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Macho Low, Part 8: Bobby Thigpen broke Tony La Russa’s brain

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Tight pants. 57 saves. A Tony La Russa meltdown. Really, really tight pants. By the time Bobby Thigpen got to Philly, he had already accomplished a lot.

Bobby Thigpen sets up Photo by: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

There were some big personalities on the 1993 Phillies. But they weren’t the only ones. As part of a commemoration of the team’s 25th anniversary, we’re taking a look at the back-ups, drop-ins, and less-remembered Phillies who didn’t make it into a lot of the archival footage.

Bobby Thigpen

Position: Former all-time saves-leader

Age: 29

Stats: 5.83 ERA, 29 SO, 21 BB in 19.1 IP

The year was 1990. The White Sox were playing out their final season in Old Comiskey Park, and the promotions were flying fast and loose.

Michael Jordan toward batting practice there over the summer and Upper Deck jumped at the chance to make a baseball card to commemorate the moment. The team started wearing black and pinstriped alternative jerseys, making their merchandise the hottest on the MLB market. The White Sox would find another gear that season, which became something of a turning point for the franchise as they finished in second place, nine games behind the on-fire Oakland Athletics. That success was represented at the All-Star Game at Wrigley Field, where the White Sox were represented by no starting players, Ozzie Guillen as a reserve infielder, and Bobby Thigpen coming out of the bullpen.

As Thigpen trotted out to pitch the seventh for Tony La Russa’s AL All-Stars, he did so with a regular season ERA of 1.93 and 27 saves in 39 appearances. Eyebrows were starting to raise. Ears were starting to twitch. “Thiggy” kept the National League back and helped his team win 2-0 nail-biter with a scoreless inning. Closers were only recently becoming a thing, thanks in part to La Russa and Dennis Eckersley in Oakland, but Thigpen was the one setting the standard. “We would be nowhere without him,” White Sox manager Jeff Torborg said in September that year after Thigpen recorded his 47th save, a new record. Thigpen, a less dramatic quote-giver, called it a “a nice feeling, a nice accomplishment.”

The Brewers had tried to draft Thigpen out of Seminole Community College, not far from his hometown of Tallahassee in Florida, in 1983. He remained a diligent college athlete in the tightest pants imaginable, transferring to Mississippi State in 1985 and helping MSU win the SEC championship by beating Georgia 8-3. On their way to the title, No. 4 MSU had defeated No. 11 Michigan 19-8 in the Starkville Regional Tournament, in a game in which Rafael Palmerio hit a three-run home run and Thigpen helped out by hitting a grand slam.

Thigpen debuted in the majors in August 1986 after the Sox took him in the fourth round the year before. White Sox starter Floyd Bannister got the lights punched out of him by the Red Sox on August 6 and, due to other injuries on the relief staff, Thigpen knew he was going to see some action after Billy Dawley worked five innings of relief. At 23 years old, he didn’t start his career with ice water in his veins, but the kid who gave up five hits and two runs to Boston that day would wind up becoming Chicago’s all-times saves leader with 201 by the end of his career.

Following the trial-by-Red Sox that started things off, Thigpen was quickly given more and more work at the end of the White Sox bullpen, and by 1988, he was leading the league in games finished with 59.

His 1990 season remains something that stands out as an anomaly on his stat page, however, and flummoxes analysts and historians to this day. Thigpen says the season “flew by,” as seasons tend to do when everything is working. He added 31 more saves in the season’s second half—including a 0.54 ERA through 14 games in September—for a total of 57, which blew everyone’s doors off at the time and remained the single-season save record for 18 years.

Thigpen could be dropped in to blow away the last three batters of a game, or go multiple innings if need be, which he did 18 times, including three innings twice. His last appearance of the 1990 season saw him blow a save with a sac fly and being relieved by fellow future 1993 Phillies relief pitcher Donn Pall (with a mustachioed Larry Andersen in the other dugout, playing for the Red Sox at the time). The White Sox would finish 94-68 that year, but given the cruel, streamlined nature of the playoffs at the time, they missed the postseason entirely and had to watch as the team that beat them, the A’s, swept the Red Sox out of the picture in the ALCS before getting swept themselves in the World Series by the Reds.

Thigpen had a much more sane year in 1991: 30 saves, 3.49 ERA, yawn. Without league-leading statistics, a playoff picture, or an all-star appearance, he could focus on what mattered most to him as a player: melting Tony La Russa’s brain.

In 1991, La Russa was in his sixth year of managing the Athletics after having the same job for the White Sox to start his managerial career from 1979-86. In a game against Oakland, Thigpen entered in relief and wound up bouncing a fastball off A’s catcher Terry Steinbach’s head. La Russa rampaged out of the dugout, screaming at the umpire about what he had deemed a bean ball and, in his frustration, grabbed the bat and threw it against the backstop. La Russa later admitted that he “may not have acted at the height of reasonableness,” but then went on to accuse White Sox pitchers like Thigpen of targeting A’s hitters.

The decrepit husk of Carlton Fisk, still with Chicago at this point and remembering all too easily when La Russa was his manager, pointed the finger back at La Russa. And finally, to cap the whole extremely professional exchange off, when an Associated Press reporter asked La Russa... why he picked up and threw the bat, La Russa had another meltdown and shoved the reporter, who was quite advanced in age and was escorted out of the clubhouse by security.

All because a fastball got away from Bobby Thigpen. Or, because he was throwing at A’s hitters on purpose. There’s no way to know. What matters is, you could say that over the course of La Russa’s multi-day, multi-part unraveling, that perhaps Thigpen had gotten in his head.

Regardless, Thigpen did nothing much to distinguish himself in 1991; certainly nothing that and as the years went by, his save total plummeted from 57, to 30, to 22, to one in 1993.

In “Late and Close: A History of Relief Pitching,” Paul Votano calls Thigpen “a forgotten man” by the time Lee Thomas was trading for him in August 1993. He’d never matched his 1990 season again, but was still 14th all-time in saves.

It’s no surprise, really, that Thomas went for Thigpen. The numbers weren’t great, but for a team that claimed it was hunting for chemistry among its cast-offs and has-beens, the Phillies made an obvious choice in Thigpen: He cited Jim Fregosi as the coach that had the biggest impact on his career by forcing him into the closer’s role that put him among the league’s best. Fregosi had managed the White Sox from 1986 to 1988, finishing with more losses than wins and zero post season appearances. But he was able to establish a relationship with Thigpen that contributed to the pitcher’s effectiveness and his targeting by the Phillies three years later, and registered with him more fervently than other forms of coaching.

“Closer: Major League Players Reveal the Inside Pitch on Saving the Game,” by Kevin Neary, Leigh A. Tobin

The Phillies were starting a key home stand by August 10 in 1993, with six games against the Expos and Mets that could see them put some space between themselves and their challengers for the division lead. Six games up on the Cardinals and ten on Montreal, Lee Thomas was hard at work trying to fortify the bullpen with arms they could rely on. Thigpen was brought on from the first-place White Sox over in the American League West division in exchange for Jose DeLeon, and in his first appearance for the Phillies on August 13, he entered the game in the ninth with a four-run lead and silenced the Mets.

Things went smoothly, though the Phillies did lose more games than they won in games in which Thigpen appeared, and one prickly appearance on August 38 saw him give up five runs to the Reds that cost the Phillies a win. The late-September nightmare that was a series in Montreal with the Expos pushing hard to torpedo the Phillies’ season was also disastrous for Thigpen, as he surrendered four runs in an inning and a third after the Phillies had built a 7-3 lead and wound up losing 8-7.

In the posteason, Thigpen would appear in four games, giving up only two hits, one in each round, though one was a three-run home to Damon Berryhill when the Braves beat the Phillies 14-3 in Game Two of the NLCS. Nevertheless, he received regular usage out of Fregosi’s pen, and became one of the typical pitchers in it: Maybe he’d get you three outs, sure; or maybe everything would explode. Which, in 1993, we know it did.

Thigpen was released in November and signed with the Mariners as a free agent, but they released him by the end of April 1994. His career was nine seasons long and ended when he was only 31. He’s been with White Sox as a pitching coach, bullpen coach, or organic chef for ten years, and in a frightening turn of events, suffered severe internal bleeding after tripping on some steps while leaving the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, resulting in “a gallon of blood” gathering in his abdomen. He’s okay now.

Thigpen may not have been able to capitalize on his tremendous 1990 season, but as Paul Votano writes, “...for one, shining season... there never was a more effective closing reliever than Bobby Thigpen.”

References:

Baseball’s Even Greater Insults:: More Game’s Most Outrageous & Irreverent Remarks, by Kevin Nelson

Closer: Major League Players Reveal the Inside Pitch on Saving the Game, by Kevin Neary, Leigh A. Tobin

Late and Close: A History of Relief Pitching, by Paul Votano