Thigpen does not save time for a chat
Maybe it pains Bobby Thigpen that Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels is on pace to shatter his single-season major league saves record.
Or maybe the former Chicago White Sox closer, now 45, is too busy managing the Bristol (Va.) Sox of the Appalachian League, a rookie-level affiliate of the White Sox, to squeeze in a few minutes to reminisce about his signature season.
Or maybe he’s just a grump.
Whatever the reason, the 1990 Rolaids Relief Man blows off a scheduled telephone interview, finally picks up the phone 90 minutes later and, by way of greeting, berates the caller for interrupting a meeting.
Several more calls go unanswered and, even after Bristol club President Mahlon Luttrell relays a message, Thigpen still does not reach out.
Said Luttrell, apologetically, “I can’t make him.”
How times change.
Eighteen years ago, when he racked up a whopping 57 saves to break the previous record of 46, Thigpen had no trouble answering a call.
“We went to him every night,” said former Dodgers and Angels catcher Jeff Torborg, manager of the White Sox during Thigpen’s record-breaking season.
“We were not exactly a juggernaut -- we didn’t score a lot of runs -- yet we won 94 games, and a big part of it was Bobby, because he was always available.”
For a team that finished second in the American League West, nine games behind the division champion Oakland Athletics, Thigpen made a league- and career-high 77 appearances. In 88 2/3 innings, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound right-hander compiled a 4-6 record and 1.83 earned-run average to go along with all those saves, finishing fourth in balloting for the Cy Young Award and fifth in the most valuable player vote.
“He kept you on the edge of your seat at times. He wasn’t automatic,” Torborg said of Thigpen, who might have put the record out of reach if he hadn’t squandered eight save opportunities. “He had almost a whirling-dervish delivery -- kind of like [Rodriguez], legs and arms flying -- but he was a big, strong horse.”
Also, Torborg notes, setup man Barry Jones had a career year in front of the closer, compiling an 11-4 record and career-best 2.31 ERA.
“It takes a solid ‘pen to help you get to that number,” Torborg said of Thigpen’s record sum. “Barry Jones had a lot to do with it.”
Like Rodriguez, who will be a free agent this winter, Thigpen was in the last year of his contract when he enjoyed his breakout season. He made his only All-Star appearance in July 1990, his 57 saves gave him 125 in three seasons and the White Sox rewarded him with a three-year, $9-million contract.
By the end of it, injuries had all but ended his major league career. He retired in 1994 with 201 saves, only 54 after 1990, and was labeled an underachiever.
In the 2007 book “The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History,” author Jayson Stark calls Thigpen “the Siouxsie and the Banshees of relievers -- because this guy is one of baseball’s epic one-hit wonders. Yes, Thigpen’s 57-save season . . . still stood as the ‘all-time’ single-season record last time anybody checked. But surrounding that season, here’s what you’ll find: no other 35-save seasons, a 3.43 career ERA, an opponent batting average of .252, and a blown save for every four he converted.”
Torborg believes Thigpen’s fortunes turned after June 1, 1991, when the reliever touched off a brawl by beaning Terry Steinbach of the A’s.
“He happened to hit Terry in the head and it caused a melee,” Torborg said. “Bobby was in the middle of the scuffle and was down on the ground and when it was cleared I remember saying to him, ‘Are you all right?’ I think he hurt his back. He continued to pitch, but he wasn’t quite the same after that. His command was off and the ball didn’t seem to have quite as much pop.”
Traded two years later, Thigpen helped the Philadelphia Phillies reach the 1993 World Series. Six months later, he was released by the Seattle Mariners.
A father of two, Thigpen retreated in retirement to Florida, where he coached high school baseball for several years before the White Sox hired him back into the organization as a minor league manager last season.
“I felt like I was ready to get back into professional ball,” Thigpen told tricitiessports.com on the eve of his managerial debut 14 months ago. “I’ve been trying to get back with the White Sox in some capacity for the last couple of years. I just wanted to get back into baseball and do something.”
His Sox were 25-43 last season, finishing fourth in their division, but they’re 27-22 this season, 3 1/2 games out of first place with two weeks to play.
Torborg says that if Thigpen the manager is anything like Thigpen the 1990-vintage closer, he’ll be a successful dugout leader.
“He was just a big, strong kid who wanted the ball,” Torborg said. “He was a great competitor, tough. And we needed him. We flat-out needed him.”