Frank Thomas’ Unfair Advantage

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

The Big Hurt needs to check his privilege.

On Sunday, White Sox slugger Frank Thomas was inducted into the baseball hall of fame. His speech marking the occasion was universally hailed as classy and “touching” (if a tad too long). But it was a USA Today column published the day before that (to me, at least) highlighted his lack of self-awareness.

(Before I get too far into this, let me acknowledge that what I’m about to write will be unpopular. It will be interpreted as either simply wrong — or as needlessly provocative. In fact, many people will read Thomas’ comments about steroids, and find them endearing. After all, who can defend the use of performance-enhancing drugs?)

This is from Bob Nightengale’s column on Thomas’ resentment of players who used steroids:

Thomas knew what was happening. He saw the massive bodies. He saw the bloated numbers. He saw the rich rewards.

And it sickened him.

Thomas, a huge man among baseball standards, 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, despised what he was seeing.

Here was a man with a body and strength that his peers would envy, but with injections and pills, his peers were able to stay in the weight room longer, growing stronger, and putting up historical numbers.

They were cheating, of course, but Major League Baseball had no rules back then.

… “I probably lost more than anybody else in that steroid era,” says Thomas, a two-time MVP. “I could have had more MVPs, bigger contracts, things that I deserved.” (Emphasis mine.)

The irony escapes him.

Of course, a 6-foot-5 man would resent anything that might level the playing field (which was already tilted in his advantage)!

Also, note that Thomas’ passion seems to be directed less at the need to preserve the integrity of the game, and more toward how steroids negatively impacted his career and finances. (The fact that he is still making this point, despite being honored as a hall of fame player is, perhaps, telling.)

And lastly — and most importantly — the notion that other players were reaping the fruits that Thomas “deserved,” is really a debatable argument, isn’t it?

When you consider that genetics probably played a pretty big role in his success, you’re left with the fact that he didn’t build that.

To be sure, Thomas — who apparently came from a hardscrabble background — and surely worked hard at his craft — made a lot of sacrifices to get to the big leagues. But it’s still worth asking this: Would a 5-foot-11 Frank Thomas (let’s call him “The Average Hurt“) be in the hall of fame today? Maybe — maybe not. How about a 5-foot-6 Thomas (The Little Hurt)?

(There are a couple of players that Thomas probably had every right to resent — and one of them is Mark McGwire, who is roughly the same size as Thomas. Talk about wanting to have it all.)

It’s also fair to point out that while Thomas’ size probably gave him a lot of power, he still had to hit “ungodly” breaking balls — and fastballs hurled by major league pitchers; he still had to make contact. This is true, as far as it goes. But the same is true of steroid users; they still have to make contact. (In fairness to Thomas, while everyone talks about steroids making you bigger, arguably the greatest benefit is how they help you recover from injury quicker.)

No, this isn’t a defense of steroid use. But it is, interestingly enough, a commentary about inequality — and about how we tend to assume some advantages are fair, while others aren’t. And it’s about how doing that sometimes feels arbitrary, and how, if nothing else, this helps preserve the status quo. It’s about being born on third, and thinking you hit a triple.

Frank Thomas didn’t need to cheat; God juiced Frank Thomas. Like most great pro athletes these days, he inherited a natural advantage over the competition. That is altogether different from taking an unnatural advantage — something we (some would say, rather arbitrarily) deem unseemly and immoral — if not illegal. His was a natural advantage, but was it a fair advantage?

At the very least, maybe he should just stop complaining now.

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