews in Birmingham for an examination.
Bowa loves the bat potential of Chase Utley, but concedes the former UCLA star may have to end up at first base.
A's GM Billy Beane is still trying to figure out how to bring back David Justice and Ray Durham, as the Giants look at Durham and Steve Finley.
Oakland will deal Billy Koch in the right deal, although Jim Mecir -- who would have gone to Boston in the Beane deal had Beane not changed his mind -- is out the first two months of the season following knee surgery.
Lakey has the best comparison on Hideki Matsui: "He reminds me of Mike Greenwell in his prime. He hits off his front foot, he has legitimate 30-35 home run power, and he can hit the ball with authority to all fields."
As for Ishii, Tracy plans to "see how he reacts on the first ball hit back at him, then go from there."
One member of the Yankee organization suggests "Drew ought to go to Venezuela or some place where there won't be a dozen Yankee people watching and advising him all the time."
"What I really need right now is a vacation," Henson said. "I've been going all seasons, sometimes in two sports, for a lot of years, and I'm mentally worn out. But I'll be fine. And I haven't given football any thought." That is, except to watch his old friend Tom Brady, who Henson says "is the most competitive, driven person I've ever met in my life."
His gold glove might have been a surprise, considering Doug Mientkiewicz and Scott Spiezio were in the running as well, but it is an acknowledgement of what a super defender he has been for so long. The Mets infield was never the same once he left.