Frank Thomas becomes first Hall of Fame player signed by Mike Rizzo
by Amanda Comak
For nearly 20 minutes on a spectacular Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, NY, Frank Thomas stood in front of thousands of fans, friends, family, and those he could now call his contemporaries: fellow Hall of Famers. For nearly 20 minutes, the man the baseball world came to know as ‘The Big Hurt,’ delivered an emotional, touching speech.
Seven minutes into that speech — one littered with the thanks he had for those who’d helped him on his way to becoming one of the most feared right-handed hitters of a generation — Thomas uttered the name of Washington Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM, Mike Rizzo.
“I would like to thank the Chicago White Sox organization for drafting me into professional baseball,” Thomas said. “Special thanks to Jerry Reinsdorf, Eddie Einhorn, Larry Himes, Al Goldis, (Howard) Pizer and Mike Rizzo, for taking a chance on a kid from a small town with many big dreams.”
Sunday was an exceptional day for Frank Thomas, along with the rest of the 2014 Hall of Fame class. But it was an exceptional day for so many others, too, who’d had a hand in helping to get those transcendent talents to this point. When it comes to Thomas, count Rizzo among that group.
“It’s a very proud day for me,” Rizzo said Sunday morning on MASN. “He’s a player who is very near and dear to my heart. He was the first big leaguer that I ever signed, and obviously the first Hall of Famer I ever signed. I’m just so happy for him. He was a guy a lot of people doubted when he was coming up and Frank played with a little chip on his shoulder. I think that drove him to be the player he (became) — and what a special player.
“In my opinion he’s one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time, and certainly the greatest right-handed hitter I ever signed.”
The moment the White Sox selected Thomas with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1989 draft was obviously a seminal one for the organization, as well as Thomas. But it served as one for Rizzo, too.
Rizzo was a young area scout then, and White Sox GM and Scouting Director, Himes and Goldis, respectively, put their faith in Rizzo’s scouting abilities by trusting his recommendation and taking Thomas. It wasn’t without pushback from other scouts, who wondered about Thomas’ speed and defensive abilities. But Rizzo was clear: This guy can hit. He will hit.
“The debate was ‘Do you take a first baseman with the seventh overall pick in the draft?'” Rizzo recalled. “Any scout will tell you the toughest thing to scout when you’re in the amateur game of scouting is the hit tool. Everyone can see velocity. There’s a radar gun for that. You know when a guy can run fast because there’s a stopwatch for that. There’s no instrument to judge if the guy can hit or not. It’s something that’s really in the eye of the beholder — and when you’re taking a first baseman as big as Frank, who doesn’t possess great defensive skills and speed, but a guy who’s going to have to hit for a living, it’s much more difficult.
“But Larry Himes and Al Goldis both had some hitting background and expertise and to sell them on a guy we should take seventh and if he doesn’t hit he doesn’t play, it was challenging. It was something I was really hell-bent on (though) because I really did think he was an impact bat. And at the end of the day they trusted my judgment.”
Himes and Goldis also afforded Rizzo the opportunity to negotiate Thomas’ contract — and that was perhaps the first step on Rizzo’s path to becoming a Major League GM, and now President of the Nationals’ Baseball Operations.
Rizzo signed Thomas for $175,000 — less than the amount Himes and Goldis had given him as a maximum to work with.
Twenty-five years later, on an idyllic Sunday in upstate New York, Thomas became a Hall of Famer. And Rizzo could take a lot of pride in that.