These have been an epic two weeks. 1990s First Basemen Week started as a loose concept album, a free associative invitation to ramble. It is a testament to the magnetism of Mssrs McGwire, Vaughn, Bagwell, Olerud, Thomas, and the rest that, despite our very broad concept, so many contributors and readers immediately found themselves on the very same page. We all knew what it meant to talk about first basemen from the 1990s. We all felt it.
As far as we are concerned here at P&P HQ, the concept album went platinum. You laughed, you cried, you offered to write about the mediocre slugger that everyone else had long forgotten about. The week expanded from one to two, the album grew to a double disc.
It’s been a privilege to curate the joy and the sorrow, the amazement and the dread that these fellows channelled. But even more, it’s been a joy to curate such a remarkable group of writers. The first basemen of the 1990s may not be dead, but you still somehow managed to bring them back to life.
For that, we offer a huge THANK YOU to every one of our contributors. This was your week(s). You contributed to the monumental chronicling of an era, not through stats or lists, but through stories. Also, particular thanks go to the talented Kolin Pope–@kolinpope who is also the force behind our new design–for the epically appealing and amazingly appropriate header image, which has really tied the room together.
Ted and Eric Pitchers & Poets
A few P.S.es:
Check out our new Tumblr blog, where we post the weird, wacky, wonderful imagery of the baseball multiverse.
When this first base business is over, Eric Nusbaum will still be here.
I admit there was a slightly cynical subtext to our early discussions about a 1990s first basemen week. On the one hand, the 90s first basemen topic gave us a range of personalities to explore and celebrate, it gave us avenues to discuss everything from urban blight to steroids to the strike to usual standby memory. On the other, the 90s are good business for people like this blog’s editors, born in the 1980s. The 90s are a gold mine of nostalgia.
The 90s were when we learned baseball. Its stars were the first stars we formed opinions about in the present-tense: by watching, by collecting cards, by reading sports pages. I know about Mickey Mantle but I know Ken Griffey Jr. This feeling, this owning of recent history, is the very premise of VH1. It’s the reason that The Tenth Inning felt so disconnected from the rest of Ken Burns’ Baseball. There’s been an unopened Cal Ripken Jr. Wheaties box in my parents’ pantry for over a decade.
So yes, we knew, or at least hoped, that the topic we chose, the 1990s first baseman, might capture the zeitgeist a bit more than our usual stuff. We wanted that, and thanks mostly to an unbelievable array of guest posters, some famous, some heretofore unknown (even to us), but all generous and talented, we got it. And further, thanks to the flurry of memories and old baseball cards and long winding essays of these past two weeks, I’ve been able to put off writing about Eric Karros
The powers that draw children to their favorite players have been written extensively. We know of the mystical nature of baseball fandom. Thanks to Josh Wilker we also know a little bit about the strange personal bridges we build to our own imagined versions of sports stars. There was never such a mystical connection between myself and Eric Karros. Instead, there were other things. There was timing and there were coincidences.
Karros was never my favorite player. My favorite player growing up, and still to this day if I had to pick one, was Raul Mondesi. Raul Mondesi was the player who made professional baseball – even when it was played live right in front of me – seem like the kind of thing that somebody had to have made up solely for my benefit. Everything about Mondesi was kinetic, dynamic. His arm. His grin. The way he hacked at bad pitches and slid only head first and when he did slide head first, always seemed to lose his helmet.
Karros was similarly inept at taking walks, but otherwise, he was nothing like Raul Mondesi. He plodded. He drifted. Where, say, Jeff Bagwell went to war each time he crouched into his high-tension batting stance, Eric Karros went to sleep. Eric Karros was and is an un-charismatic man. His game reflected this.
But I liked him. I liked him enough that in the years when Mondesi was my established favorite player, Karros slid comfortably into the two spot. There was so much about Karros for me to latch onto: his name was Eric. His number was 23 (my brother’s birthday, my grandmother’s lucky number in roulette). He was a tyall, slow-moving first baseman, which a small part of me must have known was the kind of player I’d become by high school.
And he was there. We traded Pedro. We traded Piazza. We traded Mondesi. We even traded Paul Konerko because first base was already locked down. But it took a decade for the Dodgers to trade Eric Karros. So I grew up with him. As much as Vin Scully or the ubiquitous Tommy Lasorda or Dodger Dogs or whatever else, Eric Karros was a staple of my baseball development. A stolid, not-quite-beloved but certainly well-liked constant from the time I was six, to the time I was sixteen.
* * *
The story should end here: a workmanlike remembrance of a first baseman past. But it doesn’t. Because things happened toward the end of Karros’ career, and I began to understand better. And Karros became a broadcaster. Now this is an essay about coming to terms.
Eric Karros has not broken my heart. He has not made me a cynic and he has not changed the way I think about my childhood, or the Dodgers, or whatever else. But watching Eric Karros on television now is painful for me. And not just in the way that it’s painful for anybody subjected to watching Eric Karros on television. I genuinely want to like him. I genuinely want that player who was so perfectly suited to my youthful circumstances to also suit my adult circumstances.
Instead, Eric Karros is the worst kind of ballplayer-turned-announcer: the kind who can’t help but turn every on-field incident into a personal anecdote. The kind who is vain, unthinking, and genuinely boring to listen to. Watch Eric Karros in the studio, or listen to him in the booth, and you will experience a man who seems to have no sense of how he is being perceived.
Karros the broadcaster is probably most famous for making an inappropriate on-air comment about his colleague Erin Andrews during the 2006 Little League World Series. Via Deadspin:
Erin Andrews was doing a bit piece about an injured player who was hurt playing ping pong. She throws it back to Brent Musberger and Eric Karros, and Musberger talks about Kirk Gibson and how memorable that was. Karros replies, “Yeah, I think all of these boys will have something to remember with Erin Andrews.” Musburger responds, “yeah,” and is followed by 15-20 seconds of silence.
That’s a tasteless comment. But let’s face it, it’s the kind of thing that any baseball player – or any man, really – might say off the air to no consequence. And it doesn’t make Eric Karros a bad person, it just makes him a regular former ballplayer, a typical color commentator. Hell, even this, the most scandalous side of Eric Karros, is pretty bland. The consequences of his professional worst are a mere awkward silence, a few chuckles.
(Allow me this caveat: I don’t think Eric Karros is a bad guy. When Jose Offerman shoved him in the dugout during a game, it was almost certainly because Jose Offerman was a crazy bastard. When he fought Ismael Valdes in the shower, it was probably just one of those things. And when he was finally traded and said it was his own fault for not producing enough, Eric Karros showed about as much dignity as a man could in that situation.)
In the end, Eric Karros is typical. He’s a nice enough guy. He’s a little vain. He’s the all-time leader in home runs by an L.A. Dodger, and yet he never won a playoff series with the team. He never made an All Star game. His numbers look a whole lot worse than they did in the 90s.
Even with these last two weeks of first base adrenaline pumping through me, I’m unable to muster the enthusiasm I want to about Karros. Maybe because unlike teammates Mondesi and Piazza and Nomo, and unlike so many other 90s first basemen, he was never an outsized figure. Maybe because his career went fine for a decade then faded into effectual play and a quiet exit bow, like careers are supposed to do.d
Eric Karros became a dull broadcaster. Nothing in his career indicated that any other path was possible. Nothing in his career indicated that Eric Karros would differentiate himself as an intellect, as a wiseacre, as a stylish or otherwise memorable commentator.
The more I think about it, the less disappointed I am. Because Eric Karros and I still share a name. I still have a blue Dodgers batting practice jersey with the meaningful number 23 on it high up in my closet. These things are enough. I expect nothing more from Eric Karros. I deserve nothing more from him. Nobody does.
Kenneth Morgan, P&P’s resident statistician, helped kick off 1990s First Basemen Week by investigating the ultimate 1990s first baseman stat-line. Then throughout the last two weeks, you heard testimonies as to why certain players are the most 1990s first baseman. Today, with the support of baking metaphors, Kenneth helps bring us home with a statistical investigation into which 1B of the decade is the most 90s. Tweet Kenneth @KCMorganUW.
The numbers you see preceding each ingredient are the weightings I gave each one, out of 100. So, the ten ingredients you see listed above are in order of importance. How did HR% end up on top of the heap? I think I’ll let The Simpsons explain:
Mark McGwire: “Do you want to know the terrifying truth? Or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?!”
Everyone: “Dingers! Dingers!”
-The Simpsons, “Brother’s Little Helper”, Oct. 3 1999
If you notice the date that this episode aired I think it effectively summarizes the mindset of the 1990’s baseball fan.
First basemen also enjoy walking, lacing doubles down the line and into the gaps, and driving other teammates in. You might be wondering why HBP% was included. Can you think of another defensive position where a higher percentage of players wore as much armor while at-bat? Mo Vaughn, Mark McGwire, Andres Galarraga, et al. Sure, I guess we’ll wait those extra 10-15 seconds for you to undress your elbow and shin pads and lumber on down the first baseline after a walk or HBP.
Did you know that during the 90’s Andres Galarraga was hit 100 times, while Eddie Murray was only hit ONCE in 4000+ plate appearances? Were pitchers scared of Eddie’s charging-the-mound capabilities? For someone with the nickname “steady” he must’ve done a lot of contorting in the box to avoid all of those close shaves!
Let’s now put all of these ingredients into our oven and see if it gives us the 1990’s first baseman we wanted. I used a process in the same vain as how Mr. Carson Cistulli calculates his NERD and SCOUT scores on Fangraphs.
Step 1: I looked at statistics compiled from 1990-1999 for all qualified first basemen. I only looked at 1B who had at least 3000 plate appearances, sorry Travis Lee. This left me with 17 first basemen: Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, John Olerud, Fred McGriff, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Will Clark, Wally Joyner, Mark Grace, Mark Palmeiro, Eddie Murray, Don Mattingly, Gregg Jefferies, Eric Karros, and Andres Galarraga.
Step 2: I calculated the averages, standard deviations, and z-scores for all 10 of the statistics listed above.
(A Z-score is a measure of how many standard deviations a certain number is away from the mean (average) of a distribution. For a real-world example, let’s say we decided to graph the height of everyone who played in the MLB in the 1990’s. The shape of this graph would closely resemble the shape of Mount Everest; whose tallest point would represent the average height (probably 5’11” or 6’0”) of these players. Most MLB players from the 90’s would be closely grouped around this average and about 70% of them would be between 5’9”-6’3”. Former Mariners 2B Joey Cora (5’7”) would have a Z-score of about -2.0, as he was well below the average height of his peers. Former Mariners SP Randy Johnson 6’11” would have a Z-score of about +2.0-3.0 as he towered above the average MLB player and his height was extremely unique compared to 1990’s MLB players.)
Step 3: Find the average z-score for each first baseman, weighted appropriately by the weights listed in the ingredients.
-Our goal is to find the most 1990’s first baseman, not the best from this decade, nor the worst from the decade. Essentially we’re looking at the person who was most “average” in relation to the other 16 players in this group that we’re using. In order to find this player, we’re looking for the one whose average z-score is closest to 0.0. This may seem odd for a goal to be 0, but remember that 0 here means average. Average is our goal.
Step 4: Scale results onto a 0-100 scale, where 100 represents the most 1990’s first baseman possible!
Step 5: Graph!
Sweet cuppin’ cakes, John Olerud scored a perfect 100/100 (meaning he had a z-score of EXACTLY 0.0)! I didn’t know what to expect out of this somewhat arbitrary experiment to find the quintessential 1990’s first baseman. I like the order of this list though, especially the top three. John Olerud, Fred McGriff, and Will Clark. That’s about as 1990’s as you get!
Wes Marfield lives in Kansas City and perpetually believes the Royals have a chance to make the playoffs. His writing has appeared on Deadspin and CollegeHumor.com. He also Tweets infrequently @PapaMarf, though he mostly created his account for the Steve Balboni avatar.
This lumbering brute had an up-and-down career. Honing his craft in Southern California, it wasn’t long before he was belting out hits across the country in front of sold out crowds. Although our hero’s stock pinnacled after picking up some much-deserved hardware in 1994, his legend and outward appearance still strike a chord with fans that were lucky enough to cross paths with this mountain of a man in his prime.
That last paragraph could easily be describing legendary Grammy-winning rocker Meat Loaf. It can also sum up the career of former Royals Rookie of the Year Bob Hamelin. So when I think of a 1990s first baseman, my mind drifts back to memories of a man affectionately known as “The Hammer.”
I use the term “first baseman” loosely here, because Hamelin was primarily used as a DH while the more sure-handed, light-footed Wally Joyner spent the majority of the time manning the Royals other hot corner in the early-to-mid 90s. But according to his 1990 Upper Deck rookie card, Hamelin was a first baseman. And that’s good enough for me.
Major League Baseball, as you’re probably well aware, didn’t complete a full schedule in 1994 due to the players’ strike. But by the time the season came to an abrupt end on August 11, an overweight, glasses-wielding 26-year-old named Bob Hamelin had captured the hearts of Kansas City fans. He burst onto the scene with six home runs in April, and racked up 24 long balls and 65 RBI in the shortened campaign that eventually culminated in him taking home American League Rookie of the Year honors.
The Royals were four games back of the division leading White Sox at the time of the strike, finishing with a respectable 64-51 record. KC’s “Boys in Blue” posted an 83-79 mark in 2003 to finish the year above .500, but that was the only time they’ve done so since “The Hammer” roamed first base, the on-deck circle, and the postgame cold cut line. So it’s only fitting the best season the Royals have had since winning the World Series in 1985 was transpiring while a similarly portly man was crooning “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” to packed arenas across the country, picking up a Grammy along the way.
Like most good things from the decade, both men fizzled out of the spotlight by the turn of the millennium. Hamelin never regained his Rookie of the Year form, and played his last Major League game in 1998 after injury-plagued stints with the Tigers and Brewers. Mr. Loaf clung to his chart-topping hit, but has yet to produce another swoon-inducing ballad like to the one that shot him to fame. He made a pseudo-comeback on “Celebrity Apprentice,” so who knows – maybe we haven’t seen the last of “The Hammer” yet. Hell, Wally Backman is still coaching minor league baseball, so anything is possible.
Personally, I’d prefer to just hold on to the memories of a slovenly man huffing around the bases as a half-empty stadium waved inflatable hammers in his honor. And he’ll be hard pressed to make a better exit from the game than his abrupt retirement in the middle of a minor league contest in 1999.
Legend has it that as a member of the Toledo Mud Hens, Hamelin grounded out, took himself out of the game, kicked some loose equipment in the dugout and told his manager simply “I’m done.”
Maybe the game passed him by. The hitters got bigger, stronger, and devoted themselves to not-so-legal workout regimens that “The Hammer” had no interest in. Maybe the injuries caught up to him. Maybe he just lost interest in the game that made him a Kansas City celebrity in the mid 1990s. Guess we’ll never know for sure. But play one more inning in a minor league game with a path that wasn’t certain to ever lead him back to the show?
Bob Hamelin did a lot of things for baseball. He just wouldn’t do that.
David Meir Grossman writes under his full name so you don’t get him confused with the actually famous David Grossman. He currently writes for Lapham’s Quarterly, and has written for io9 and Thought Catalog. He lives in Brooklyn. Twitter here, tumblr here.
Sign up with Eric Karros and join the Dodger Blue Crew! Those might not have been the exact words, but I remember the feeling I saw when Eric Karros’ smiling mug popped up on the Dodger Stadium big screen: that ain’t right. The former leader of the Dodgers kids klub, Mike Piazza, had just been traded, and in what must have been a desperate PR move Karros was named temporary leader, the Omar Sulieman of getting free Dodger trading cards.
In retrospect, the move made perfect sense. It would have seemed odd to push newly acquired Gary Sheffield so soon, especially with an Ol’ Reliable like Karros around. The first of what would be five straight Dodger Rookies of the Year, Karros had quickly established himself as type of player Tommy Lasorda wanted: powerful. Although ROY runner up Moises Alou had a now-noticeably larger batting average and OBP, who cared about such things in 1992? Karros had twenty dingers and eighty-eight RBIs. He could hit big, and and he could stand around.
And it stayed that way for a while. Karros would flirt with excellence from time to time, mainly in ’95 and ’99, but on the whole stayed around .260 and twenty-five homers his entire career. He stuck around with the Dodgers for eleven years- seemingly because he showed up and did his work. There was little truly remarkable about Karros, but he became an institution in the way only players who don’t leave can. That Los Angeles is a town that loves flash and noise is a cliché, and Karros became fan club president because he embodied the opposite of that, what every kid looks for in a hero ballplayer- a distinctly local hero, someone who will show up everyday and you can claim as your own. We had to share Piazza with the rest of the league, and eventually Florida and New York. Eric Karros was ours.
Jennifer Allen is a diehard Cubs fan living in Alexandria, Virginia, with a large collection of recreational softball jerseys with the number “17” on the back. She is still waiting for her date with the now-single Grace.
There is a certain appeal held by young, good-looking baseball players in any town. In a sports-obsessed city like Chicago, looks can make an above-average player into something of a legend. As a true player off the playing field as well as on, his star power increases exponentially. In the 1990s, that star was Mark Grace.
As a young girl growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I was born a Cubs fan. The first game I ever watched on TV with my dad was the now-famous “Ryne Sandberg game,” on June 23, 1984. I was 20 days old. As much as I liked Ryno, I was in love with Mark Grace from a very early age. The first Cubs shirt I ever picked out for myself had a “17” on the front. I was a Mark Grace girl.
Mark Grace came up to the Cubs in 1988. At first, the new kid was over-shadowed by the well-known club stars, like Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Greg Maddux. But the blonde-haired first baseman with the black eye grease quickly caught the attention of the women in Chicago. His frequent attendance at the Wrigleyville and Rush Street bars certainly boosted his ascent into dating legend. His fans all wanted to be the one who slipped “Gracie” their phone number at the bar. One might even say that increased crowds at Chicago bars during the 1990s were thanks to Mark Grace and his hard-partying ways.
As he got older and a little less skinny, “Mark Grace” remained the answer to any female asked to name the sexiest Cubs player. The wad of chewing tobacco he kept in his mouth during games wasn’t enough to turn them off. Grace readily admitted that he would rather spend his time smoking and drinking at the bar than weight lifting with the team. He didn’t care if his double would easily be a triple by another player. Who needs to be fast when you have women slipping you their underwear at a bar?
The consummate bachelor (even when he wasn’t), Grace readily admitted that his extracurriculars were more important to him than his baseball stats. When it was exposed that Rafael Palmeiro, the first baseman the Cubs traded away in 1988 to make room for Grace, took steroids throughout his storied career, Grace nonchalantly remarked on a radio show that he had never wanted to take steroids because he liked his sex life too much.
Even the fans who weren’t old enough to meet Grace at a bar were in love with him. Teenage girls swooned over him, wearing his jersey to Cubs games and hoping that he might notice them in the stands. They longed to be old enough to meet Grace at a bar on Rush Street or slip him a number that wasn’t their parents’ number. Grace had an ageless appeal, such a guy’s guy – always dirty from the game and constantly wiping his spit on the sleeve of his jersey. The scruff on his chin, his natural swagger as he walked up to the plate, everything about Grace made him a teenage (and not-so-teenage) dream.
When the Cubs decided not to re-sign Grace after the 2000 season, his female fans were devastated. No Cub came close to Grace in terms of sex appeal. Some looked to Kerry Wood, another attractive and personable young star, but he didn’t quite embrace the same “fan-friendly” lifestyle as Grace. No player since has been able to replace him as the ultimate Cubs ladies man and it looks like his reputation as Chicago’s Wilt Chamberlain will remain intact for many seasons to come
Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com.
Mo Vaughn didn’t stand in the batter’s box, he wedged his big body into it, hunching his shoulders and dipping his head under what I always assumed was an imaginary door frame. It’s too bad I was born right-handed. I would’ve spent my Little League years imitating his swing, which cut through the strike zone like a pendulum and finished high in the air. I loved watching him golf opposite-field homers over the Green Monster, a decade before David Ortiz made his bones doing the same thing.
Pete Segall lives in Chicago. His fiction has appeared in Epoch.
I think about Frank Thomas and I think about the very end of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Be assured, this has nothing to do with the book itself, this will not be about sociopathic Texas lawmen, I will not be attempting to channel anyone’s unsettlingly clear inner voice as they commit acts of savagery. There are only a couple of lines I keep coming back to. Not even a complete sentence, just a plainitive fragment, a fleeting elegiac.
It’s not total coincidence that I mention Thomas and Thompson in the same breath. For years Jim Thompson belonged to the legion of writers who, despite dedicated readers and a powerful reputation, was out-of-print and generally ignored. He died in 1977 in not very good shape. Then came a couple of well-received screen adaptations – After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters – and interest reignited. Vintage republished his books. The first one I found was The Killer Inside Me, with the orange print, the uncomfortable closeup of some grizzled fellow, the superlative-of-crazy blurb from either Stanley Kubrick or Stephen King. The year was 1991. That was also Frank’s first full year with the White Sox. So the two are both residents of the same substrata of memory, the mucky shale of adolescence. They are dredged together, heaped into the sunlight and perhaps their years in a dank and psychically red-lined place have caused a bit of conjoining or fusing.
“All of us that started the game with a crooked cue,” go the lines, and don’t worry, this is not spoilerage of any kind, “that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”
No, Big Frank never did bad, not especially bad, not until the dimming conclusion, at least, when he was with finished with the White Sox and had moved on to the A’s and Blue Jays, when I suppose that simply failing to be great was a form of doing bad for Frank. And at first base he was graceless, mechanical, Golemy; demon of grounders, arrythmic of glove. I won’t begrudge him that. It’s the wanted so much and got so little that won’t stop ringing for me.
Obviously the White Sox got more than so little from Frank Thomas. To imply that he was anything approaching disappointing is absurd. At best it’s self-girding contrarianism. I won’t even get into what it is at worst. I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. No, it isn’t. Frank was, quite possibly, the best pure hitter of the 1990s. Barry Bonds belongs in the conversation. Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr., too. You could make the prima facie argument that Thomas was the best of them all and not get too many weird looks.
He is 21st all-time in home runs and tenth in walks; Baseball Reference has him at 21st in runs created and 47th in Offensive Wins Above Replacement. In 1994 his Adjusted OPS+ was 211 – that’s tied for the 25th best OPS+ in a single season. Those with season numbers better than that fall into one of three categories: people named Ruth, Williams, Mantle, Hornsby or Gehrig; people born during the Fillmore administration; and people generally associated with the use of performance enhancers. He was easily the franchise’s best hitter since Shoeless Joe Jackson.
What’s getting Frank for me is history. Not his but his team’s. The unfairness of expectation. Being put in the miserable role of redeemer on a club where defeat was normal.
There are many ways one could describe the experience of following the White Sox in the 20th Century. I’ll go with Stultifying. They were a team that lost a lot, and in the blandest ways. The outlying awfulness of the 1919 Black Sox team needn’t be rehashed here. Listen to the nicknames our guys had: Ol’ Aches and Pains, No Neck, Shoeless. They sound more likely to bum a freight to the Big Rock Candy Mountain than win games. The White Sox were baseball afterthoughts, schedule ballast, a place to play between Kansas City and Milwaukee.
A recap of the Sox’ postseasons post-1919 business, ante-Frank, might help with context. It won’t take long.
There was the ’59 team, the Go-Go Sox, as they were known, that lost the World Series to the Dodgers and the ’83 team that won the AL West by 20 games and then managed to score all of three runs in the ALCS against the Orioles.
Nelson Algren compared loving Chicago to loving a woman with a broken nose. The all of us who started the game with a crooked cue, that’s being a White Sox fan. Algren, it should be noted, spent his career chronicling the downtrodden and was a lifelong White Sox fan.
I turned six the summer of the Winning Ugly team in ’83. You grow up, a flash in your awareness of that one season where it felt like they were going to win but then everything just turned blank, and anything similar seems utterly unfathomable. Just not possible. Sure, the way time is doled out at the ages of six, seven, eight has something to do with that. From 1984 until the year Frank arrived there was one winning season for the White Sox. Six years is epochs when you’re that young. But losing 90 games a season with some frequency also does something to what you come to expect.
It seemed like Frank had been promised to us. That he would arrive to make some tectonic difference. That years of mediocrity, not out and out suffering, not a championship lost through an opposing act of God, not a dislodged franchise (though it almost came to that), no heroics or disasters or things in the highlight reels, just regular, unremarkable, catalepsy-inducing mediocrity, would be redeemed by our grinning behemoth.
He was drafted in 1989. The Tribune calls him “slugging Auburn first baseman.”
“I was hoping Chicago got me,” says the draftee.
“They’re not doing well at first base and they’re not doing well as a team.” You wonder about the expression on his face when he adds, “I’m excited about that.”
Is that just reflexive politeness coming out, a rhetorical pardon me to maybe not bloviate a few grand off his signing bonus? Or maybe he’s smiling. Maybe there’s that grin. That wide, easy smile we’d come to love, effortless, guileless, pleased. He is going to lift this club up. He’s going to make them do well as a team. He wants to do this. He knows that he can.
So the draft is in June. July 1’s Tribune gamer has the hed: Sox ‘future’ gets view of sad present. They’d lost 6-3 to the Royals with Frank in attendance. They finish 69-92.
He hits .529 in Spring Training the next year and is assigned to Double-A Birmingham. On March 30 of the next year the Trib calls him “a phenom.” On April 20 the Tribune starts a “Thomas watch” to track his performance. The reports come every couple of days. Most of them mention massive home runs, multiple runs driven in, “onslaughts,” “assaults,” “power;” a piece on July 20 exults in the 104 walks he’s drawn in 97 games. On August 3 he makes his major league debut in the first game of a double-header against the Brewers and drives in the winning run with a groundout.
It seemed like Frank had been promised to us. That he would arrive to make some tectonic difference.The team somehow wins 94 games. It’s still nine games behind the A’s but they’d get swept by the Reds in the World Series anyway. 94 wins. Things look bright and it isn’t just Frank. There’s a stretch of young talent, recent kids drafted out of college and ready to play: Robin Ventura (Oklahoma State), Alex Fernandez (Miami). Plus the haul from dealing Harold Baines to the Rangers: Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez. Your closer, Bobby Thigpen, has just saved 57 games. That’s a record. This is quite a core. It’s advertising campaign stuff, cover of the preview magazines, bold names in Beckett’s. And finally, it was ours.
What Frank became was the face of a franchise that had essentially been faceless. We had been noise, for sure, we forfeited games and wore shorts; our entrenchment in the psyche of certain Chicago demographics was leagues deep. But Frank mattered in baseball, not just Chicago. He was put in the movies to banish Tom Selleck to Japan.
Frank’s first season slash line: .318/.453/.553. The technical term is yowza. He walks 138 times but he also strikes out 112. Two years later that number is down to 54. His ability to guard the plate was uncanny. A man who’s 6’5” tends to engender a sizeable strike zone but Frank learned to parry, deflect, use his wingspan to protect himself against expeditions to the outside of the plate, his strength to slap away anyone working the inside.
It’s the booming home runs to left field I remember most, where his arms seem to jerk down over the middle of the plate. The motion is smooth and violent. On the especially bludgeoned balls to dead center or right-center he hops onto his toes a bit, the shifting of his energy bumping around his entire body. But you can see him above (around the 50 second mark) taking out a Randy fastball to right at the Kingdome. He’s practically flatfooted, he barely has time to raise his back foot. The shoulders dip slightly, the trunk torques. He simply whips the ball out of the park.
If you want a real demonstration of how pure a hitter Frank was, you can find on YouTube a video of his appearance on the David Letterman program from 1994, during the strike that would end the season. Frank, pursuer of the Triple Crown that year, is acting as an emissary of the players. Letterman quizzes him on the strike (probably the easiest pitches he looked at all year); Frank, in a roomy suit approximately the color of a smoothie (the quality of the video is poor) seems comfortable more or less. The grin is on fantastic display throughout. Frank’s relationship with the tetchy Chicago sports media corps was never an amicable one and the writers took it out on Frank by painting him as surly, self-absorbed, petulent. But the Frank being interviewed here is open and warm, growing gradually more at ease as he adjusts to Letterman’s pogo-stick presence.
To close the interview out Letterman has Thomas take swings at pieces of fruit on a makeshift tee. He doesn’t seem to be into the gag initially. “It’s all about bat speed?” Letterman asks and Frank nods, unconvincingly. He’s busy taking practice swings, loosening up. He’s thorough enough that Letterman actually grows impatient, tells him to get on with it. His first swing, at an apple, is a little disorganized. But when it’s finished Frank is laughing pretty heartily. His second swing, at a grapefruit, is a little more in character; bits of exploded fruit come down on the first rows of the audience. It’s the third swing when he looks like he really means it. It might as well have been Charles Nagy throwing out there, not a canteloupe on a piece of plastic. Even Letterman can appreciate the power and exactitude he’s bringing. Watch where the canteloupe hits the plastic shield on the slow motion replay. That thing was headed for the bleachers over the bullpen in left center.
He couldn’t even let joke swings be a joke. That’s the kind of hitter Frank was.
By 1993 he was MVP; the Sox won their first division title in a decade. He won the award again the next season.
The greatest World Series never played, of course, was that ’94 Series between the White Sox and Expos. It was inevitable. The Yankees were a few games better than the Sox but I’m doing away with any ALDS/CS uncertainty. The Expos were 34 over .500. It was going to happen. The team whose owner was instrumental in creating the work stoppage against the team whose future in their original city was probably doomed permanently by not playing in a World Series they never could have. The Flying Dutchman vs. the Wandering Jew. The Damned vs. The Bereft.
Frank was featured (albeit with Ken Griffey Jr.) on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August as “a powerful reason to keep playing ball.”
Would this niggling got so little not be here if Frank had done what baseball heroism means unless you’re a 38 year old journeyman for whom merely getting your name on the official scoresheet counts as salvation and just won the World Series? But he did. He did win a World Series. He was on the 2005 team. I forget that sometimes, it seems at such a far remove from the times I associate him with. The White Sox won the World Series and history ended. Frank didn’t play after July of that year, suffering a stress fracture in his right foot, which had been injured the year before as well. The closest he got to the playoff run was throwing out the first page for Game 1 of the ALDS.
So why’s it there? Why do I think about Frank and then think about unmet expectations? There are four baseball players with a career .300 average, 500 home runs, 1500 RBI (bad metric but whatever), 1000 runs and 1500 walks: Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Frank. We saw it. We got to be there for this. Did he descend upon a franchise so benighted – “All of us that started the game with a crooked cue” – that individual brilliance gets a little duller next to collective disappointment?
The Sox went to the playoffs twice with Frank, in ’93 and 2000. He did hit .353 the first time, with a home run and a staggering 10 walks in 27 plate appearances, but that was against Joe Carter’s Mitch Williamsing Blue Jays. Footnote to the miracle. In 2000 the Sox were swept by the Mariners. Frank went 0 for 13.
But what about his regular season numbers that year? .328 (good for a batting title), 43 home runs, 143 RBI. He won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award, finished second in MVP voting to Jason Giambi.
(Giambi and Frank are linked in other quarters as well: they were the only active players to be interviewed by the commission headed for former senator George Mitchell on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Giambi, of course, confessed to steroid use. Frank spoke voluntarily about the expansiveness of the problem. Given how broad PED use turned out to be this would seem to be the equivalent of standing up in a brothel and bragging about not having syphillis, but Frank’s actions never came across as grandstanding or self-aggrandizement or score-settling [would Frank, for instance, still be buried in memory and statistically behind Bonds or McGwire if the latter two had been clean?]. His stance in favor of regular PED testing is not popular with the Players Association and is endlessly sensible.)
His final seasons with the Sox were injury-riddled and/or disappointing. His 42 home run season in 2003 came with 115 strikeouts (to just 100 walks) and a .267 batting average. An OPS of .952 would be impressive by most standards. It was below average for Frank. When he left the team before the 2006 season he expressed disappointment at being jettisoned so brusquely from the team he openly wished to retire with. General Manager Kenny Williams responded by calling him “an idiot.” When he did retire in 2010 the press conference was at US Cellular Field. The air was cleared. He wept when the Sox retired his number 35 last August. This July a statue of him will be unveiled at US Cellular. He does spot duty for the studio portion of the local cable coverage. He is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2014 and will be elected on his first ballot.
Again then: why so little? Well maybe it has less to do with Frank and more to do with us, who wanted so much. There isn’t a lot else we could have asked for. We got our public figure, our stratospheric stats, our notoriety. We got our World Series – something I, as a legally competent adult citizen, did not believe I would ever see. Frank was there in the locker room and the champagne and half a year later he’s in Oakland on an incentive-heavy contract.
I have never enjoyed watching a baseball player as much as I enjoyed Frank. Nor appreciated nor marveled. He brought a fineness to power. His swing was a subtle action of muscle. Seamless and brutal. A sullen and sulky adolescent, between his Thompson and Carver books and gloomy German movies he doesn’t really understand except for their gloominess, could still sit and admire any one of his at-bats. But now that he’s receded it kills me nine different ways but there just isn’t any way I can get away from asking even though the rational zones of my brain tell me this is assinine and the parts yoked to memory are already answering yes, it’s plenty: is that it? Is that all we got?
The Sox lost 4-0 last night. They’re ten games out. They might make a run when the weather turns better.
David Segui is how I learned what a switch-hitter was. He is how I learned that it is considered advantageous to throw left-handed if you are a first baseman; and, more basically, he is how I learned that if a player has his glove on one hand, he throws with the other; and, more confusingly, he is how I learned that if a player is facing you on television–say, if the camera was on David Segui, back leg touching the bag, body splayed, and front, gloved arm stretched out toward the mound, holding a runner close–then if a player’s glove is on your left, it is really on his own right, and he is a left-hander (this part, admittedly, remains confusing).
In 1991, when Segui was the Orioles’ better-than-average young first baseman, I believed that teams only had one starting pitcher, because I was six and whenever my father took me to Memorial Stadium, invariably Ben McDonald was pitching, because, despite Cal Ripken, Jr.’s MVP season, the O’s weren’t very good and my dad only considered it worth the schlep from our Washington, D.C. suburb if McDonald, one of the highest-rated prospects in history, was throwing.
By ’92, I was reading the paper after every game and could imitate Cal Ripken’s bizarre stance that led him to have one of his worst seasons to date; by ’93, between television and radio–usually migrating from television to radio as I was forced to my bed, the lights shut out–I never missed a game. David Segui is how I learned that sometimes your team trades players, and that you could even trade them from one league to another (Segui went to the Mets). Segui’s successor, Rafael Palmeiro, is how I learned that the steroids scandal wasn’t some distant thing but something that would affect me personally. But only today, looking up Segui, did I learn that, having begun his career in Baltimore and then spent the better part of a decade shuttled among six different teams, he ended his career as a back-up DH also in Baltimore–on a team I no longer cared about (thanks to owner Peter Angelos) in a sport I no longer cared much about (thanks to steroids).
Originally from Kentucky, JL Weill lives and writes in Washington, DC, and his work has appeared at The Awl and Rush the Court, as well as in print. His take on sports, culture and politics can be found @AgonicaBoss.
It certainly shows my age, but when I think of a first baseman, I don’t usually think of your hulking muscle-bound jock with a goatee and thorny tattoos encircling his Thor arms. Instead, I think instead a skinny spray hitter with a funny-looking batting stance who you’d be unsurprised also had an MBA. He probably wears glasses off the field, and likely he does his own taxes. He definitely doesn’t drive in many runs, but you love him because what he does he does really well. Yes, I think of Hal Morris.
Growing up like I did in central Kentucky, nearly every kid I knew was either a Reds fan or, because of TBS, a Braves fan. I loathed the Braves mostly because every swirlie-giving jackass at my school was a Braves fan and I just never really much cared for the cut of Dale Murphy’s jib. While the Braves were being touted fictitiously as “America’s Team,” the Reds were decidedly un-sexy. Seemingly every year of my mid-teens, they kept finishing in second place with Pete Rose Bettor- Managing and Marge Schott puffing away on cheap smokes while draining the team of scouting funds. But there was something likable about the guys who finished second despite everything. They were a group that had talent but always played hard and overachieved, a reflection of Rose’s best qualities.
In the winter of 1989, the Reds made what seemed a pretty innocuous throwaway trade over the offseason, acquiring a promising 17-win minor league pitcher named Rodney Imes and a utility infielder-outfielder with no power named Hal Morris for a garbage starter and change. Well, as those trades tend to work out more often than you’d think, the centerpiece for the Reds never made it to the big leagues, but Morris, after logging a middling 38 at-bats in two seasons with the Yankees, came aboard a team that – while no one really knew it yet – was about to tear it up and blossomed.
Morris was the definition of a role player. Platooning with fellow cog Todd Benzinger, the light hitting lefty Morris posted a .340 average in his rookie year, but only 36 RBIs. Still, on a team that was built on pitching, defense, flexibility and, more than anything, a killer bullpen, having a guy who got on base, didn’t strike out and didn’t boot grounders was more than adequate. Oh, and Morris even took a few games in the outfield to boot.
That Morris was also a quiet sort, workmanlike and consistent, only added to his value, both to his team and to Cincinnati’s principally blue collar and middle class fanbase. And as a Reds fan, at least the Reds got something of value from the Yankees, considering in two years they’d be trading a future Yankees legend for the inimitable Roberto “Call me Bobby” Kelly.
Personally, I prefer to live in the halcyon days of the batter’s box-dancing Morris. It may not make you think of fireworks, but sometimes a good 50 cent sparkler gets the job done just fine.