[Ed. - With Greg Maddux receiving an appropriately large share of the Chicago-related Hall of Fame discussion in the last week or so, Sahadev Sharma thought it appropriate to share some of his personal thoughts on the other Hall of Fame inductee from Chicago.]
In the summer of 1990, I became a Cubs fan. Ryne Sandberg was hitting home runs on what seemed like a daily basis, and he became my favorite player on my new favorite team.
I remember going to a baseball card show with my dad that summer, and he was negotiating with a card dealer to buy some Sandberg rookie cards.
The dealer said something to the effect of, “Come on he’s got 30 home runs!”
I quickly interjected, “Actually, he has 31. He hit one last night.”
The dealer smiled as my father gave me a glare. Hey, I didn’t understand he was trying to get a better price on the cards, I was just making sure my favorite player wasn’t being statically short-changed. And really, that would not be the last time my father’s pre-teen son ended up screwing up his negotiation tactics.
But I digress. My point is, that summer, Sandberg helped usher me into two decades of painful Cubs fandom*. It’s quite possible that things could have been very different.
*To be clear, I don’t consider myself a fan of the Cubs anymore. As I’ve stated before, becoming a reporter changed things for me. I don’t find myself rooting for the Cubs like I used to five years ago, and I certainly don’t have the distaste for the Cubs rivals that I once had. Basically, I’ve discovered that, while I’d like to see the Cubs do well, I’d also like to see the White Sox win, too (who wants to cover two 90+ loss teams? That’s really not any fun come August and September). Initially when I started down this career path, I didn’t want to change, but being able to watch and enjoy baseball without being on an emotional rollercoaster has turned out to be a blessing for me.
That same summer, I remember listening on the radio to the descriptions of what I thought was the White Sox speedy new first baseman, Frank Thomas, get his first crack in the majors. Why did I think Thomas was fast? Well, he hit three triples in his 240 plate appearances that year and I’m pretty sure I heard every one.
Thomas didn’t become a star until the next season when he put up a .318/.453/.553 line and finished third in MVP voting. Then in 1993, Thomas was an All-Star for the first time (the first of five straight) and won his first of back-to-back MVPs. He did all this while leading the White Sox to their first playoff appearance in a decade. His hot hitting and the White Sox winning ways led my father – a White Sox fan – to bring cable back into our house. Having taken away cable a few years ago from my brother and I, my father relented because with the White Sox primarily on Sports Channel, he wanted to watch his team finally make the playoffs.
Soon after, though I remained a Cubs fan at heart, I became obsessed with Thomas. I had a Thomas poster on my wall, acquired as many Thomas Leaf rookie cards that I could find, and quickly came to the conclusion that I was watching one of the greatest hitters to ever wield a bat. My father always preached the virtues of the pure hitters, guys like Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn. Thomas not only did the things they could – work a count and hit for average – but added the flash of 40-homer power. He was every teenage baseball fans’ dream and he was playing in my hometown.
Now, you have to realize, I grew up in the suburbs. There was no animosity between Cubs and White Sox fans that I remember. It wasn’t until I came to the city and met White Sox fans who immediately assumed I knew nothing about baseball and mocked me for being a Cubs fan did I realize there was any sort of intra-city rivalry. So for me, rooting for Thomas was no big deal, it seemed natural and he was just so amazing to watch. It would have been foolish not to enjoy every minute of his peak during the nineties. I’m pretty sure that even if I had grown up in the city, while I may not have openly rooted for Thomas, I would have appreciated his brilliance and still watched in awe.
Thomas was just that type of player for me. He was more important than fandom. He was transformative. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, it really hit me how important Thomas was to me as a fledgling fan. When Sandberg was inducted, I was happy, but this was different. I felt like I grew up knowing Thomas, and, as the first player whose entire career I clearly remember to be enshrined in the Hall, it was the happiest I’ve been for any player to achieve that goal.
It was then that I realized that Thomas made me the type of baseball fan that I am. Without even realizing it, I started to appreciate patience and power. Thomas helped shape the type of player that I deemed to be perfect with the bat. He was the first hitter I watched who filled each of the three slash categories and was quickly followed by the likes of Barry Bonds (he was there before Thomas, but the batting average wasn’t there as consistently until later in his career), Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and now Miguel Cabrera.
It truly was an honor to watch Thomas excel at the plate. If he had shown up a summer earlier, he could have could have altered my childhood rooting interests. And I can safely say that the years I spent watching him made me a smarter baseball fan. Thanks, Big Frank.