Frank Thomas turns 43 today, I turn 24 tomorrow. It's pretty easy to figure the math that Thomas was lined up to be my childhood hero. It was a task he was preposterously well-suited for.
Frank was so easily the greatest player of the 90's White Sox that he seemed like a given. Surely every team had their absurdly dominant franchise player like the Sox had The Big Hurt, the Bulls had Michael Jordan, and the Bears...well, I could never figure out what their deal was.
Perhaps even more than Jordan, Frank was archetypal to my early
understanding of what a dominant player should be. A fearsome power
hitter, he matched the awesomeness of his blasts with an enormous frame,
a perpetual scowl at the plate, and of course, apparently realized his
image enough to see the genius in swinging a large menacing pipe in the
on-deck circle. It was all so cartoonish and exaggerated. As someone
who was a six year-old in the Sox division-winning year of '93, Frank
seemed like the ideal slugger a six year-old would think up; removed of
subtlety or reasonable limitation.
All the numbers were there to
back it up. His wOBA never dipped below .430 for the first 8 seasons of
his career, he was a perennial threat to hit 30-40 HR but barely
struckout more than he walked. He had a .680 OPS for his career when he
was down 0-2 in the count...with 53 HRs. It was a lot easier to
examine how far away Frank was from perfection than from the average
Seven straight years of batting .300, over 20 HRs, 100
walks, 100 runs, 100 RBI...it was all over a 170 OPS+, he was built to
be taken for granted.
Hell, the only reason I remember those stats is
because they were printed on the cups at Comiskey at the time.
him this way--as someone you could plan your plastic cup decoration
around--was a recipe for unhappiness, as it put into so much relief all
the things that he couldn't be expected to do. When you establish that
you're one of the greatest hitters breathing and can be so every year,
there's only room for disappointment.
It was more than frustrating to watch Thomas to stew out of the
spotlight on mediocre mid-and-late 90's Sox teams, lose his staggering
consistency as he reached his 30's, and most of all to realize that the
greatest season of his career was going to be the one that was never
realized due to the labor strike.
The '94 strike seemed to rob Frank of his moment to permanently enter
the national consciousness. The Sox would struggle for the rest of the
decade, and Thomas' exposure would flounder with it. SportsCenter would
only make passing reference to his nickname as they touched over Sox
highlights hidden near the end of the show, and he'd appear in All-Star
Games as the sole team representative. It was as if he had been
relegated to existing as a mere 'regional power', when at every moment I
wanted him to do something incredible that couldn't be ignored,
something that validated to the baseball world what we all revered on a
In the 1995 All-Star game, Thomas ripped a 2-run HR
right inside the left field foul pole. I remember wishing he had drove
it out to center, to the deepest part of the park, eclipsing 400 feet
with room to spare. Just to let everyone know he could. When was the
next time they'd see him again, after all?
Frank slipped in
1998. He went through two years of disappointing returns before
flashing MVP production once more in 2000, but injuries mark the
beginning of the decline. He missed almost the entire year in 2001
after tearing his triceps, got called out about toughness by David Wells
of all the idiotic people in the world, and had the 'diminished skills'
clause of his contract invoked the next season for all his troubles as
the team tried to reduce their commitment to him.
Thomas would return to an extremely high level of play, but refashioned
himself as a resolute home-run hitter, and never touched a .300 average
again, which had once been his hallmark. I It was an amazing testament
to his ability that this diminished Thomas, wracked by injuries, could
still fashion himself as a slugger to center a lineup around.
Still, the introduction of the idea that he could somehow be limited was
galling. His repeated injury troubles gave rise to the idea that he
could no longer be built around. By the time 2005 came, it was only
fleeting moments where Frank could make it onto the field. The foot
that Ozzie used to massage in the dugout in between innings was
betraying him with increased frequency. But with the Sox playing their
best ball that anyone could remember, the need for him to be a part of
it--our great champion, at the moment where we could finally provide him
a suitable stage--was overwhelming.
I don't know if I ever appreciated Frank more than I did during his 124
plate appearances and 34 games in '05. He swatted 12 home runs in that
tiny period, despite looking as out of sorts at the plate as he'd ever
been. He struck out at a higher rate and walked at a lower rate than at
any other point in his career, as if he was trying to make up for lost
time by homering in every at-bat. It was pretty much antithetical to
everything I've learned about a good plate approach, and here was Frank,
37 years old, hurting, rusty, with a head as likely to be being shaved
out of necessity as for style, pulling it off. I was just so happy he
His foot broke in mid-July, and he never played for the White Sox again.
It was pure heartbreak, but Frank didn't let on. He was there every
moment, smiling in the dugout as the team he carried for more than a
decade reached the mountain top without him. He celebrated deliriously
in Houston like he was just happy to be treated like one of the guys.
His words at the victory parade glowed with satisfaction and triumph.
"God bless this team" he bellowed, as if he couldn't think of a way this
gift could have been better.
I hope that's true.
I hope there isn't a moment where Frank Thomas doesn't feel like that
World Series ring isn't his, that he can watch old footage of that year
and smile, knowing that for all the work he put into this franchise, and
all he gave these fans, the spoils are his.
They put him on the wall in U.S. Cellular last year. Frank got into a
dark black suit on a hot summer day, waved to the crowd, spoke
graciously, hugged Jerry Reinsdorf, and wept openly as he was honored. I
think he understands what he meant to us. But just to be safe, I'll
tell him if I ever bump into him.
Happy Birthday, Frank. You were truly great.