Rizzo glad to see Thomas receive Hall call
Then a scout, Nationals general manager signed slugger to first professional contract
WASHINGTON -- Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had a more personal interest than most in Frank Thomas' Hall of Fame fate. When Thomas was announced as a member of the 2014 Cooperstown class, it was especially sweet for Rizzo.
Why is this important to Rizzo? He is the man who signed Thomas to his first professional contract, in 1989. At the time, Rizzo, then 28, was a Midwest and Southeast territorial scout for the White Sox.
But asked 25 years later about scouting and signing Thomas, Rizzo declines to give himself all of the credit. Rizzo said that then-scouting director Al Goldis and then-GM Larry Himes also played a role in selecting Thomas as the seventh overall pick in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft.
"There were a lot of people involved with this pick," Rizzo said on Monday. "I was a big part of it, but Larry Himes and Al Goldis were prominent people for Frank getting where he is. I was not the 'end all, be all.' [Thomas] was a guy we liked. This is an organizational success story. It's the GM and the scouting director who get the most credit."
Rizzo first scouted Thomas in 1988, when the latter was attending Auburn University. According to the website Diamond Minds, which is affiliated with the Baseball Hall of Fame, Rizzo's scouting report said that Thomas was a B-plus prospect and a "powerful player with potential to be an impact power-hitting [first baseman]."
During his three years at Auburn, Thomas hit .382 with 49 home runs, 205 RBIs, a .508 on-base percentage and a 1.233 OPS in 178 games. But the stats don't tell the whole story, according to Rizzo.
"He had tremendous raw power over a lot of Draft-eligible guys," Rizzo said. "He was a terrific hitter, period. He controlled the strike zone tremendously. He had an impeccable eye at the plate."
Despite Thomas' collegiate success, he wasn't Chicago's consensus pick, but Rizzo had the backing of Goldis, who loved power bats.
"There was a split camp on a number of players, with Frank being one of them," Rizzo said. "We really didn't have a consensus in the Draft room other than Ben McDonald, but we felt that he would be long gone [when it was our turn to pick]."
Not too long after selecting Thomas, Rizzo negotiated Thomas' first professional contract. It was the first time Rizzo dealt with a player agent, in this case, Robert Fraley. It was also the first time Rizzo had thoughts of becoming a GM.
"I enjoyed the give and take of the negotiating process and dealing with the agent," Rizzo said. "I remember we were in Orlando, and it was the first time I sat down with a professional agent to discuss a [large sum of money] that was as big as the one Frank got. It was very interesting, and it did kind of get me into the negotiating portion of it. I really enjoyed it, and I took to it very well."
Thomas wasn't in the Minors for long, and was promoted to the big league level on Aug. 2, 1990. He ended up having a great career, hitting .301 with 521 home runs, 1,704 RBIs and a .419 on-base percentage. He also won two American League MVP Awards (1993 and '94). As far as Rizzo is concerned, there is no doubt that Thomas is a Hall of Famer.
"This guy not only hit for power, but he drove in runs, hit for a high average and had a high on-base percentage," Rizzo said. "During the first 10 years of his career, his statistics were second to none. He was a well-rounded offensive player. He was one of the most feared right-handed hitters of his generation. He was a guy you could count on to play every day and to perform every day. I believe he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Rizzo keeps in touch with Thomas and plans to go to the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"If I were invited by Frank, I would certainly go," Rizzo said. "It would be an honor to be with him."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.