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Green-and-Gold Caravan Rolls into Cooperstown

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La Russa, Thomas Take Center Stage at HOF Induction

Brian Bahr

This may come as a shock to some of you, but it’s been somewhat of a banner year so far for your Oakland Athletics. Best record in baseball. Historic run-differential. Ballsy, blockbuster trade. Homerun derby champion (again). A half-dozen All-Stars. A memorable reunion. Beards. Saxophones. Pie (still).

 

I BELIEVE IN STEPHEN VOGT!

 

With a third straight post-season appearance on the horizon, it’s (finally) gotten to the point where people outside the Bay Area have taken notice.

 

Imagine that.

 

Even Hall-of-Fame Weekend has a green-and-gold flavor to it—manager Tony La Russa and slugger Frank Thomas are among this year’s honorees.

 

One day, Bill King. One sweet day.

 

Anyways, your fearless leaders have called me out of retirement to write a few words. If I can just get this typewriter to work so I can fax in my story before the deadline…

 

***

Jason Giambi never did it. Ditto for Miguel Tejada. Ramon Hernandez? Nope. Huddy? Negative. Mark Mulder? {Shakes head.}

 

"It", of course, is won a playoff series while in an A’s uniform. I’ll give you one last try. Frank Thomas. Wrong! Oh. You skipped ahead, didn’t you? That’s no way to go through life, Jack.

 

Thomas wasn’t around for the playoff failures of 2000-03 or the near-misses of 2004-05, but in his very first season with Oakland, he led the A’s to the ALCS, where they hadn’t been since 1992.

 

It was love at first swing with Big Hurt. He homered in his first at-bat with the A’s, the lone bright spot in a 15-2 shellacking by the Yankees on Opening Night. I was there. It wasn’t that close.

 

Considered damaged goods by the World Series-winning White Sox while sitting out for all but 34 games in 2005, Thomas bounced back in a big way the following season, slugging 39 homeruns for the A’s, who made it back to the post-season after a two-year hiatus.

 

In Game 1 of the ALDS versus Minnesota, Thomas homered in the second inning—his first playoff at-bat since 1993—and at age 38 became the oldest player with a multi-homer post-season game when he went deep again in the ninth inning to put the finishing touches on a 3-2 A’s win.

 

Oakland went on to sweep the series to erase the ghosts of past playoff disappointments. Alas, the bubble burst on the A’s and their MVP candidate, as they were defeated in four straight games by Detroit. Thomas went hitless in 13 at-bats.

 

A gentle and gracious giant, Thomas points to the 2006 season as one that played a significant role in punching his ticket to Cooperstown:

 

"I first got there, I was in a mental funk after being with Chicago for so long - and I really got kicked out of the door there," Thomas said. "I was rejuvenated by a young cast of characters; it was a different world. It became fun. ... We had a wonderful, wonderful season there, and I really think that got me to the Hall of Fame. It showed I could adapt and adapt quickly."

The one thing that sticks out for me about Frank Thomas—besides his first year with the A’s—was an ESPN highlight I watched in 2003. I was in a hotel in Florida on a Disney World trip with my son. The White Sox were facing the Yankees and Roger Clemens. For some reason the Rocket’s mom was in attendance that day, and the cameras caught a glimpse of her. Later in the highlight, Thomas was at the plate with the bases loaded. SportsCenter’s Dan Patrick with the call:

 

"Earlier we showed you Roger Clemens’ mom. Here’s Frank Thomas’ granny. Gone."

Did you say that in his voice? Dude, try it in Patrick’s voice. Also, I’ll give $5 to anyone that can find that clip.

Hey, speaking of Roger Clemens…

***

Like Thomas before him, Tony La Russa tasted his first sip of success with the White Sox, managing the club to the American League West title in 1983. Like Thomas, La Russa was dumped by Chicago, and subsequently picked up by the A’s.

And yes, like Thomas, Tony La Russa enjoyed beating Roger Clemens.

But whereas Big Hurt most likely would have made the Hall with or without Oakland, the same cannot be said about La Russa, even with his prior success in Chicago, and two World Series titles in St. Louis, following his departure from the A’s.

I am of the opinion that July 7, 1986 was the beginning of La Russa’s path to the Hall of Fame. That night—his first as A’s manager—La Russa penciled in down-on-his-luck Dave Stewart to start against Clemens, who was well on his way to winning the American League MVP and Cy Young for a team that came within one strike from capturing its first World Series since 1918.

In fact, La Russa called Stewart a few days before the nationally televised game.

La Russa had not yet joined the team when he called Stewart on Friday, July 4, at the A's hotel in Milwaukee and told him, ''If you want the ball on Monday, you've got it.'' Stewart wanted it.

The A’s beat Boston, 6-4, and for the next six or so years, La Russa gave the ball to Stewart, and Stewart delivered, often against Clemens. Stew wasn’t the only reclamation project that could be claimed by La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan: they converted Dennis Eckersley, a washed up, recovering alcoholic into a Hall-of-Fame closer.

Oakland won four AL West titles in five years from 1988-92, appeared in three straight World Series from 1988-90, and swept the Giants in 1989, the team’s last championship.

But for the ultra-competitive La Russa, it was the ones that got away that stuck with him, even years later:

 

Both '90 and '88 are really, really downers to think about. Really embarrassing. Those games are as vivid to me today as they were a couple of days after they happened. I still sit in my room and think to myself, How in the hell did you screw that up?

 

I will have more to say on the La Russa era in a future story. But a lasting memory is when he took the A’s to Arizona during the postponed World Series. While his heart ached for an area destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake, he wanted his team, up 2-0 in the Series, to keep that winning edge.

They kept it alright.

Tony La Russa left his mark on many players, particularly on a can’t-miss athlete who missed. La Russa was Billy Beane’s last big-league manager, and he was still in charge when Beane left the playing field to become a scout:

''Probably the biggest thrill is that Tony La Russa calls me up to talk baseball, to ask me my opinion,'' says Beane. ''As a player, I always wanted to just sit down with him and pick his brain. Now I do that all the time, and I'm getting paid for it!''

Today, the "biggest thrill" belongs to Frank Thomas and Tony La Russa.