The Biggest Hurt
Frank Thomas' career as a Blue Jays backup lasted a grand total of one day, albeit one very eventful day. On Saturday, Thomas publicly ripped management for demoting him, then didn't bother to appear either in the dugout or on the field during the Blue Jays' 3-2 victory over the Tigers.
So it can't be considered a total shock that the Blue Jays released him on Sunday, even though they had to swallow $7 million of his $8 million 2008 salary.
What also isn't such a surprise is that there was another bad breakup in Toronto, the city of two recent ugly episodes between players and management.
In July 2006, DH Shea Hillenbrand, upset about being blistered by manager John Gibbons during a team meeting, scribbled "play for yourself'' and, later, "the ship is sinking" near Gibbons' team-oriented blackboard message. Gibbons first threatened to fight Hillenbrand, then threatened to quit. Hillenbrand was quickly shipped to San Francisco in a deal that turned out to be excellent (they got back talented reliever Jeremy Accardo).
Just a few weeks later, pitcher Ted Lilly and Gibbons scuffled in the dugout runway after Lilly was removed from a game. That episode ended with Gibbons having a scratched face and Lilly bolting for the Cubs as a free agent at season's end.
If things weren't that tense in Toronto this season, they are now. Expectations are up again, thanks mostly to a talented young pitching staff. People in the organization were also excited this spring about three veterans imported to enhance the clubhouse (Scott Rolen, David Eckstein and Rod Barajas), and Blue Jays management understandably didn't want to risk wrecking its allegedly improved chemistry by keeping en embittered Thomas around. Thomas is a contradictory case of a player who's done some great things (he was the only active player to agree to talk to baseball steroid investigator George Mitchell) but has a longstanding reputation for clubhouse self-interest.
Meanwhile, Gibbons ranks as one of only two lame-duck managers (the other, Bobby Cox, likely can name his own departure date). While he seems like a charming man, the reign of Gibbons -- and also of GM J.P. Ricciardi -- has been marked by abject emotion and abrupt, uneasy divorces.
Ricciardi, a media darling nationally (though not locally), is recalled, too, for publicly lashing out at his former front office executive Keith Law after Law, now an ESPN writer, wrote in a blog that star outfielder Vernon Wells told the Jays he had "no intention of signing an extension to stay in Toronto.'' Ricciardi's reaction back then: "He's become a writer. It doesn't take long. Keith Law is officially an idiot.''
Ricciardi actually turned out right when he kept Wells -- although, the $126-million contract that locked him up looked a tad bloated when Wells tanked last year (.245 in 2007). And Ricciardi may prove correct in releasing Thomas, too. Though in this case, it can't be seen as a positive that Thomas -- the first full time DH replacement after Hillenbrand's acrimonious exit -- cost the organization $18.12 million for one year plus these few weeks. That's almost a Clemens-like pay rate for 29 home runs and 106 RBIs over a year and three weeks.
Thomas, who was 10 for 60 (.167) with three home runs, made his feelings about his demotion known by telling the Toronto Sun, "They do that after 16 games, after 16 at-bats. That's bull----.'' Thomas began terribly last year, as well, and was in fact hitting just .223 on June 1 last year before he turned it around and finished with a typical season (26 homers, 95 RBIs, .277) so there's some logic to his outburst.
Thomas suggested that his 2009 option that would have vested at $10 million more with 304 more plate appearances was the reason for his benching. "We all know what's behind this. What else could be behind this but the money?''
While it would seem to be na´ve to think finances weren't any sort of consideration in a case like this, any claim by Thomas appears moot now that the sides have "mutually'' agreed to part ways, according to the team.
The solution of the quickie divorce makes sense in this case. The problem is that this seems to happen a little too often in Toronto.