The first year that I played Little League baseball, my jersey number was 35. It was a big deal for me because two of my favorite major league players wore that number: Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas. With all due respect to "Moose", I was actually a bigger fan of Frank in those days. To an 11-year-old in the mid-90s, the Big Hurt was just about the coolest guy walking the Earth. He was humongous (6'5", 257 lbs.), he had this icy death glare, he played for a great team with cool uniforms, and all he did was beat the hell out of the ball.
There was something else about Frank Thomas, another reason why I chose the card I did for a post about him: he absolutely murdered Mike Mussina.
Both players spent their entire careers in the American League and were almost perfect contemporaries; Frank debuted with the White Sox in 1990 and played his final game for the A's in 2008, whereas Mike pitched his first game for the Orioles in 1991 and wrapped up his career in 2008 with the Yankees. Unsurprisingly, Thomas faced Mussina more times than any other pitcher. Among hitters, only Manny Ramirez had more plate appearances against Moose. In 96 matchups between the two, Thomas drew 13 walks and had 30 hits, of which 9 were doubles and 9 more were home runs. He drove in 21 runs and had a batting line of .366 AVG/.458 OBP/.805 SLG...that's an OPS of 1.263. It's a testament to Frank's skill that he so thoroughly dominated one of the best pitchers of his generation.
Mussina faced Thomas and the White Sox in his major league debut, and the results were overwhelming one-sided. The Big Hurt went 3-for-3 with a walk, two doubles, and a home run. The homer was the only run scored in a 1-0 Chicago victory. Incidentally, the two stars faced each other for the final time in the second game of the 2008 season, when Thomas' Blue Jays bested Mussina's Yankees 5-2. The slugger went hitless in two official at-bats against his rival, and was also hit a pitch in their final meeting.
Of course, I'm writing about this today because Frank Thomas just announced his retirement last week after failing to catch on with a team during the 2009 season. It's always bittersweet to say farewell to one of your favorite childhood players, but I'm holding out strong hopes that he'll be called to Cooperstown in five years. Even in Frank's era of inflated offense, 495 doubles, 521 home runs, and a batting line of .301/.419/.555 (with a 156 OPS+!) has got to be worth something.