Frank Thomas becomes the first Hall of Famer Mike Rizzo signed

Heading into the 1989 draft, holding the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, the Chicago White Sox made a small alteration to their scouting staff. They promoted Mike Rizzo from an area scout in the upper Midwest to their area scout for Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and northern Florida. Given the disparity in quality and quantity of amateur players from those regions, the move represented an obvious break for Rizzo.

That spring, Rizzo happened upon a hulking first baseman from Auburn who also played tight end for the football team. His size made him impossible to miss, and his batting practice moonshots made him a hitter to dream on. “You didn’t have to ask, ‘Which one is Thomas?’ ” Rizzo said.

(Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Frank Thomas was going to be a major leaguer and a star no matter what. It’s not like Rizzo discovered him in a sandlot. But some team had to pick him, and Thomas might not be wearing a White Sox cap on his plaque in Cooperstown if not for Rizzo’s dogged insistence. Rizzo scouted Thomas and negotiated his first professional contract, and if not for his success at both he might not be the Nationals’ general manager 25 years later, either.

It was a seminal moment in Rizzo’s career. He had never before dealt with an agent. It fueled his desire to become a general manager and gave him confidence he belonged as a scout. When Thomas was elected this afternoon, he became the first player Rizzo signed to make the Hall of Fame.

“It’ll be a happy moment for me, an important moment,” Rizzo said this morning. “In hindsight, it looks like an easy pick at the time. He’s a Hall of Famer. He never really struggled. When you draft a kid, and you evaluate him and you’re doing the makeup stuff, it’s really rewarding. After I left the White Sox and I ran into him, we’d always laugh about the negotiation and his early days in the minor leagues. He’s a guy who worked so extremely hard on his game. You look back and go, ‘Wow, we did something together.’ It’s really special.”

Rizzo was quick to deflect credit to Larry Himes and Al Goldis, then the GM and scouting director with the White Sox. They were the ones, Rizzo said, who had to make the final decision. They risked their reputations on Rizzo’s recommendation. “This was certainly not a Mike Rizzo sign,” Rizzo said. “This was a White Sox sign.”

As the 1989 draft approached, Thomas was a known commodity but not viewed as a top-flight prospect. He was viewed as one-dimensional, strictly a power hitter, not one who could hit for average. As Rizzo recalled, MLB’s scouting bureau pegged him as not a first-round pick. But Rizzo was enamored.  He thought Thomas possessed better athleticism than he was given credit for, and he thought his bat made it moot, anyway.

“If you believed in bat and power, then this was a guy for you,” Rizzo said. “A lot of guys have raw power. The special thing about Frank is, he made that raw power usable. He had an extremely good eye at the plate. He would very rarely get himself out. He was just a great hitter.”

Before the draft, Rizzo, Himes, Goldis and a roomful of amateur scouts sat at a conference and debated the merits of every player they considered for the seventh pick. Rizzo badly wanted the White Sox to take Thomas. Ben McDonald was the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft, but Rizzo took a contrarian view: He ranked Thomas as the best amateur in the country.

Each scout pounded the table for his player. When it was Rizzo’s turn, he extolled Thomas. He was met with skepticism in the room

What if he doesn’t hit?

“Well, if he doesn’t hit, he’s nothing. But he’s gonna hit. What if he does hit? What if he hits 30 home runs? What  if he hits .300? What if he’s a 100-walk guy?”

Well, how does he play defense?

“He can hit.”

How does he throw?

“He’s got big, big power. This is a special bat here. This is a special guy that we need to get into the fold. And it’s an American League team. We’re good.”

The debate heated up. Rizzo loved it. He cherished the scouts sitting around the room, baseball people talking baseball, and getting the chance to sell his player.

“I was trying to tell him without saying it,” Rizzo said. “This bat is extremely unique and special. It overrides the other talent that he has.”

“I remember raising some eyebrows when I said, I think the guy can hit .300 and hit 30 home runs a year. How you gonna put those numbers out there? Well, you asked me what he’s going to hit, and I gave you what I think he’s going to hit. And here’s my reasons for it. And then you breakdown the swing. And you breakdown the power. And you breakdown the body. And you breakdown the athletic ability. That’s how we got him to be taken.”

When draft day came, the White Sox picked Thomas with the No. 7 pick, and Himes and Goldis gave Rizzo another break. They allowed Rizzo to negotiate Thomas’s contract, a rare concession to a scout at Rizzo’s level – “unheard of,” he said.

In downtown Orlando, Rizzo met with Thomas’s team of agents, which was led by Robert Farley. (Farley also represented several golfers, and in 1999 he died in the plane crash that also killed Payne Stewart.) Thomas’s football exploits gave him some leverage, but Rizzo managed to sign Thomas for $175,000, less than the amount Goldis and Himes told him he could not exceed.

“It gave me a lot of confidence that I could do it,” Rizzo said. “You evaluate players every year, and Frank was a guy that I really liked as a player and got him drafted. As you may imagine, the second negotiation was easier than the first, because you had some experience. I kind of felt that I belonged, and I wasn’t over-matched the in the negotiation. It really gave me an appetite and an enjoyment of dealing with contracts and agents.”

Twenty-five years later, Thomas would get his due as one of the best hitters in history. Rizzo called him the best right-handed hitter of his generation, and it would be difficult to argue that point. Did he see that in him a quarter-century ago on a ballfield in Alabama? Maybe not. But he certainly saw enough, and more than anyone else at the time.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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