Thomas learns from past experiences

New Jay Thomas learns from past experiences

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It was a simple message, but one that Frank Thomas wishes he would've received earlier in his storied career.

During the 2004 season, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan approached Thomas and wanted to offer him a few words of advice. The bitter falling out between Thomas and the White Sox was in motion, and Morgan wanted to make sure that the Big Hurt had an open mind about his future in baseball.

"He was there in Chicago," recalled Thomas, sitting at a picnic table at Toronto's Spring Training complex this past week. "He was hearing all the rumbling and grumbling about me leaving. He said, 'Hey, sometimes you need a fresh start. Let other people recognize how good you are and what an addition you can be to their ballclub.'"

What Morgan probably didn't realize at the time was that brief exchange made it a little easier for Thomas to leave Chicago. After the transition to Oakland went smoothly last season, Thomas was even more willing to explore his options this past offseason, when he signed a two-year deal to be the Blue Jays' new designated hitter.

"It really opened my eyes to go somewhere else," said Thomas, flashing his wide smile. "It really clicked something in me that hadn't been turned on in a long time. It was a very good move for me last year, and I'm looking forward to the same thing this year.

"If I had known that a transition would be better, I would've been open to leaving a lot earlier. I had a couple of opportunities earlier in my career."

Thomas' career with the White Sox spanned 16 years, in which he climbed to the top of the organization's all-time batting charts. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound slugger is Chicago's all-time leader in multiple offensive categories, and he used to believe he'd retire with the club that drafted him out of Auburn University in 1989.

Looking back on it now, wearing his third uniform in three years, Thomas said it probably would've been beneficial for him to end his playing days in Chicago before the 2002 season. At the time, though -- in spite of trade rumors, and some griping in the clubhouse about his ability to play through pain -- Thomas agreed to restructure his contract with the Sox.

"I wanted to stay," Thomas said. "That didn't work out well for me. If I had been open to leaving then, that would've been the best thing for me."

Instead, Thomas continued to suit up for Chicago until the team finally bought out his contract after the 2005 season. The fallout was ugly, and it included an angry public exchange of words between Thomas and White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.

Thomas was perturbed at how his exit was handled. Williams ripped his character, leading to questions about the 38-year-old's impact on a clubhouse. Blue Jays shortstop Royce Clayton, who was a teammate of Thomas' with the White Sox in 2001-02, said the way the media has portrayed the slugger at times couldn't be further from reality.

"If you know him as a person, you'd think it's very unfair that people are labeled for situations," Clayton said. "Unfortunately, he was stuck in that situation where he had been there so long that it was like a bad marriage. You forget the good times -- all you can talk about is the hardships you went through to get to the divorce."

It's a time that Thomas doesn't like to reflect upon.

"The thing that happened with Kenny Williams was very unfortunate," Thomas said. "We did have a better relationship than that at first. I've known him a long time. I did say some things that irritated a few people, but I only told the truth. I just wish that had never happened because neither one of us needed that."

What the two sides did need was change, and that came when Thomas signed an incentive-laden, $500,000 contract with the A's in '06. Thomas had a difficult time finding a suitor after a severe ankle injury limited him to 108 games over the 2004-05 seasons.

All he did with Oakland was belt 39 home runs, drive in 114 RBIs and finish fourth in voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Thomas' injury became a non-issue, the A's captured the AL West crown and his peers honored him with the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

"I think he showed what he can do last year," Clayton said. "He helped, basically, carry that team to the playoffs. He's got that vigor, and he looks great and he's excited. He's the kind of guy that can carry us.

"He brings that presence. It's like having that big man in the center of a basketball court -- the Shaquille O'Neal."

Not only did Thomas enjoy a return to form with his bat, he had a blast with his A's teammates -- a group he said is similar to the one inside the Jays' clubhouse. He credits his experience with Oakland for making it that much easier for him to sign a contract with Toronto.

"Going into a new situation, I was like, 'Wow, you're not really one of their guys. You've got to fit in,'" said Thomas, who sits 13 homers shy of 500 for his career. "But it turned out to be a really great marriage in Oakland last year.

"So far, it's been the same with Toronto. The guys here are really loose and there's been a lot of laughter. It's the same old things that you hear in locker rooms, but this team is close."

Thomas' booming laugh has been ever-present since he's arrived at the Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin, Fla. He's also carried an extreme focus into camp, which is something that Toronto manager John Gibbons said is already noticeable.

"Frank's all business," Gibbons said. "He's one of the premier hitters in baseball. You could always tell he had that edge and that intensity. You sit around and talk to him, and he's so focused. You can never have enough of that."

Thomas' focus these days is on prolonging his career another four years, which would take him beyond the current deal with Toronto. And to think, this is coming from a guy who was thought to be at the end of his road a few years ago.

Morgan helped show Thomas that change can do wonders for a player.

"I never thought the grass would be greener," Thomas said. "Joe Morgan was right."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.