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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: November 30, 2022 12:45 pm PDT
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If the superlatives regarding their respective futures on which seniors in high school vote included Least Likely to Be a Major League pitcher, then Bobby Thigpen would have been chosen. And, he probably would have voted for himself.

The former White Sox closer, who still holds the club’s single season [57] and career record [201] for saves, admits that baseball wasn’t something that was on his mind growing up and that he primarily was using the sport as a way to get to college. It wasn’t until he began playing for Mississippi State in the mid-1980s that he realized playing pro ball might be an option.

“Growing up I had no clue,” Thigpen, 59, said. “I didn’t know what Major League Baseball was. I grew up in the country in northern Florida. I never even saw a big-league game until I played in one. When and where I grew up, it just wasn’t available. Dale Murphy was my hero because the Braves were the only game in town and I’d watch them on Saturdays.

“I got into baseball after high school because I wanted to go to college. No one in my family had ever been. I had no intention of playing afterwards. I didn’t know what pro ball was all about. But once I got to Mississippi State and started listening, watching and being around Will [Clark], Raf [Rafael Palmiero] and Jeff Brantley and going to play in the summer league in Alaska, then I thought I might have a chance. But that wasn’t until my last year at Mississippi State.”

By then, the Bulldogs had become the talk of the college baseball world and Thigpen, along with Clark, Palmiero and Brantley, would go on to have All-Star careers in the Major Leagues. Thigpen’s career spanned nine seasons and he proved to be a workhorse for much of that time, saving 176 games over a five-season stretch in the late Eighties and early Nineties. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1990 when he recorded 57 saves, finished fourth in the CY Young voting and fifth in the MVP balloting. It was also the year he made his lone All-Star appearance.

“My first pitch in the bullpen in Fenway Park I one-hopped it and spiked it in the grass. We were getting pelted with batteries and quarters and butane lighters out there. ”

He was the first pitcher to crack the 50-save mark and he would hold the record for most saves in a season until 2008 when Francisco Rodriguez saved 62 games for the Angels. Only Seattle’s Edwin Diaz, who had 57 saves in 2018, has equaled Thigpen.

Thigpen also spent two seasons in Japan and closed out his career with stops in Philadelphia and Seattle. Back troubles forced him into a premature retirement but they couldn’t erase the moments he had in Chicago. His body of work remains impressive, particularly when it seemed, as a youngster, that baseball was not a horizon toward which he was traveling.

BECOMING A BULLDOG

Thigpen attended Aucilla Christian High School in Monticello, which is northeast of Tallahassee, not far from the Georgia border. It is a small school and he was a three-sport athlete starring in football, baseball and basketball. He made All-State in all three sports as a senior and had a notion that basketball might be in his future.

“I went and I tried out for the LaGrange [Ga.] College basketball team and thank God that didn’t work out,” Thigpen said. “I worked out with their team and didn’t do well in the scrimmage. That was the end of basketball and the beginning of baseball so it worked out pretty well.

“I just wanted to get a degree and do something besides digging ditches or working in the fields where I grew up. I went for business management and went back [to Mississippi State] after I signed. I ended up with an associate arts degree and I’m still four classes short in business management. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use it.”

While a basketball career at LaGrange didn’t work out, a baseball career was beginning to take shape at Seminole State College, where he mostly played outfield. He did well enough in his two seasons that Milwaukee drafted him in the seventh round of the 1983 First-year Player Draft but Thigpen had decided on continuing his collegiate career at Mississippi State.

While there is no way to tell what would have happened had he signed with Milwaukee one thing is for certain, his time at Mississippi State proved to be the perfect training ground for Thigpen’s career. He spent two seasons at MSU as part of what was one of the most dominating college baseball teams of its time. It was the successes, failures and exposure he experienced there that helped prepare him for what was ahead.

CHICAGO - 1986: Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox pitches during an MLB game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois during the 1986 season . (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“College prepared me a lot with Will on the team and all the attention they were drawing,” said Thigpen, who was named to the All-SEC Tournament team in 1984 and ’85. “There was always a lot of media and I think we were the first team on Sunday night college baseball. We played the first two weeks so we helped put college baseball on the map. With Raf and Will it was a non-stop show.

“All that stuff made it a great place to start a career. Everything I did after that was because of being at Mississippi State. I believe that.”

The disappointment Thigpen felt to close out his collegiate career also helped harden him. MSU was a heavy favorite to win the College World Series in 1985. Thigpen was on the mound protecting a one-run lead against Miami in a semifinal elimination game when he surrendered a two-run homer to Greg Ellena on a 1-2 pitch, thus ending his collegiate career.

“My last game in college was disappointing to say the least,” Thigpen said. “I gave up a two-run homer to lose it and I’m left standing there on the mound and all of a sudden I am a pro.”

The White Sox selected Thigpen in the fourth round of the draft, which took place during the College World Series. Thigpen said he was focused on playing at the time and not so much on who took him or when.

“Will got picked the first day [of the draft] and then two or three days after it started Coach Polk called me and asked me what my favorite team was,” Thigpen said. “I mentioned a couple of teams and he said no, that’s not correct. It’s the White Sox. I had no clue they were following me at all. That’s how I found out.

“I wasn’t really excited about it because we were there to do what we were there to do. I was never looking forward or in the past. It was all about the College World Series and I couldn’t talk to the White Sox until after that anyway.”

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

While Thigpen had been a closer at MSU, he was also a positional player and had done well at the plate. The White Sox, however, wanted him to pitch and that’s what he did not long after the World Series concluded. He was sent to Niagara Falls of the Rookie-Level New York-Penn League, where he went 2-3 with nine saves a 1.72 ERA in 52 1/3 innings over 28 games [one start]. He also made a relief appearance for Appleton [Wisc.] of the Class-A Midwest League, a 2 2/3-inning stint in which he picked up the victory.

“[Class-] A ball was a step down from Mississippi State in terms of the facilities,” Thigpen said. “We would draw and had tremendous crowds and then you go to A ball and it’s wow. Now, though, clubs have brand new, fantastic parks compared to when we started in the 80s. When I go there I thought oh my gosh what is this?

“You also joined a team that had been together for three or four weeks. I had to wait until the College World Series was over and they were already practicing and playing. So, I just jumped into the fray. They tell you when you’re going to pitch and you have a schedule. I went from being an outfielder and now I am just a pitcher. My outfield days were done but they still let me take BP.”

(Original Caption) 2/26/1989-Sarasota, FL: White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk enjoys a light moment with pitcher Bobby Thigpen, 2/26, in the outfield at their spring training headquarters. Fisk took the break to treat his mitt with saddle soap. (Photo: Pete Cosgrove / Getty)

The BP ended the following Spring Training when Chicago manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan told Thigpen that he would not be hitting anymore.

“I missed it because it was a distraction,” he said. “Taking BP was something I enjoyed. It gave me a release and you knew that at that time of the day you got to go take BP. But I understood where they were coming from.

“I was still riding the wave. I went to Spring Training and then you start realizing I’m here with [Carlton] Fisk, [Tom] Seaver, [Harold] Baines and [Ron] Kittle. I’m with all these guys in my first Spring Training. My locker was the first one by the door when you walked in and I figured out why in a hurry. The first cuts were two weeks later and I was out the door. I was in awe, though, because I still had no clue. I was just there to play. They gave me a shot so I was just going to play and give it a shot.”

Little did Thigpen know that he’d be back with the big leaguers before long. He began 1986 as a starter at Birmingham of the Double-A Southern League. The Sox wanted him to get in some innings since he had not pitched a great deal since high school. He made 25 starts for the Barons, going 8-11 with a 4.68 ERA in what was a career-high 159 2/3 innings before getting called up to Chicago at the beginning of August.

“I didn’t mind it [starting],” he said. “It didn’t bother me but in today’s world they wouldn’t even be allowed to do that. If anything, it helped me. I needed to know how to throw other pitches.”

Thigpen made his Major League debut on Aug. 6 in a blowout loss at Fenway Park. He allowed two runs on five hits and a pair of walks over three innings with both runs coming in his last inning of work.

“I got there late, the game had already started and they gave me a jersey that had no number,” Thigpen said. “Anyway, I’m sitting there in the bullpen, thinking about everything and relaxing. We’re getting beat 6-0 and the phone rings and everyone says that’s for me. I’m thinking no way, you’re a closer but they said Thiggy you’re going in.

“I’m thinking oh my gosh. My first pitch in the bullpen in Fenway Park I one-hopped it and spiked it in the grass. We were getting pelted with batteries and quarters and butane lighters out there. We had no security in those days and they could throw whatever they wanted. I was disappointed because I gave up runs. I was so nervous I thought everyone could see my knees shaking.”

Thigpen made 20 appearances and went 2-0 with seven saves and a 1.77 ERA.

“I was fortunate to get to Chicago in less than a year. Maybe [White Sox manager] Jimmy [Fregosi, who had taken over for LaRussa] saw that mentally I could blow stuff off so I just kind of kept going. I threw 28 1/3 scoreless innings after that for a little over a month. I was going 2-3 innings at a time and showed I could handle it. Things took off from there.”

CHICAGO - 1989: Bobby Thigpen of the Chicago White Sox pitches during a MLB game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

His effort over the second half of 1986 was enough to earn Thigpen a place on Chicago’s roster to begin the 1987 season. Injuries to other pitchers and some questionable decisions by the front office led to Thigpen getting sent back to Hawaii of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in late May to work on becoming a starter. He was 2-2 with a save and a 3.51 ERA at the time. According to the May 27 edition of The Daily Herald, general manager Larry Himes convinced Fregosi that Thigpen would be better off as a starter.

“He’s really not getting enough pitches in for a guy his age to find out what kind of pitcher he is capable of becoming,” Himes told The Daily Herald. “He has the flexibility to be a short man or a starter. It isn’t anything new for him. I talked to him about it and he didn’t think it would be any big adjustment at all.”

Thigpen went 2-3 with a 6.15 ERA in nine starts, including a pair of complete games, one of which was a shutout.

“I got sent there to be a starter again but this time it was legitimate and to develop more pitches to be a projected starter,” Thigpen said. “I think they seriously wanted me to be a starter; it just didn’t work out. Being a starter every five days in Hawaii was awesome, though. You were home for 16 straight days and played eight straight games against one team because of the travel.

“When I came back in ’87, [closer] Bob James had gotten hurt again so I got 15 saves in the second half of the season. I came up during the All-Star break and just kept my head down. Whenever they wanted me to throw, I threw. Instead of pitching the sixth, seventh and eighth, I was pitching seven, eight and nine. For me, it was a dream come true. It was nothing I ever considered possible so just to even be there was great. And for it to happen in a year or two’s time.”

Thigpen went 7-5 with 16 saves and a 2.73 ERA in 89 innings over 51 games, putting himself in position to assume full-time closer duties in 1988.

THE RECORD-SETTING RUN

He saved 34 games in both 1988 and 1989, setting up what would be an historic 1990 season. Thigpen led the league with career highs in appearances [77] and games finished [73]. He also had a 1.88 ERA over 88 2/3 innings. And, of course, there were the 57 saves, which shattered the previous mark [46] set by Yankees’ closer Dave Righetti in 1986. He is one of 17 pitchers to record a 50-save season. Thigpen also blew eight saves that season, including one in his final appearance of the year.

“That season went by fast,” Thigpen said. “We won 94 games and finished nine games behind Oakland. Here we are upstarts and we gave them a run for their money. Our style of play meant we played a ton of one-run games and I was the major beneficiary of that because I got opportunities. The next year I only had 30 saves. You can’t get saves if you don’t have the opportunities. We played a lot of close games so that’s just the way it worked out. We hung with Oakland as long we could and them a good run.”

Bobby Thingpen #58 of the Chicago White Sox looks on during spring training workouts on February 19, 2014 at The Ballpark at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Thigpen recorded his 50th save on Sept. 15 with a scoreless inning against the Red Sox. It was one of the few times he showed emotion on the mound.

“It was a big deal,” Thigpen said. “Someone sent me a clip and it was one of the few times when they made the last out, I jumped up and down. It was the 50th save, I did know that. I was the first one to do it and I showed more emotion than I normally do. I did actually jump up and down a little and hit my mitt.

“I think I blew seven or eight saves that year so I could have gotten to 60 easy. The sad part is that four of the blown saves were three-run leads, which is kind of unheard of. At that point, you would think the game would be over. It just doesn’t work out sometimes.”

It would and wouldn’t work out for Thigpen following his historic season. He saved 52 games combined in 1991-92 but he was also experiencing back troubles which were the result of a trip to Japan following the 1990 season. It affected his performance. His ERA jumped from 1.83 in 1990 to 3.49 in 1991 then 4.75 in 1992 and finally to 5.83 in 1993, the year he was traded to Philadelphia.

“I started having back spasms after the 1990 season,” he said. “We went on this Japan All-Star thing and the mounds were terrible. I hurt my back there and started getting spasms.”

The Sox put together back-to-back second-place finishes in 1990 and ’91 but manager Jeff Torborg let go after the 1991 season and replaced by Gene Lamont, which contributed to his Thigpen’s exit from Chicago.

“Jeff left and Gene came in and for some reason Gene wouldn’t use me as much,” Thigpen said. “He thought I was burned out after that big year and my retort was I needed to throw more to build up to where I needed to be, that’s why in Spring Training I would throw 15 to 18 innings. Gene felt the opposite and I thought I wasn’t getting used enough after that.”

THE END IS NEAR

Thigpen was traded to Philadelphia on Aug. 10, 1993, after appearing in 25 games for the Sox and posting a 5.71 ERA. He appeared in 17 games for the Phillies and pitched to a 6.05 ERA in 19 2/3 innings. Still, he was added to Philly’s post-season roster and pitched to a 2.08 ERA in four NLCS and World Series appearances.

“At the time of the trade, I was ready to go,” Thigpen said. “I wasn’t contributing the way I wanted to be contributing and I was only being used if we were up or down by six. I wasn’t comfortable. That was my fault. I should have been able to pitch in any situation. I didn’t adjust to pitching in a non-competitive situation. I ended up back with Jimmy [Fregosi] in Philly and when I got there I started having fun again.”

Pitcher Bobby Thigpen #37 of the Philadelphia Phillies winds back to pitch during game four of the 1993 World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Veterans Stadium on October 20,1993 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by MLB via Getty Images)

The fun didn’t last, though. Thigpen didn’t re-sign with the Phillies, instead going to Seattle as a free agent.  But after pitching to a 9.39 ERA in seven April outings, he was released. He signed with Daiei of the Japanese Pacific League and spent the rest of 1994 and all of 1995 there, regaining his form and pitching to a 1.94 ERA with 20 saves over 53 appearances.

“Japan was awesome; they treat you like a king,” Thigpen said. “Just do your best, give 100 percent and try to adhere to their ways and adjust. I tried to do everything to adapt and they appreciated it. But my back blew out and it grabbed me. They tried acupuncture, everything for a few weeks until the interpreter said go home and get your back fixed.

“I took some time off and came back in great shape for Spring Training in 1996 and I had a handshake agreement with the Sox – if something happened [with my back] I wouldn’t hold them responsible. I went to Nashville [of the Triple-A American Association] and I was there for three weeks. At the end of the month, I threw a pitch and I felt it snap. I threw one more inning, struck out the side and two weeks later I had surgery. That was it. I had displaced vertebrae.”

Thigpen had plates and screws attached to his spine and that marked the end of his playing days. He didn’t stay on the sidelines for long, moving on to coach high school ball for 10 years with his son. He also did fantasy camps and ultimately returned to professional ball coaching for six years in the minor leagues. He managed the Bristol White Sox of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League for two seasons, then coached with Class-A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham before the White Sox named him their bullpen coach in 2013. He stayed in Chicago through 2016.

“I was fortunate enough to get into Chicago for four years in the bullpen when [manager and former teammate] Robin [Ventura] was there,” Thigpen said. “When I was in A and Double-A I loved watching the guys improve. [Jose] Quintana still calls me dad, cool stuff like that. Being able to see guys that have stuff like that makes you feel good.”

Thigpen said that he is enjoying life with his five grandchildren and that he’d only get back into baseball if former White Sox coach Joe McEwing gets a job as a manager and he can be on the staff. Otherwise, he is content being a grandpa and spending his time hunting and fishing.

Ultimately, it may be for the better because Thigpen is like so many other former players from his and other eras who don’t like what the game has become. He is not a big fan of analytics or the changes that have taken place over the last several years.

“I don’t know why everything is based on numbers and they are basing decisions on numerical outcomes,” he said. “The game has been the same for hundreds of years and to me they are trying to change it, which I don’t like. Even next year, you can only throw over three times or it’s a balk. Everything they are trying to do is against the pitcher.

“They need to understand the hitting coaches are the problem with all these strikeouts. Instead of teaching them to put the ball in play all they do is hit homeruns and strikeout. You’re going to penalize the pitcher when all they do is talk about launch angle and this and that. A player like Wade Boggs wouldn’t be worth a crap now. Guys like Boggs and [Tony] Gwynn would be 60 points ahead of everyone. I just don’t appreciate it.”

Those who faced Thigpen, though, appreciated what he brought to the mound particularly since, at one point in his life, it wasn’t a place for which he appeared destined.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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