Nearly three weeks into the season and without a home run, Frank
Thomas finally dialed long distance last Friday. The Chicago
White Sox first baseman rang his father in Columbus, Ga., after
days of dodging Frank Sr.'s messages. "Been waiting for
something good to talk about," Frank Jr. confessed later. "I
couldn't wait anymore."
"Son," the father said, "how many home runs did you hit last
"Forty," Frank Jr. replied.
"So that means you had about 120 games where you didn't do
anything, huh?" Frank Sr. said. "You've got to relax and be
yourself and quit worrying about home runs."
April 27, 1997
Later that night Thomas was batting with two outs in the ninth
inning and his team trailing the New York Yankees by six runs.
The count was 3 and 0, and White Sox manager Terry Bevington,
through his third base coach, Doug Rader, gave Thomas the take
sign. Thomas never bothered looking at Rader. He swung from his
heels while trying for...what? A six-run homer? "That got
noticed. It tells you he's thinking about himself and not the
team," one teammate said afterward.
Thomas fouled off that pitch and eventually drew a walk in what
ended as a 10-4 Chicago defeat. But the ill-advised swing
typified the club's woeful start, which, after an 8-7, 11-inning
win on Sunday left it at 5-12 and in last place in the American
League Central. Having signed free-agent slugger Albert Belle to
a five-year, $55 million deal so they could have him bat fourth,
behind Thomas, the White Sox are going for broke--and getting
there. Thomas and Belle were supposed to be the most powerful
tandem since Mantle and Maris. Instead, it's been the worst
pairing since Rather and Chung. Through Sunday, Thomas and Belle
had combined to hit .238 with only two home runs, both by Belle.
After bashing 88 dingers last year, Thomas and Belle had not
even outhomered the Colorado Rockies' pitchers, who also had a
total of two.
"All spring people have been talking about home runs, home runs,
home runs with us: How many are we going to hit?" Thomas says.
"I got caught up in it. I've been trying to live up to those
expectations, trying to hit home runs. I'm not that kind of
hitter. I hit line drives, and some of them go out. I've got to
get back to that."
This is Chicago, home of the blues. The Cubs and the White Sox
are the worst teams in baseball, with the Cubs setting the
National League record for most consecutive losses (14) to begin
the season (page 92) and the White Sox stumbling to their worst
start since 1968. At least the Cubbies are cloaked in the warm,
fuzzy image of lovable losers. The White Sox get no such
consolation, not given their $54.2 million payroll, their
combustible cleanup hitter and a clubhouse that percolates more
than a Starbucks shop. Bevington, the man charged with watching
this pot boil, lost standing among some players on April 3 when
he scolded veteran shortstop Ozzie Guillen in front of his
teammates for bringing his children into the clubhouse on the
day of a workout. The blowup appeared to further erode the
manager's already unstable position. Bevington was treated as
disposable over the winter when the team courted Jim Leyland to
be its manager and when Rader, an obvious manager-in-waiting,
was added to Bevington's staff. At week's end his career record
with the White Sox, 147-145, was as undistinguished as his Q
"It's been like that since day one," Bevington says of his job
security. "I don't let it bother me. I'll just go get another
Meanwhile, Bevington and the White Sox front office have shown
that they will approach Belle the way his former employers, the
Cleveland Indians, did--as supplicants. Whereas Guillen's kids
were unwelcome, when Belle brought a friend from Cleveland into
the clubhouse to play cards and run errands, the White Sox not
only allowed him to stay but also put him on the payroll. Lenny
Spacek was hired as a security guard to sit with Belle in the
clubhouse and the dugout and to accompany him on the road. When
asked about Spacek's qualifications, Chicago general manager Ron
Schueler said, "We'll start to train him now."
Other than Spacek, Belle has seen few gophers come his way this
season. His meager home run total and .211 batting average
through Sunday have Comiskey Park fans robustly booing him.
Belle has alienated Chicago in other ways, too. He celebrated
his first game in his new hometown by refusing to talk to
reporters, now an everyday occurrence. When he heard about a
pregame autograph session as part of a promotion called Kids'
Sundays, Belle cracked aloud in the clubhouse, "Autograph s---
tomorrow? Hope they didn't put me down for it."
"I don't care about that stuff," Bevington says. "I'd rather
have Albert hit 50 home runs and not talk to the media than have
him hit 20 home runs and talk to the media."
For $55 million White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf signed a player
unwilling and unable to sell tickets. Chicago didn't sell out
its home opener, and even after a fireworks promotion last
Saturday it was drawing fewer fans than last season, the fifth
straight year of declining per-game attendance since the new
Comiskey opened in '91.
Reinsdorf, who did not respond to an interview request, gets a
return on Belle only if the team becomes a big winner, a
possibility that seemed remote given its showing against the
Yankees. WIN THE SERIES was the note written in black marker on
Chicago's clubhouse message board last Friday before the opener
of the four-game set against New York. But the Sox fell behind
9-0 after three innings. Two of those runs scored on the sixth
error of the season by third baseman Chris Snopek, underscoring
how much Chicago misses Robin Ventura. Ventura, who broke his
right leg in spring training, was as solid in the clubhouse as
he was on the field.
The next night the Yankees committed five errors in a game for
the first time this decade, were five outs from suffering a
one-hit shutout and still beat the White Sox 3-2. A three-run
homer by Tino Martinez off Chicago reliever Tony Castillo in the
eighth inning put New York ahead. Thomas singled in the bottom
of the inning, but Belle promptly grounded into a double play
for the sixth time this season.
Afterward, Belle sat with a plate of food and a jug of milk at a
picnic table in the middle of the clubhouse. Lenny the Guard sat
across from him in his freshly issued White Sox security
uniform, ready to respond if the milk turned bad. A club
official announced to bored-looking reporters, "Albert will not
be talking tonight."
Thomas not only talked, he laughed, just as he did before the
game when he said the release of his new shoe commercial was
delayed "until I hit a couple of balls hard." Said Thomas, "I'm
way beyond frustration. We've been lousy. I'll take full
responsibility. We planned to outslug teams. We didn't count on
winning games 2-1."
As Thomas left the clubhouse, he walked past the message board.
Someone had erased WIN THE SERIES. Another great expectation