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No Doubting Him Anymore

Thomas was reborn in Oakland and fueled a surge to postseason.

October 03, 2006|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The 39 home runs and 114 runs batted in, the torrid 11-homer, 34-RBI September surge that led Oakland to the American League West championship and today's division series opener at Minnesota, the "MVP!" chants in McAfee Coliseum ... all great stuff, Athletics designated hitter Frank Thomas acknowledges.

But the crowning achievement may have come two weeks ago, when the Bay Area chapter of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America gave Thomas its "Good Guy Award," presenting him with a plaque when his old team, the Chicago White Sox, was in town.

"I guess I'm ruining my reputation," Thomas, 38, said with a chuckle. "That one hit me by surprise."

One can only imagine what White Sox General Manager Ken Williams thought. Williams and Thomas had a very public and bitter divorce last winter, when the White Sox declined to pick up Thomas' $10-million option for 2006, ending the Big Hurt's distinguished but sometimes turbulent 16-year career in Chicago.

Limited to 108 games the previous two years because of a fracture in his left ankle, Thomas, who ranks 23rd on baseball's all-time list with 487 home runs and 33rd with 1,579 RBIs, signed a bargain-basement deal with the A's last January that guaranteed him $500,000 and included some $3 million in incentives.

Then the barbs started to fly, the first ones fired by Thomas, who questioned whether Jim Thome was a capable replacement for him in Chicago and criticized the club for treating him as "some passing-by player."

At one point, Williams, who never cared for what he perceived as Thomas' me-first attitude and obsession with his own statistics, got fed up.

"If you go out there and ask any of my players or staff members, we don't miss him, we don't miss the attitude," Williams said in spring training. "Good riddance. See you later."

They saw him later, all right. On May 22, when Thomas, in his first game back in Chicago, hit two home runs ... and on Sept. 16 and 17, when Thomas homered twice and drove in seven runs in the last two games of Oakland's three-game sweep to drive a dagger into the White Sox's playoff hopes.

And now they'll see him much later than anyone thought, playing into the first week of October and, the A's hope, well beyond.

"We wouldn't be where we are without him," A's outfielder Jay Payton said, "unless you replaced his production with another future Hall of Famer."

Almost as remarkable as Thomas' comeback -- he's batting .270 and has 20 homers and a league-leading 68 RBIs since the All-Star break -- has been his refusal, at least publicly, to utter a bad word about Williams or to gloat about reaching the playoffs while the defending World Series champions missed the cut.

"I let bygones be bygones," Thomas said last week in Anaheim, leaning his enormous 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame back in his clubhouse chair, fingers interlocked behind his head, a wide grin on his face

"Maybe we didn't have a great relationship, and, yeah, what he said was a little harsh -- I don't mean to make light of it. But you need to move on. I'm a true professional, I understand this business, and some regimes, you're not a part of. Over the last couple of years, I saw the writing on the wall."

Is it a coincidence that Thomas, who was batting only .178 at the time, hit those two homers in Chicago in May to trigger what has become a four-month hot streak?

"Nah, no correlation," Thomas said. "I didn't need any more motivation. Just going there, the way the fans roared one last time, that was some real closure for me. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. I put my career in Chicago to bed."

His career in Oakland, even at his age and with his medical history, appears on the rise. Thomas, who wears custom-made, high-top cleats that are similar to basketball shoes, would like to play three or four more years, and his agent has discussed a contract extension with Oakland General Manager Billy Beane.

"For us, he can just stand in the on-deck circle and cause havoc," A's first baseman Nick Swisher said. "He's one of those guys you fear because every time he comes to the plate he can hit a home run. I hope we get him for a couple more years."

Thomas' impact has been felt beyond the batter's box, and his work ethic -- he usually lifts weights before and after games -- has rubbed off on teammates.

"He's not playing to show up the White Sox; he's playing because he loves the game," Swisher said.

"For a guy like him to still have the fire and desire at his age, that's something you can't teach. And his veteran presence, his confidence ... he's been a mentor to me. He's helped me through some tough times on and off the field."

Swisher saw the comments from Williams last spring and heard about Thomas' reputation, "and all that stuff people said about him before is a bunch of bull," he said. "That's not even close to the person he is. Whoever said those things is jealous or doesn't know the real person. He's not only a great teammate but a great friend."

In Oakland, Thomas found the warm embrace he lacked in Chicago. Of course, as Payton noted, "if you can't get along here, you're in trouble."

The A's are a team of inclusion, with a clubhouse so loose, relaxed and free-spirited it has been compared to "Animal House."

"That was eye-opening when I got here," Thomas said. "It's a bunch of characters, a good group of guys, and I enjoy playing with them. They have fun, and that keeps everyone loose.

"This is the first clubhouse where, this time of year, there's been no bickering, no fighting, no one who doesn't like another guy

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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