CHICAGO | They faced off 96 times in a span of 17 years. Frank Thomas at the plate and Mike Mussina on the mound, one of baseball's most feared sluggers taking on one of the sport's smartest players.
There were warm summer days and brisk spring nights. Big games and small ones, everywhere from the Bronx to Chicago's South Side to Oakland on the West Coast.
It's a string that runs through the careers of two decorated players, who find out Wednesday if they are headed for one more honor, a spot in baseball's Hall of Fame.
"The quality of pitcher that Mike is, whoever it was on the other team, they always were aware of where Frank was," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who played with Thomas and Mussina. "It was good that we got to enjoy kind of those battles with those pitchers, because Frank was very good at it."
Thomas was one of the toughest outs in the majors during his heyday, hitting 524 homers and driving in 1,704 runs during a sparkling 19-year career spent mostly with the White Sox. Aptly nicknamed The Big Hurt, the 6-foot-5 Thomas also had a .301 batting average, .419 on-base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage for his career, numbers that stack up favorably when compared to some of the biggest names in Cooperstown.
"I think I've done enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer," he said a year ago at the White Sox fan convention.
Mussina, a native of Williamsport, Pa., was one of baseball's most consistent pitchers during his 18-year career with the Orioles and Yankees, recording at least 18 victories in six seasons and winning at least 11 games in each of his last 17 years in the majors. A seven-time Gold Glove winner, he finished with a 270-153 record and a 3.68 ERA while pitching in the challenging AL East.
"Looking back at the whole thing for 18 years, when it was my turn to pitch, I went out and pitched, most of the time," said Mussina, who has an economics degree from Stanford. "I never had surgery. I never had major stints on the disabled list.
"I'm proud of being able to do that."
The thread that unites the hulking slugger and pitcher's pitcher is 82 official at-bats from Aug. 4, 1991 to April 2, 2008. It's the highest total for Thomas against a single pitcher, and he had a .366 career average and nine homers versus the durable right-hander. But Mussina won his share of the battles, too.
So while Thomas stays quiet ahead of the announcement of the writers' Hall ballot — he declined an interview request made through the team — a look at five days over the years provides a glimpse into what made the Columbus, Ga., native and Mussina strong candidates for baseball's highest honor.
AUGUST 4, 1991
Ask Hal Baird about Thomas, and the retired Auburn baseball coach can recite story after story about one of his favorite former players.
Thomas got a late start to his baseball career at the school because he also played tight end on the football team. Baird wasn't exactly sure what to expect when he finally joined the team, but Thomas quickly answered any questions he had.
"He came out the first day. It was a little bit cold and we were standing behind the cage getting ready to take some batting practice," Baird said. "I watched his swing about three times and I told my assistant coach who worked with the hitters, I said 'Leave this kid alone. He needs no help whatsoever. Let's just make sure he gets to the ballpark on time.'"
Mussina learned all about Thomas' potent swing when the pitcher made his major league debut for Baltimore. Thomas' one-out drive to left on a 2-1 pitch in the sixth was the only run allowed by Mussina over 7 2-3 innings in a 1-0 loss to the White Sox.
MAY 15, 1992
Mussina is on his way to establishing himself as one of baseball's best pitchers when he runs into Thomas again. Thomas reaches on a leadoff single in the second, but he grounds out to third twice before Mussina leaves after throwing 8 2-3 innings of four-hit ball in Baltimore's 2-0 win.
Mussina improved to 5-0, and went on to an 18-5 record with a 2.54 ERA. It was business as usual for Thomas, who finished the year with a .323 batting average, 24 homers and 115 RBIs.
"Did I hope that that was going to lead to more victories? Yes, but did it mean that I knew what I was doing automatically? No, I had a lot to learn," Mussina said, remembering that breakout 1992 season. "I kept learning until the day I stopped playing."
MAY 27, 1994
It seemed as if no one could stop Thomas at this point, who won consecutive AL MVP awards in 1993 and 1994. On this date, he hits Mussina's first pitch of the eighth inning over the wall in right-center for his 18th homer, helping Chicago to a 3-0 victory.
Thomas and the White Sox were on top of the AL Central and Mussina had the Orioles in second in the East when a players' strike wiped out the rest of the season.
"I think we had the best team in baseball, no doubt about it," Thomas said when he announced his retirement in 2010. "Some people consider Montreal the best team, but I think the Chicago White Sox were the best team."
JUNE 10, 2006
Thomas gets Mussina one last time, connecting on a full-count pitch in the first inning of Oakland's 5-2 victory over New York. It was his 16th homer on his way to 39 in a renaissance for Thomas with the Athletics, and the last time he takes Mussina deep.
Mussina goes on to win 15 games as the Yankees grab the AL East title for the ninth straight season. Thomas helps the A's win the West, but both teams lose to Detroit in the playoffs.
APRIL 2, 2008
The final duel came with one out in the sixth inning of Mussina's first start of his final season. He hit Thomas to put two runners on for Toronto.
While Thomas waited two years to announce his retirement, Mussina knew all along that 2008 was his final season. He pitched six shutout innings in his final game in Boston to run his record to 20-9, making him the oldest first-time 20-game winner ever.
"It was my time to stop and I stopped and I have no regrets," said Mussina, who was 39 when he was walked away. "I never look back. I never thought about playing again."