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Thomas has something to prove

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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.

Frank Thomas
Designated hitter
Free agent
148 28 92 77 3 .252

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.

F. Thomas .320 1,044 1,152 337 .581 .439
B. Bonds .303 1,116 1,068 377 .614 .438
K. Griffey .299 1,011 1,129 400 .590 .386
A. Belle .298 951 1,199 373 .571 .374
J. Bagwell .305 1,073 1,093 310 .552 .417
M.McGwire .275 764 921 398 .641 .421
S. Sosa .277 848 996 367 .540 .339
* Stats compiled from 1991-2000

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."

I know that I am back and will put up my old numbers the next few years, no matter where I play. 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.
Frank Thomas

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
Some of the best stats in the Scott Boras Corporation book on Greg Maddux:

  • Maddux has been in the top five in ERA in 10 of the last 11 seasons;

  • He has been in the top five in wins in 12 of the last 15 seasons;

  • His career ERA ranks sixth in the post-deadball era, 2.83, trailing Walter Johnson, Ed Cicotte, Chief Bender, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Whitey Ford (minimum 3,000 innings pitched);

  • He has tied Warren Spahn for the record with 15 consecutive seasons with an ERA under 3.60;

  • His .642 winning percentage trails only Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson and Roger Clemens among pitchers with 400 decisions;

  • He is tied with Cy Young for the record for most consecutive 15-plus win seasons with (15);

  • He leads the majors in innings (2,308 1/3), quality starts (239), wins (178) and ERA (2.51) over the last ten years;

  • As the Boras Corp. projects his pitching five more seasons, they project that at the end of the 2007 season Maddux will have 358 wins, which would rank him eighth all-time, behind Young, Johnson, Alexander, Mathewson, Spahn, Kid Nichols and Pud Galvin.

    Alou the right guy to replace Baker
    Giants owner Peter Magowan was in Havana, Cuba, Friday night for dinner with Fidel Castro, with a group of prominent U.S. businessmen trying to break down the barriers between the two counties.

    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?
    Dusty Baker
    The one curious aspect about the Cubs' obsession with Dusty Baker is that while they can and should contend in 2003, they are a developing team with one of the best farm systems in the game. Baker has a clear love for veteran players. On a club with a young second baseman in Bobby Hill who is one of those rare legitimate leadoff-hitting prospects, there are suddenly rumors that Dusty would like to bring in Jeff Kent.

    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

  • Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty is still trying to bring back Woody Williams, but acknowledges that his starting pitching consists of "Matt Morris, (Jason) Simontacchi, Garrett Stephenson ... we have some work to do."

    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.

  • Depending on what happens with the Thome and Glavine negotiations and the pursuit of Bell, the Phillies are still looking for bullpen help and a left-handed-hitting center fielder to allow Larry Bowa to rest rookie CF Marlon Byrd against tough righties.

    Bowa loves the bat potential of Chase Utley, but concedes the former UCLA star may have to end up at first base.

  • The White Sox are looking for a No. 2 starter and another veteran to throw into their rotation to join Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Danny Wright. They are very interested in Jamie Moyer as a free agent. They dawdled on Cory Lidle for Mark Johnson, and Lidle ended up in Toronto, where he will go into spring training as the No. 2 starter.

  • The Athletics now will put starter Ted Lilly in the four hole and expect that by midseason, rookie Rich Harden will join the rotation.

    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.

  • The Yankees will be willing to move Nick Johnson to Montreal if Bartolo Colon or Javier Vazquez becomes available because of salary constrictions.

  • Boston has payroll constrictions of its own thanks to three top-heavy contracts, but will make a serious run at Cuban defector Jose Contreras and hope to open the season with Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Contreras as their top three starters.

  • The Dodgers definitely want to make a run at Jeff Kent, but finding a taker for Mark Grudzielanek's salary may require that they throw someone like Adrian Beltre into the deal. There is the possibility that the Dodgers could then sign Japanese free agent third baseman Norihiro Nakamura. "He's got legitimate power," says Phillies' director of pro scouting Gordon Lakey. "He's a little big, and he's got some holes, but he has power."

    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."

  • Both the Rockies and Padres agreed that Chili Davis not only is the best potential hitting coach on the market, but a fascinating candidate to manage in time. But neither hired him because Davis believes that he should be paid as much as the lowest-paid rookie, $300,000. If you're Davis, why not take that deal? Don't be surprised if someone -- like Boston under the right circumstances -- steps forward and hires him at that price.

  • Dodger manager Jim Tracy is optimistic that Kevin Brown will come back next season, healthy. "All things right now look good for a comeback," Tracy said, "and that would be a huge lift for us. That we won 92 games without the big man is amazing, and it looks as if Darren Dreifort will be back, as well. What beat us down at the end was that without Brown, Dreifort and Kaz Ishii, our bullpen just got worn out."

    As for Ishii, Tracy plans to "see how he reacts on the first ball hit back at him, then go from there."

  • After Alex Rodriguez's bridal dinner on the eve of his recent wedding, A-Rod, Cal Ripken and Boras stayed together after the guests had gone home and talked baseball until 4 am.

  • Jose Canseco has hired his former agent and longtime friend Dennis Gilbert to help him get into movies. Canseco is having cosmetic surgery on his nose, then wants to get into films as an action hero. Maybe he can write a book about how some of the action heroes get their size. Seriously, Gilbert and friends have convinced Canseco to put his infamous book on hold.

  • Drew Henson has struggled, batting under .200 in the Arizona Fall League. But his manager, Tommy John, isn't worried. "It will all come together for Drew," John said. "He needs to play more, and he needs to relax."

    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."

  • Most of the players in the Arizona Fall League are tired at this point, like Boston's Kevin Youklis. The most impressive arm has been Bobby Jenks, the big Angels right-hander who has been clocked as high as 102 miles per hour and has shown a terrific offspeed curveball.

  • Joe Sheehan raises a great point about John Olerud's Cooperstown possibilities. With 1,934 hits at the age of 34, Olerud has a legitimate shot at 3,000, and is almost certain to reach 1,500 walks, 600 doubles and 300 homers.

    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.

  • Manager Lloyd McClendon remains upbeat about the Pirates. "Kris Benson will be better, a lot better," McClendon said. "Jason Kendall will be back after surgery, and Aramis Ramirez will be fine. We have a ways to go, but we'll be better. Wait until you see what Benson becomes."

  • Interesting statistic on the importance of defense to a sinkerballer: Derek Lowe's ERA with Rey Sanchez at second base was 2.46, 2.91 without him.

  • If Colorado gets Erubiel Durazo in the Larry Walker deal, they will have one of the hottest commodities. The Rockies have talked about trying Durazo in right field, but there a number of teams that want him badly. One three-way deal would send Orlando Hudson to Colorado, Durazo to Oakland and a couple of the Athletics' young pitchers to Toronto, and the Rockies have had interest in a deal with the Red Sox that would include Shea Hillenbrand.

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  • Gammons: Keeping an eye on the bottom line

    Gammons: Diamond Notes (Nov. 10)

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