After 19 seasons and 521 home runs, Frank Thomas called it a career this week. He’ll be remembered for back-to-back MVP awards, a batting championship and the crazy levels of fear he inspired in American League pitchers for nearly two decades.
Thomas also left the big leagues with an astronomical baseball IQ. He understood the unwritten rules, and how, as the centerpiece of almost every team he played for, he inevitably wore a target on his back. The following story, taken from the final version of The Baseball Codes, illustrates as much:
It’s rare for a hitter to request retaliation on his own behalf, largely because most pitchers don’t need to be told. They judge appropriate response by any number of things, none more immediate than the reaction of their offended teammate. During a game in 2006, for example, A’s pitcher Joe Blanton hit Blue Jays third baseman Troy Glaus to lead off the second inning. (It appeared to be inadvertent, although Glaus had hit two home runs in the previous meeting between the teams 10 weeks earlier.) As it happened, Oakland’s designated hitter, Frank Thomas, led off the following inning for the A’s, and the first pitch from Toronto starter Ted Lilly hit him in the back—clear retaliation—and drew warnings for both benches from umpire Jeff Nelson.
As one of the best players in the American League over the course of the previous decade, Thomas was no stranger to being the unwitting subject of similar retaliatory measures. He didn’t so much as look at Lilly after getting hit, just trotted to first base as if he had drawn a walk.
“That’s happened to me 30, 40 times,” he said later. “Nowadays it’s what you expect. (Glaus) is their big guy, their big slugger, and we got him. He was the first one up in the inning, and I was the first one up the next inning. I knew I was going to wear it. You just take it and move on down to first. That’s baseball.”
Thomas’ attitude informed the reaction on the A’s bench. Because the slugger was calm about the matter, so too were his teammates; had he reacted differently, the situation could have been far more volatile. “We all saw what happened, but Frank took it calmly, so we took it calmly,” said Oakland third base coach Ron Washington. “If Frank had taken it with an uproar, we’d have taken it with an uproar. We have to wait for the reaction of the guy who it happened to. If Frank had charged him, there would have been a fight. If Frank had raised some hell going down to first base, we’d have raised some hell. But Frank took it calmly and went on down there, the umpire checked everything and we played baseball.”
Of course, such iron-clad protection does have its downsides. One member of the A’s posited that Lilly’s retaliatory strike against Thomas threw the pitcher off his rhythm, which appears to be true: six of the next 11 batters reached base, including a Jay Payton home run. “When he hit Big Frank, he wasn’t so sure that Big Frank wasn’t coming out to get him,” said the Athletic. “He thinks he helped his team by hitting Big Frank, but I’ll tell you what—his heart was pumping a mile a minute until he realized that Frank was just going to take first base. And after that, Lilly couldn’t find the strike zone. He was all over the place.”