Friday, February 12, 2010

At the Hurt's locker

I was in all-out panic mode in the pressbox.

Frank Thomas dropped his piece of rebar -- that strip of metal he swung before at-bats, adding to the intimidation factor -- and sauntered toward home plate. The Big Hurt began shifting his massive body into the batter's box, right hand in the air to signal for a brief timeout while he settled into his famous stance.

Happy with his positioning, Thomas lowered his hand and gripped his bat, bringing his arms forward to point the lumber at the pitcher before locking his weapon into place above his right shoulder. It was the eighth inning, and Thomas was one swing away from launching the 500th home run of his storied career.

This was all well and good -- I was actually looking forward to witnessing the milestone. I grew up in Chicago, where Thomas was the Michael Jordan of baseball, so having the opportunity to write about the feat -- one that would ensure his place in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown -- was an honor in some ways.

The problem was that Blue Jays starter Dustin McGowan also had a no-hitter in the works.

One or the other, fellas.

Blasting No. 500 meant a long list of sidebars -- extra stories to commemorate Thomas' achievement. Stories about the reactions of Thomas' teammates and that of the players on the opposing team, maybe a separate story on the pitcher's reaction, too. A story on the home run itself, one for Thomas' place in history, and on and on and on.

A no-hitter? More reaction. More sidebars. There's the game story, the story about the other team, maybe a piece about the perspective from the catcher, one for the no-hitter's place in the team's all-time feats, a separate about the pitcher and his background. Teammate reaction. If you can reach mom and dad, too, give it a shot.

For a typical night game, us reporters might be working in the pressbox until midnight. This was an afternoon game, and I was beginning to think I might still wind up staying that late. Covering a great moment in baseball history is fine. Being faced with covering two on the same day? Without a second writer to lend a hand?

The only fun in that comes much later when you can tell the story.

This time, though, the Baseball Gods were simply pulling a prank on all of us scribes.

Thomas went down swinging on six pitches. History averted. In the ninth inning, McGowan took the mound and sent a 94-mph fastball buzzing over the inside corner. It was a fine pitch -- the type he'd used to own the Rockies all afternoon. But, Colorado's Jeff Baker finally solved the young righty, drilling the pitch up the middle for a single.

Sighs of disappointment on the field. Sighs of relief in the pressbox.

The Blue Jays won the game and left town for a road series in Minnesota. The road trip had three legs, the second in Seattle and the third in Oakland. I skipped the four-game set against the Twins and caught a flight to the West Coast on the day the Jays were wrapping up their stay in Minneapolis.

When I stepped off the plane, flipped open my phone and turned it on, it began to buzz with a slew of voicemails. Thomas had belted his 500th home run, leaving a pile of sidebars for the reporters who were covering the Blue Jays in my absence. The funny part? I was disappointed that I wasn't there to see it.

Here we are, a couple years later, and Thomas is officially announcing his retirement from baseball. The Hurt finished with 521 career homers, currently 18th on baseball's all-time list. Thomas will be known best for his time with the White Sox, who boasted one of the game's most fearsome hitters when he was in his prime.

It's rare that a reporter is starstruck, but I'll admit that part of me was exactly that when Thomas rolled into Spring Training with the Blue Jays for the first time. When we sat down at a picnic table for our first one-on-one interview that spring -- we both sat on the same bench, creating some fear that the table might flip -- it was a thrill. He was an icon in Chicago when I was a kid.

Thomas' time in Toronto was brief, but he was easily one of the best players I've covered. Win or lose, Thomas was always at his locker ready to field questions, a veteran move that took pressure off some of the younger players. In this age of cliches and media coaching, it was also refreshing to have an athlete who didn't mind talking about himself. Thomas was always great for in-depth baseball conversations as well.

In April of 2008, I wandered into the Jays clubhouse early on a Saturday morning. As part of the daily routine, I checked that day's lineup and Thomas -- mired in an ugly, persistent slump -- was not listed. The manager confirmed that Thomas was being benched indefinitely, the Big Hurt vented frustration, and one day later, he was released.

It was an unfortunate ending to Thomas' stay with the Blue Jays, but it will hardly take away from his impressive career.

See you in Cooperstown, Hurt.


  1. And I bet it stung having to give me that Frank Thomas autographed ball didn't it?* But it was cool having my little brother introduce me to the Hurt. (*Reporters can not ask for or keep autographs but the Blue Jays manager asked Frank for an autographed ball for me when I visited Jordan in Detroit which Jordan delivered to me later.)

  2. Mrs. Bastian wanted to keep the ball, but my journalistic integrity won in the end.