He was smiling like Matt Kuchar when he arrived at Comiskey Park
last Friday for the home opener, the big grin making him seem
another unfamiliar face in a clubhouse full of them. The Chicago
White Sox have surrounded him with strangers, many of whom still
possess only Triple A skills, but the White Sox' best hitter
since Shoeless Joe Jackson says he went into the 1999 season
with one simple goal: to fit in with his young teammates,
whoever they are. "All I want to do this year is be one of the
guys," says Frank Thomas.
Thomas has a better chance of hitting .400 and stealing 40
bases. On this Chicago team, the designated hitter-first baseman
will be just one of the guys the way Gladys Knight was just one
of the Pips. Albert Belle and Robin Ventura are gone, and so,
almost certainly, is the slight chance the White Sox had of
making the playoffs. Welcome to the South Side of Chicago, the
biggest small market in the American League. The White Sox
payroll for 1999 is $24.2 million, the seventh lowest in the
majors and $17.6 million less than it was two seasons ago. For
its second home game of the season, on a sunny afternoon last
Saturday, Chicago announced an attendance of 11,908. That night,
three miles away at Soldier Field, Major League Soccer's Chicago
Fire drew 27,311. The White Sox' new marketing slogan is "The
Kids Can Play"--an oddly adolescent message for a club whose
most identifiable player is a 30-year-old probable Hall of
Famer. More appropriate, perhaps: Big Hurt, Little Hope.
Chicago went 2-4 last week, suffering a three-game sweep over
the weekend at the hands of their supposedly even lowlier
American League Central rivals, the Kansas City Royals. But
Thomas, determined to rebound from the only poor season of his
nine in the majors, ripped the ball all over the park, hitting
.632 with two home runs and driving in seven runs--one of the
greatest starts in the past quarter century (INSIDE BASEBALL,
page 82). At 6'5" and 265 pounds (about 15 fewer than in 1998,
thanks to an off-season conditioning regimen), Thomas is more
cut and conditioned than he has been in years, and the Big Hurt
looms even bigger among his little-known teammates. "He looks to
me like he's six-eight this year," says White Sox manager Jerry
Manuel. "Just the way he carries himself. He's got a real
He's got a real purpose, too: to prove last season was a fluke.
In 1998, while many of his high-powered peers enjoyed a
record-breaking summer, two-time MVP Thomas hit .265--65 points
lower than his career average going into last season--and had
only 29 home runs, his poorest output in six years. Suddenly he
appeared to be an imposter, Five O'clock Frank, as he called
himself, a batting-practice terror who at game time sank under
the weight of self-pity and tired excuses.
Last season the Big Hurt mostly referred to Thomas's sensitive
feelings. He thought the umpires were screwing him, the opposing
pitchers were taking advantage of him, and the media were
ganging up on him. His massive muscles seemed to be draped in
onion-thin skin. "I was miserable, and I made everyone around me
miserable," says Thomas. "It was an extremely humbling season."
Thomas says that if he can do one thing this summer, it will be
to have fun playing the game again. This, of course, would be a
lot easier to do if people would stop 1) asking him why last
season was so awful and 2) telling him why this season could be
worse. "I'm disappointed people even make comments about me
losing it last year," he says. "Everyone has an off year. So
what? I still drove in 100 [actually 109], still walked 100
 times, still scored 100  runs. Not many guys can do
Lots of guys can hit .226 against lefthanders, which the
righthanded-hitting Thomas did in 1998, a stunning drop-off of
141 points from his average against southpaws in his first seven
full seasons. White Sox hitting coach Von Joshua believes
Thomas's woes at the plate last year were caused by his head.
One tip Joshua gave Thomas this spring was to stop moving it at
the plate. "He was jumping at the ball and moving his head, not
letting the pitch come to him," says Joshua, who adds that
Thomas's other troubles with his head were on the inside. "I
think he had a lot on his mind, personal things that were
weighing on him," Joshua says. "He didn't talk about it, but you
could just see it in his eyes. He's a lot more settled this year."
Thomas still doesn't talk much about the personal things, but it
was widely speculated last season that he and his wife, Elise
Silver, were having marital difficulties. "All I'll say is, I'm
a grown man with grown-up problems," says Thomas. "Sure, I had
my share of off-field problems, but those things happen in
life." Thomas, a father of three, says he never took his
on-field struggles home at night; he did all his brooding at the
ballpark. His teammates noticed. "We were intimidated by him
last year," says righthander James Baldwin. "He wasn't happy,
and no one wanted to go up and ask him a question."
At the same time, opposing pitchers were not as intimidated by
Thomas. They attacked the inside edge of the plate, and umpires
often gave them the strike call on borderline pitches, a change
from seasons past. "I used to be able to control the strike
zone, but last year I lost control," Thomas says. "I don't know
why." Often behind in the count, Thomas became defensive, timid
and, of course, angry: After being ejected for disputing a
third-strike call last May 4, Thomas said, "I've been too good
for too long to be treated like this." Soon many of the umps
were treating him like that. "Those umpires, they talk," says
White Sox general manager Ron Schueler. "They're not going to
get shown up. If you look, a lot more pitches were called
strikes on him than ever before."
Kansas City closer Jeff Montgomery agrees that Thomas's hitting
difficulties last year were largely attributable to the pitch
around the inside edge. For seven years, right or wrong, Thomas
got that pitch called a ball. Last year the pitcher got a
strike. "Before, he'd jump back from the pitch like it was going
to hit him, and it would look like a ball," says Montgomery.
"Last year they started to call it a strike. All of sudden 1 and
1 becomes 0 and 2, and it's a lot harder for Frank to look for a
certain pitch or get a pitch to drive."
A renowned picky hitter, Thomas may now feel compelled to pull
the borderline inside pitch down the leftfield line. That's what
he did in his first at bat during the White Sox' home opener
last Friday, against the Royals' fourth-year righthander Brian
Barber. Thomas turned on a fastball and drove it over the
leftfield fence for a solo homer. "That was a pitch that gave me
fits last year," he said after the game.
As a full-time designated hitter last season, Thomas had plenty
of time to throw fits. Unlike other healthy, young superstars,
he has no desire to play the field and thus be viewed as a
complete player. "It's overrated," he says of being more than a
DH. "I'm here to hit." Nevertheless, he hits better when he
plays the field: Last season Thomas started only 14 games at
first base and batted .302 in those games; as a DH he batted
.261. In 1997, on his way to winning the American League batting
title, he hit .363 as a first baseman and .314 as a DH. Armed
with those numbers, Manuel says he would like to use Thomas at
first "about three out of five games," platooning him with Paul
Konerko (141 days of major league service going into this
season) and Jeff Liefer (zero days).
Why is Thomas so reluctant to appear in the field more often? A
man of considerable pride, he may not want to risk embarrassing
himself in front of the cable-ready universe, a strong
possibility for a guy who's no more than an average fielder.
"I'm a good fielder," he says, "but I'm a great hitter. I like
to concentrate on hitting."
One lesson of 1998 might be that he should concentrate less. "I
would like to see him just go up there and let his instincts
take over more often," says Joshua. As a virtually full-time DH,
Thomas had time between plate appearances to run to the
clubhouse and review his latest at bat on video. It also allowed
him to critique the umpire again, and sometimes when he returned
to the plate, he was still stewing. This year Thomas has made a
vow: no more video. "I'm going to stay on the bench as much as
possible," he says.
Thomas made another vow last week: There will be no trade
demands from his corner of the clubhouse, no holding his breath
until he turns blue or ends up in New York Yankees pinstripes.
The Boston Red Sox (who had an opening at first base after free
agent Mo Vaughn departed for the Anaheim Angels during the
off-season) called the White Sox many times but apparently
failed to meet Chicago's price. One of the conditions of
Thomas's nine-year pact that runs through 2006, of which only
parts of the final five years are guaranteed, is that the deal
would become fully guaranteed at $85 million if he is traded.
(He will earn $7.15 million this season.) Nevertheless, Thomas
hopes to stay with the White Sox for his entire career.
That wasn't his thinking over the winter. After finishing second
in the Central Division at 80-82 last season, the White Sox
decided to blow things up and start over. They allowed
leftfielder Belle and third baseman Ventura to walk as free
agents. Club officials said fan surveys revealed a desire for a
youth movement. At first Thomas was outraged, telling Manuel in
January that he couldn't play for a team with so little chance
of winning. A month later Thomas reported to spring training
with an entirely different attitude. What changed? "I just took
a long look at this team, and I thought about Jeff Abbott
playing leftfield and I thought about [rightfielder] Magglio
Ordonez, who has the capability of becoming a superstar," says
Thomas, referring to players who are 26 and 25, respectively. "I
got to know Paul Konerko and Jeff Liefer, two guys who were the
Man in the minor leagues and who will protect me in the lineup.
I realized that this team is going to be a lot of fun to play
for, and this team can win."
Thomas says he was surprised when Belle left the White Sox to
sign a five-year, $65 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles,
but the departure did smooth the way for Chicago's "The Kids Can
Play" campaign. "I don't know if they could have done this with
Albert around," says Abbott. "He might have gotten a little
The kids, meanwhile, might have gotten a little uptight if Belle
were still lurking. Before the home opener some of the young
players put a tape of the movie Full Metal Jacket on the
large-screen clubhouse TV and cranked up the scenes with the
drill sergeant berating the boot campers. Suddenly, as many of
the White Sox players gathered around the TV and laughed
together, the atmosphere felt like that of a high school
football locker room two hours before kickoff. Would that have
happened if Belle, who didn't like being distracted during his
pregame routine, were still in the room? "Probably not," says
Thomas. "Albert was intense. You had to keep your distance."
Last year young teammates kept their distance from Five O'clock
Frank, too, but no more. So far the Big Hurt has been a big help
for the kids and for the organization as together they try to
sell spunky, small-market baseball on the South Side of Chicago.
Maybe they'll just need a new slogan: Even if the kids can't
play, the Hurt can still hit.
Big Hurt, Little Help
What would the White Sox lineup be like without Frank Thomas
(above, right)? Most unthreatening, as suggested by the
comparison below between Thomas's career statistics through
Sunday and the aggregate of those of the 13 other position
players on the Opening Day roster*.
FRANK THOMAS OTHER WHITE SOX
Games 1,242 2,282
At bats 4,425 7,257
Batting average .323 .267
Home runs 288 190
Runs batted in 970 837
Walks 995 496
Strikeouts 675 1,191
*Jeff Abbott, Mike Caruso, McKay Christensen, Ray Durham, Brook
Fordyce, Darrin Jackson, Mark Johnson, Paul Konerko, Jeff
Liefer, Greg Norton, Magglio Ordonez, Chris Singleton and Craig
lost control," says Thomas. "I don't know why."