Over the past three years, my frustration with Major League Baseball has grown. No, I don't mean exponentially as the steroid scandal has. My frustration is in the lack of roster spots for veteran legends of the game.
This morning, it was announced that Frank Thomas, "The Big Hurt," has been released by the Toronto Blue Jays. In an interview with ESPN this evening, Thomas says he still wants to play. With 516 home runs under his belt, a position as a designated hitter with any American League team should be a given. However, as was said by a commentator on Sunday Night Baseball, "if Barry Bonds can't find a DL spot, how will Thomas?"
The news of Thomas being released came on the heels of a story about Thomas "reacting angrily" to the Blue Jays' decision to reduce his playing time. Thomas refused to shake his teammates' hands after Saturday's game.
Now, my initial reaction to Thomas' behavior is that he needs to grow up. There are plenty of guys who would like a roster spot regardless of how often they get to play. Look at Kenny Lofton and Julio Franco. What about all the guys in the minor leagues that would give anything for a second-string spot? Thomas has had nineteen seasons, good seasons, in the major leagues. What the tantrum?
Then I listened to Frank Thomas on ESPN this evening and realized that Frank Thomas still loves the game. He still wants to play the game. The Blue Jays obviously reacted to his batting slump with little regard for the 26 homers and 95 runs-batted-in last season as the DH for the Jays. I grew up watching the Big Hurt while he was playing for the White Sox. He has a charm that few baseball players possess, excluding the late Kirby Puckett, and he's a pleasure to watch. His hitting is fluid, his stance solid. What do you do with a guy like Thomas when his numbers aren't what you need? Maybe you bench him. Maybe you give him a little more batting practice. You don't send a veteran like Thomas back to the minors and you certainly don't release him. Who can the Jays replace him with? They can't wait around for Scott Rolen to get healthy and Shannon Stewart isn't going to bring the power.
Thomas has somewhere in the neighborhood of a $12.5 million contract for 2008. I think the Jays will have to eat this.
The entire situation with Thomas reminds me of my disappointment in the National League (both the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets) for not picking up Julio Franco. Two years ago to this day, Franco became the oldest player to hit a home run. Not any home run, they called him in to pinch hit and he knocked a two-run homer against tje San Diego Padres to give the Mets the win. What is Franco doing now? Well, the oldest player to hit a home run and steal a base, Franco is playing in the Mexican leagues.
In a game where players are lying about their age to appear younger for the scouts and to sign better contracts, Julio Franco has been completely honest and willingly went to the Mexican leagues instead of retiring. Unless a team picks him up once the season gets moving, Franco will retire before reaching his goal of playing in the Big Leagues until his 50th birthday (August 23rd).
Nowadays, the players over 40 are the ones who are looking at their careers with concern. Tom Glavine signed a contract this spring with the Braves to finish his career there--he's now on the disabled list at the age of 42. Jamie Moyer, 45, has not escaped the news, being older than Shea Stadium.
In addition to Moyer and Glavine, Roger Clemens' career appears to be over, Curt Schilling is getting up there, Kelvim Escobar could be done, and Orlando Hernandez (depending on what age you believe) could be approaching his final seasons. These guys are watching their careers closely, some of them closer to the end than others.
What does this say of Thomas who hasn't reached 40 yet?
Guys like Kenny Lofton, Sammy Sosa, Ruben Sierra, Barry Bonds, and now Frank Thomas, are part of the history of baseball, some bright spots, some not so much, but baseball's history nonetheless. It all makes me wonder if Mike Cameron will keep a roster spot if he gets hurt or suspended again this season. It all makes me wonder what has happened to the loyalty, the awe that used to exist for veteran players who in their rookie years rubbed shoulders with the likes of Carlton Fisk, Sandy Alomar, Pete Rose, Gary Matthews, and Phil Niekro.
The big hurt here isn't Thomas himself, it's the lack of roster spots for the veteran legends of the game who want to play for the love of the game, not the contract.