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10/02/06 6:58 PM ET

Big Hurt got his way in Oakland

Thomas thriving with A's, but could have signed with Twins

MINNEAPOLIS -- Call it fate. Call it luck of the contractual draw, or simply call it a prudent business and baseball decision on both sides.

Regardless of the driving force behind the final call, Frank Thomas looks as if he truly belongs as part of the A's judging by his tremendous results this season. Oakland's playoff return indicates Thomas' presence also jibes with its clubhouse.

But there was a moment this past December, right before a surprising ice storm hit Dallas and closed out baseball's Winter Meetings, where it looked as if one of the game's greatest hitters over the past two decades was going to stay put in the American League Central.

No, the White Sox weren't an option for Thomas, with the team he had known for the length of his 16-year career buying out his contract and not offering the free agent arbitration. As for the Twins?

Let's just say they were more than a casually interested party in employing Thomas.

"It came down to the point where there were the final three teams, and Minnesota was one of the final three," said Thomas, as he met with the media Monday, one before the start of the American League Division Series at the Metrodome. "Things worked out perfectly for both teams, and we're here for the playoffs and that's what it's all about."

"We talked to him, like every other team," added Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire of Thomas. "You have in a room in the Winter Meetings, talking to him, and obviously you are interested in him. We talked over a lot of things. He was very impressive."

Actually, Gardenhire wasn't privy firsthand to these talks with Thomas back at the Wyndham Anatole in Dallas. Gardenhire joked Monday that Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan asked him to leave the room because of Gardenhire's affinity for Thomas as a person.

"Terry knew I would probably say something really stupid, and it would cost him more money," said a smiling Gardenhire of the Thomas talks.

In the long run, the Twins were a little leery of Thomas' durability on the Metrodome turf. Thomas expressed those same reservations Monday as an overriding factor for choosing against the Twins.

And it made perfect sense to be concerned with Thomas' health. During the 2004 and '05 seasons, Thomas played in only 108 games combined and had a two-year total of 345 at-bats. Hitting 30 home runs over these limited plate appearances proved Thomas still could connect with authority, but after a second fracture in his left ankle, the word retirement was being thrown around much more than comeback.

Thomas knew better. All he had to do was get healthy, get on the field and get at-bats, and the results would take care of themselves. With a .270 average, 39 home runs and 114 RBIs, Thomas not only is the frontrunner for 2006 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, but emerged as a longshot for AL Most Valuable Player, too.

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Apparently, Thomas knew his condition better than anyone else.

"Frank Thomas, Comeback Player of the Year," said Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter of his former Central rival. "Man, what he's done this year. Last year, people thought he was going to retire, needs to retire and then bam -- [39] home runs. This guy has been great. Congratulations to him, but hopefully in the playoffs, he kind of slows down a bit."

"I got to play a full season this year for the first time in a long time," Thomas added. "It feels good to be back playing baseball like I can."

Oakland procured the biggest bargain of baseball's free agent period by signing Thomas to a $500,000 deal, with another $2.6 million in roster bonuses and incentives. Of course, Thomas' monstrous effort in 2006 should lead to another big payday for the Big Hurt in the very near future.

Skeptics actually thought Oakland made a low-budget mistake with Thomas, when he was hitting .190 after April. But Gardenhire wasn't stunned to see Thomas bounce back and finish with such gaudy numbers.

"Great players find a way, and Frank is a great player," Gardenhire said. "You knew if he got in the right situation and could stay healthy, he could do a lot of damage. And you know what? You got to be happy for him.

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"The things he went through the last couple of years with injuries and the White Sox, to turn around and have a great year like this for Oakland, it's pretty special for him. Frank is a great person and great baseball player and proved it this year. We have to figure out a way to keep the ball in the park when he's up there because he can do some damage."

Thomas might actually take a little solace in his former team sitting home for the playoffs while he's fighting for a second straight World Series ring. If he wanted to gloat, though, Thomas certainly didn't do so Monday and hasn't done so during the season's final weeks.

Instead, Thomas is focused on the here and now. His team's season ended on the highest of notes in 2005, even if Thomas served as a large spectator in a cast. Now, Thomas can make a significant difference.

That difference could have been made for the Twins. But Thomas seems to feel a sense of true camaraderie in Oakland, a perfect fit for the big man sitting just 13 home runs short of 500 for his career.

"This is the first time in a long time I have been with a team that guys look forward to coming to the clubhouse every day and being around each other throughout the day -- so we have a great mix," Thomas said. "I tell people, 'Last year I was happy to get a great ending leaving there with a ring, but this time it's a little different.

"'Different situation. Different team. Different area of the country -- just a different spirit I have right now.'"

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.