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updated: 7/26/2014 1:49 PM

Off-the-field headlines rarely pretty for Thomas

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  • There was plenty of off-the-field drama when it came to Frank Thomas, but time has had a way of healing those wounds. When the Big Hurt enters the Hall of Fame on Sunday, White Sox fans will remember what he did for the team on the field as the franchise's best hitter ever.

    There was plenty of off-the-field drama when it came to Frank Thomas, but time has had a way of healing those wounds. When the Big Hurt enters the Hall of Fame on Sunday, White Sox fans will remember what he did for the team on the field as the franchise's best hitter ever.
    Associated Press

 
 

Over 19 major-league seasons, the first 16 spent with the White Sox, Frank Thomas made the decidedly difficult art of hitting baseballs look laughably easy.

And he was rewarded over the winter, receiving 83.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers' Association of America to gain admittance to the Hall of Fame on his very first ballot.

Again, Thomas made the difficult journey to Cooperstown look easy, and he'll be inducted into the Hall on Sunday afternoon.

In reality, it was a bumpy ride.

As he's transitioned into retirement after calling it a career following the 2008 season -- which he split between the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland A's -- the turbulence that frequently followed Thomas has largely been forgotten.

But it was there, and it will always be a part of the Big Hurt's legacy.

I covered Thomas for 12 seasons, and it was an interesting pleasure.

He was the best hitter in baseball for much of that stretch, and Thomas wasn't shy about making that known.

One year, I was doing a late-season poll on the American League MVP race, and Frank agreed to participate.

"The only rule," I told him, "is you can't vote for yourself."

"That's b.s.," Frank shot back. "I'm the MVP."

"You're probably right," I said. "And you'll get the votes from other players. You just can't vote for yourself."

Still grumbling, Thomas filled out the MVP ballot. When I took a look, he had left the top line blank. Classic Frank.

Before many games during his career, Thomas was often spotted reading the stat sheets in the Sox' clubhouse. Many critics thought that was selfish, but I wasn't in that camp.

Neither was White Sox manager Robin Ventura, Thomas' teammate from 1990-98.

"It's not bad," Ventura said. "When you see how he was driven, I think it was daily. Baseball, it's a hard game because it's daily. And he came to the park every day statistically wanting to be at the top of anybody in the league, and that's a strong point."

The contract front was equally choppy for Thomas.

In the spring of 2001, Thomas left the Sox' training camp in Tucson, Ariz., for six days because he was unhappy with his contract, which ran through 2006 but included a "diminished skills" clause.

Basically, the White Sox had the right to defer the majority of Thomas' annual $10.3 million salary if he didn't make the AL all-star team, win the Silver Slugger or finish in the top 10 in MVP voting.

The White Sox did threaten to trigger the diminished skills clause following the 2002 season, but the two sides wound up ripping up the old contract and agreeing to a new deal that kept Thomas with the Sox through '05.

An ankle injury limited Thomas to 34 games in that final season, which was highlighted by the White Sox winning the World Series.

But Thomas was a mere shadow in October, and he was gone a month later when general manager Kenny Williams acquired Jim Thome in a trade from the Phillies.

Thomas was not happy, and again, he wasn't shy about making that known.

Thomas wound up signing with the Oakland A's, and he took a parting shot at Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

"I've got a lot of respect for Jerry Reinsdorf, I do," Thomas said. "But I really thought, with the relationship we had over the last 16 years, he would have picked up the phone to say, 'Big guy, we're moving forward. We're going somewhere different.'

"I can live with that, I really can. But treating me like some passing-by-player, I've got no respect for that."

Williams was quick to respond to Thomas, and it wasn't pretty.

"He's an idiot," Williams said. "He's selfish. That's why we don't miss him."

At that point, it looked like Thomas and the White Sox were on the permanent outs, but time eased the harsh words and feelings. In 2010, Thomas' uniform No. 35 was retired at U.S. Cellular Field, and a bronze statue was unveiled on the left-field concourse the following year.

When Thomas enters the Hall of Fame on Sunday, all of the bad stuff will be rightfully stashed in the past.

Sox fans will remember all of the hits, the doubles, the home runs, the walks, the on-base percentage.

And Sox fans will be thrilled that Frank Edward Thomas -- the best hitter in franchise history -- is in his rightful place.

"There's not a bad bone in his body," White Sox broadcaster Ken "Hawk" Harrelson said.

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