Friday February 12th, 2010

Set aside the pragmatism he brought to the steroid debate; more below on how the simple act of speaking up at all set him apart. Today, upon the official announcement of his retirement, is about framing the more important place in baseball history occupied by Frank Thomas.

The Chicago White Sox have been playing baseball for 109 years. From David Aardsma to Dutch Zwilling, 1,576 men have worn the uniforms of the White Sox -- everything from the garish to the classic with the collared, the horizontally striped and short pants in between. And among all those players over all those years, Frank Thomas is the greatest player in White Sox history.

This is no knock on Luke Appling, Nellie Fox and Joe Jackson. This is about how the greatness of Thomas somehow went underappreciated in his playing days. The man ranks first in franchise history in home runs, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, total bases, doubles, walks, intentional walks, sacrifice flies and extra-base hits. Any questions?

Well, oddly enough, some do have questions about Thomas, even though he ranks 18th alltime in home runs (521), 15th in OPS (.974) and ninth in walks (1,667) and owns raw numbers that run nearly in lockstep with those of Mickey Mantle. Thomas is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer, the kind of player who requires none of the usual finely detailed research to figure out whether or not he belongs in Cooperstown. He should be enshrined with a record-setting 2014 class that also includes Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina.

Thomas somehow has been underappreciated his entire playing career, starting when he went undrafted out of high school, continuing when he was cut from the 1988 Olympic team and continuing when the Orioles, Braves, Mariners, Phillies, Rangers and Cardinals all passed on him in the 1989 draft in favor of -- get this -- Ben McDonald, Tyler Houston, Roger Salkeld, Jeff Jackson, Donald Harris and Paul Coleman. Imagine the late-'90s Mariners with Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez in the same lineup. Or what might have been for the Rangers with Thomas.

For most of the 1990s Thomas was a precusor to Albert Pujols, a slugger who hit for high average and didn't strike out much. Yet Thomas was named to the All-Star team only five times in his 19-year career. He started only two of them -- two! (The other starters at first base in the AL from 1991-99 were Cecil Fielder, Mark McGwire, John Olerud, Mo Vaughn, Tino Martinez and Jim Thome.)

So why was Thomas one of the more underrated legends of the game? His profile was harmed by having played most of his career as a DH (56 percent of his games). Never a great fielder, Thomas settled into a DH existence too quickly and too easily. The last time he played 100 games at first base he was only 28 years old.

In 2000, Seattle swept Thomas' White Sox in the Division Series, with the clinching run scoring on a walkoff squeeze by Carlos Guillen. Such a liability was Thomas at first base that Mariners manager Lou Piniella had ordered Guillen, "Push the ball toward Thomas."

Thomas also had a rather quiet second half to his career, though still very productive. In his 20s, Thomas led the AL in 23 offensive categories. In his 30s: none at all.

Thomas was also a bit of a dissident, a guy who was on his own program in a sport where "uniform" is much more than the dress code. Ozzie Guillen, Thomas' manager in his final days in Chicago, made a hobby of riding Thomas in the White Sox clubhouse when most others were intimidated by his bearing and countenance. Teammates knew how important statistics were to him, especially his streak of eight years with 100 walks, 100 runs and 100 RBI. And they blanched when Thomas once complained about a run being counted when he tagged a runner for the third out but only after another runner had touched the plate; the superstar didn't know the rule.

But marching to his own drummer never had more meaning for Thomas than when it came to the steroid issue, a uniqueness that puzzles even him. Thomas was one of the first voices to declare the emperor had no clothes, back in 1995 when the party line was to keep living a lie to make The Steroid Era possible. He called for testing back then, understanding that people's faith in the game was threatened. "At least it would get rid of the suspicions," he said.

That stance earned him an invitation to appear at the St. Patrick's Day Congressional hearing in 2005, the infamous one in which Jose Canseco backed away from his own book, Mark McGwire was unable to defend himself, Rafael Palmeiro wagged a finger in obstinate denial, Sammy Sosa lost his loquaciousness, and Curt Schilling toned down his anti-steroids comments. Thomas, though, appeared via videoconference because he was rehabbing a foot injury, a common occurrence for him as his massive size worked against him as he aged.

"Thoughout my career, I have not used steroids. Ever," Thomas said in his opening statement. And then the members of Congress forgot about him, never calling on him again as he sat through the nine hours in a studio at the University of Arizona.

Two years later, Thomas, Schilling and three other unidentified active players at the time received a letter from Sen. George Mitchell requesting an interview. Mitchell was the choice of commissioner Bud Selig as the sport's independent investigator into steroids in baseball.

The baseball union was in full lockdown mode over the investigation. Its tacit position was to caution against cooperation with Mitchell. Even Roger Clemens, with his legacy on the line once Mitchell sent word to his people he had information about Clemens during his time with the Blue Jays and Yankees, chose not to defend himself and to stiff Mitchell.

One active player agreed to talk to Mitchell: Frank Thomas.

"I'm like, 'Wait a minute. Why wouldn't I talk to him?" Thomas said. "I didn't do anything wrong and I've got nothing to hide."

So one day after the 2007 season, Thomas sat down with Mitchell at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport. Union general counsel Michael Weiner also was there.

At the end of the interview, Thomas sensed the scope of Mitchell's investigation.

"Is this thing pretty big?" he asked Mitchell.

"You wouldn't believe it," the former senator told him.

"Are you kidding me?" Thomas said.

Mitchell looked at the only active player who dared speak with him and replied, "Buckle your seat belt."

Thomas didn't have much worthwhile information for Mitchell. But in the least, he exhibited that cooperation -- the opportunity to speak up for a clean, fairly contested game -- doesn't mean naming names, the lame cloak players often hid behind.

Frank Thomas can be proud of his 19-year career and let sleep come easily at night. The White Sox will retire his number 35 (joining the Padres' Randy Jones and the Braves' Phil Niekro as the only retired 35s) and someday erect a statue of him at U.S. Cellular Field. And when fans see his likeness they will be able to say, "That's the best player in the history of the White Sox." That alone is a fabulous legacy. That Thomas also spoke up for a clean game also is worth remembering.

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