It was as though the two men had been tossing and simmering in
an angry hibernation all winter long, just itching for the
chance to have it out again at spring training--to rekindle the
unresolved hostilities on which the 1999 season ended so badly.
At 9:45 a.m. on Feb. 26, on a sun-washed field of grass at the
Chicago White Sox spring training complex in Tucson, manager
Jerry Manuel was strolling the grounds like a playground
superintendent, watching his players do stretching exercises,
when he stopped and leaned over the supine form of his $7
million-a-year designated hitter, Frank Thomas. Once known as
the Big Hurt, the embattled Thomas is now often conjured up on
T-shirts or in the Chicago papers as the Little Hurt. Or the Big
Blurt. Or, in the sharpest needle of all, the Big Skirt.
This is an article from the March 13, 2000 issue
Thomas was once on a very fast and certain track to Cooperstown,
there to join the two hitters to whom he was most often compared,
Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig, but today there is nothing either
swift or sure about his journey to baseball immortality. For two
seasons, since Manuel took over as White Sox manager, Thomas's
numbers have slipped so far below his once lofty standards--from a
.347 batting average in 1997 to .265 in 1998, and from 35 home
runs in '97 to only 15 last year--that baseball men wonder whether
the Thomas of old will ever return. "I've never seen the real
Frank Thomas," Manuel still laments.
Yet a decidedly real Thomas was in Arizona on that February
morning, all 6'5" and 270 pounds of him, rolling to his feet and,
like a child trying to get out of climbing the rope in gym class,
holding a note from a doctor excusing him from doing certain
rigorous exercises, including the dread shuttle--a series of
back-and-forth wind sprints between traffic cones set at varying
distances. Thomas had undergone surgery on his right foot late
last summer, and he was claiming that the foot was still too raw
and tender for the sudden stops and starts of the shuttle. But
Manuel wasn't buying the excuses. The scene was almost touching.
The note was in Thomas's back pocket, folded up, and he was seen
repeatedly taking it out, unfolding it, showing it to Manuel and
then returning it to his pocket, as if he were nervous and unsure
of what to do.
"Why aren't you going to do the shuttle?" Manuel demanded.
"Jerry, you're not listening to me!" Thomas pleaded. "I'm not 100
percent healthy. I'll run it when I am!"
"That's poor, Frank," Manuel said. "That's poor."
The two ended up at silent loggerheads. Manuel eventually ordered
Thomas off the field, and as the team started running the
shuttle, there was Thomas in a place and pose symbolic of his
life as a player for much of last year: standing to the side by
himself, away from his young team, his giant arms folded across
his chest and his face marked by a scowl. General manager Ron
Schueler saw the angry, embarrassed player head for the clubhouse
and steered his golf cart over to Manuel.
"I've got a problem with him not doing the shuttle," Manuel said
to Schueler. "I told him he couldn't be on the field. How do you
want to handle it?"
Schueler thought for a moment. "This is something you have to
work out," he said.
They worked it out, all right. The manager tracked his star
player into the clubhouse. "Come into my office," Manuel said. He
closed the door, but one could hear the two men shouting at each
other, their voices rising and their words often profane. "That's
a bunch of bulls---, and it had better stop!" Thomas yelled. "I'm
not having it."
"This bulls--- is the reason why we are always butting heads!"
What happened over the next two hours, during which Schueler
joined them and White Sox p.r. men guarded the entrances to the
clubhouse like Dobermans to keep out the press, was really an
extension of what had occurred last year, from the silent
tug-of-war that Manuel and Thomas had waged over Thomas's role on
the club--designated hitter or first baseman?--right up to a
climactic doubleheader on Sept. 6 in Texas during which a furious
Manuel ordered Thomas back to Chicago. On that day a physically
distressed Thomas, hobbled by a massive bone spur in his right
ankle and a large corn on the disfigured small toe on that same
foot, had struck out as a pinch hitter in the first game. "An
embarrassing at bat," Thomas says. The right foot is the one he
plants for balance and pushes off of for power, and the pain he
had been feeling in it since early July had forced him to alter
his stance and stroke. "My swing was just screwed up," he says.
So he decided to sit out the second game.
That Thomas made himself unavailable was not what stirred
Manuel's pot; it was that he failed to inform his manager that he
could not play at all in the nightcap. When the ideal moment
arose for the righthanded-batting Thomas to pinch-hit--in the
sixth inning, with two outs and the bases loaded and the White
Sox losing 6-3, the Rangers brought in a journeyman lefty, Mike
Munoz, to pitch--Manuel sent someone to fetch Thomas in the
clubhouse. The emissary found the player out of sorts and out of
uniform, in a T-shirt and shower sandals.
Informed that his superstar was indisposed, Manuel began to pace
the dugout like a puma, biting off and spitting out a long chaw
of expletives and later telling beat reporters that he was as
angry as he had ever been as the manager of the White Sox. "I was
upset," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I was yelling things on
the bench. It was like one of my kids had rebelled against me."
He finally told his trainer, Herm Schneider, in front of the
players, that Thomas would not be traveling with the team from
Texas to Anaheim. "Send him home," Manuel said, as he would
recall it later to the Chicago Tribune. "I don't want to see him
on our plane. If he has a problem with that, tell him he can see
me in my office."
As the rest of the team winged off to California, a pouting
Thomas blew off the press and flew back to Chicago. The next day
Dr. Lowell Scott Weil, the team podiatrist, saw the bone spur on
an X-ray and confirmed tendinitis through ultrasound. The White
Sox were not in contention for a wild-card berth in the playoffs,
and given the uproar caused by the Texas incident and considering
the presence of all those impressionable young call-ups on the
team, Schueler decided that the floundering Thomas should not
wait for surgery. Indeed, the pain from the spur and the corn had
worsened since the All-Star break on July 13, when Thomas was
hitting .323 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs. In the two months
after that, growing increasingly helpless at the plate, he hit
.271 with only three homers and 20 RBIs.
On Sept. 13 Weil cut the spur off Thomas's ankle, and he was
flabbergasted by the size of it. A former podiatrist for the
Chicago Bears, Weil says he has treated 30,000 patients during 35
years of practice, and to call that thing a spur hardly described
it. "It was the biggest I have ever taken out," Weil says. "It
was truly the size of a golf ball." The spur was rubbing on a
tendon in the ankle. Weil also removed from the little toe a
large corn, which was filled with nerves and blood vessels, and
operated on the twisted digit to remodel the bone and reconstruct
Thomas had come under withering attack in the press for his
failure to pinch-hit in Texas and for taking an early exit from
the season. He was depicted as a quitter who was tanking it to
preserve his eighth .300 season. (He was batting .305 when he
went down for the surgery.) He says that the ferocity of the
attack was a factor that forced his flight to Los Angeles, where
he rented a house in Beverly Hills for the winter.
Thomas stewed about the incident for months, feeling that White
Sox management had minimized the injury and left him twisting in
the wind. He arrived in Arizona 2 1/2 weeks ago seeking to
unburden himself, and Manuel came prepared to deal more firmly
with him. Thomas had been in Tucson for only two days when the
inevitable clash occurred, with Manuel confronting him on the
field and then in his office.
Manuel, a pleasant, soft-spoken man, is an admirer of Gandhi and
Martin Luther King Jr., but on his desk that week he had a copy
of a book called Cigars, Whiskey & Winning: Leadership Lessons
from General Ulysses S. Grant. He obviously stole a page from
that and went on the offensive, riling Thomas by questioning his
desire to be a team player. "I don't think you want to do what we
do as a team," Manuel said. "It's important you do this with the
Bristling, Thomas reminded Manuel of his foot surgery. "Don't
play games with me like that," Thomas said. "I've been here 10
years. I'm going to be 32 years old. I'm a man. Treat me like a
man. You don't need to play mind games with me. I've been through
all the wars. I'm closing in on the tail end of my career, Jerry.
I'm under the gun to get my s--- together. So don't question my
The confrontation cleared the air and left both men looking
relieved and at peace with each other. That same day Thomas
called a meeting in the clubhouse to address his teammates. He
apologized for not having done the shuttle, explaining that his
foot was not completely healed, and told them why he could not
pinch-hit in Texas. "I didn't quit on you guys," he said. "It was
a medical thing. Jerry didn't know how bad it was." Thomas said
all those media reports about him being "an individual
player"--read, selfish--were not true. "I just want you to know I'm
with you," he said. "I'm one of the guys. I'm O.K. I'm not an
island. You can b.s. and joke with me. I'm an older guy, but I
have a young-guy mentality."
In the spring of 2000, after nine full years in the major leagues
and two seasons as the American League MVP, and with a locker
full of glowing stats, Frank Edward Thomas finds himself
confronting more than questions of desire. For nearly all his
adult life, since he was roping fastballs for coach Hal Baird at
Auburn, Thomas has been a hitting prodigy--a Mozart with a bat for
a wand and an eye for a pitch that is eerie for its keenness in
foreseeing location and measuring velocity. His eye gave him
confidence and patience at the plate. It shaped his strike zone.
It disciplined his swing. It was his surpassing gift.
"The thing about Frank that I'd never seen in anyone before or
since was his awareness of the strike zone," says Baird. "For a
hitter that young, he had a remarkable ability to stay away from
pitches he couldn't handle. We had this competition, even when he
was a freshman, in which we'd wager a Coke on whether he could
guess--within one mile an hour--how fast a pitcher was throwing. We
had a radar gun. He'd call out the velocity. He was always on.
Almost never fooled."
He brought those eyes, like two precious stones, to the major
leagues full time in 1991, and over the next eight years--until
that surgery-shortened '99 season--he never had fewer than 109
walks. In '91 he had a league-leading 138 walks. Only once, that
first full year, did he have more than 100 strikeouts. That he
has established himself among the greatest hitters of his
generation (chart, page 67), there is no doubt. In 1997, the year
he won the American League batting title with that .347 average,
he became the only player in history to hit over .300 with at
least 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100 runs scored
through seven straight seasons. In fact, in '95 he had become the
only player to do it five years in succession. Only Gehrig
(1929-32 and 1934-37) and Williams (1946-49) had strung together
four such seasons. Further, through the 1998 season, before
Thomas's serious travails began, he was the only active player
among the alltime top 10 hitters in on-base-plus-slugging
percentage. Thomas's 1.027 OPS percentage ranked him fifth,
behind only Babe Ruth (1.164), Williams (1.116), Gehrig (1.079)
and Jimmie Foxx (1.037).
Walt Hriniak, the chief apostle of the late hitting guru Charlie
Lau, says Wade Boggs is the best batter he has ever seen for
getting a base hit. "But Frank Thomas is the greatest hitter
all-around," says Hriniak, who was Thomas's swing doctor with the
White Sox for six seasons, through 1995, and who still works with
him privately. "For batting average, for taking a walk, for not
striking out, for hitting a three-run homer or a single to
rightfield, or getting a hit in the first inning or the ninth
inning, for getting a hit with the game on the line--oh, yeah,
he's the best hitter I've ever seen. And the greatest
front-runner, too. If he's got three hits, he'll go to the plate
for his fourth at bat and get another hit. Most guys have two or
three hits and don't bear down like that. Pete Rose was as
intense going for his third or fourth hit. That's Frank. Greedy
bastards, they are."
For years that intensity and those numbers were propelling Thomas
to the Hall of Fame, a goal that early on became his obsession.
He was, in the words of former teammate Mike Cameron, "a stat
rat," poring over digits and decimal points like a clubhouse
idiot savant, like Rose chasing Ty Cobb, intent on where he was
going and what he had to do to get there. Former teammate Robin
Ventura used to look at him and think, This is going to be the
best hitter I'll ever play with. So Thomas was. What really
struck Ventura was the sharpness of Thomas's concentration, his
capacity to almost will himself to fulfill his goals.
"He had an amazing ability to focus on things and get them done,"
says Ventura, now with the New York Mets. "He could look at the
stat sheet and tell himself, I need five home runs this week. And
he'd hit five home runs. If he was 10 RBIs behind, he'd drive in
10 runs in a week. He used to look at the sheet, the American
League leaders, in front of the whole clubhouse, and tell
himself, This is what I want to do. This is what I want to be. He
wasn't really talking to us. He was just talking in front of us."
Thomas was a part of the team yet apart from the team, and all
through his glory years there was no need for him to lead or
cultivate an image of the man in command. When he came to the
bigs, a year after Ventura, the White Sox had plenty of veterans
to point the way, from catcher Carlton Fisk to shortstop Ozzie
Guillen to pitcher Bobby Thigpen. Over the years Thomas got away
with having no professional responsibility beyond pursuing his
own agenda and chasing his own dreams. If he was widely perceived
as selfish, that self-absorption served the common good. He
helped Chicago win--leading them, for instance, to the American
League Championship Series in 1993, his first MVP season.
"He knew what he wanted," says former White Sox pitcher Roberto
Hernandez, who joined the team the year after Thomas, "even
though he may have rubbed some people wrong because he was always
looking at what he could do. But back then, when you had
veterans, you could let a guy like that do his stuff. If he does
what he wants to do, it helps the team anyway. He knew what it
took to become an MVP, and he did it. You've got to give this guy
his due. Maybe it was bad not to get on him more to be a leader."
Of course, for all of Thomas's years as the finest baseball
player in Chicago, he never achieved anywhere near the celebrity
of Michael Jordan, whose image loomed above the lakefront city
like the Sears Tower, or even that of his counterpart on the
North Side, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace--not to mention Sammy
Sosa. This is largely Thomas's own fault, though he did set out
in the right direction. In '93 he launched the Frank Thomas
Charitable Foundation, which raised and gave away hundreds of
thousands of dollars to assorted causes, and through Big Hurt
Enterprises he marketed himself, signing endorsement deals with
Wendy's, Pepsi-Cola and Reebok, among other companies
Nova Lanktree, a sports marketer in Chicago for 15 years, says
Thomas was a natural for any firm seeking an athlete to endorse
its product or for any dinner needing a celebrity jock to make an
appearance. "He was a big guy with a beautiful face, a fun
nickname and a small-town [Columbus, Ga.] background," says
Lanktree. "All he had to do was smile and hit. He did that for a
while, but he did not take advantage of the early impression that
he made. Someone would call him to make an appearance and say
that it paid $10,000. His response was always, 'Can you get a
Moreover, says Lanktree, Thomas failed to show up at events
scheduled by Reebok, which paid him a bonus that entitled the
company to a number of appearances from Thomas. "It was a huge
deal for Reebok and for him," Lanktree says, "and then he
wouldn't show up. There was never an acceptable excuse. He just
did not appear."
Thomas denies this. "I've always showed up for my appearances,"
he says. "You can ask any person I've done endorsements with.
I've been one of the nicest, kindest people they've worked with
in their lives."
Jerry Meyer feels no rancor toward Thomas, not even after Thomas
failed to fulfill his contract with Meyer's company, Pinnacle
Brands--a three-year, $1.8 million deal that required him to make
appearances for the firm and to sign 2,000 to 3,500 Donruss
baseball cards a year. "Frank was a very genial guy when he
wanted to be," Meyer says. "I never found him confrontational. I
Thomas signed the cards every year--but, Meyer says, "it was
always a struggle to get them done on time," and "we couldn't get
him to make appearances. He always found an excuse not to do
them." The company went bankrupt in 1997, but it had already
decided not to pay Thomas for the last year of his contract.
Asked about Meyer's allegations, Thomas is contrite. "I'm sorry,"
he says. "I signed all that stuff, but all those appearances,
along with Reebok appearances, there was just no way. Too much
other stuff going on."
In fact, Thomas appeared to be sailing through his expanding
world with the wind at his considerable back. In 1997 he stroked
his way through another magnificent season, in which he cracked
35 homers and drove in 125 runs to go along with his batting
title. By then he had clearly demarcated his own strike zone. His
vaunted eye was so well-known around the league that umpires
seemed to defer to it, calling balls on pitches that hit the
inside corner, especially when Thomas made a show of hopping back
in the box. "He used to jump out of the way of those pitches, and
they wouldn't call the strike," says Cleveland Indians lefthander
Chuck Finley. "You wouldn't even bother trying to throw there."
Thomas was at the zenith of his career. He was making $7.15
million a year, and he was about to sign a six-year, $85 million
contract extension that would pay him through 2006. In December
'96 he had moved his wife, Elise, and their three children--son
Sterling, then 4, and daughters Sloan, 2, and Sydney, five
months--into their new $8.1 million, 24,000-square-foot gated
house inside a gated community in Oak Brook, Ill., the only
Chicago suburb with polo fields. The white palace sits on three
acres and has eight bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, six fireplaces, two
four-car garages, an 83-by-23-foot indoor batting cage, two
turtle doves and this vulture in its pear tree: annual property
taxes of $93,247.01. "A dream house," Thomas says.
By December '97, just three months after signing that new
contract and one year after moving into the Oak Brook house, the
apparently idyllic world Thomas had fashioned began to come
apart. He separated from his wife (though he insists, contrary to
court records, that he did not move out of the mansion). "It was
tough," says Thomas, who declines to discuss the separation. (In
November 1999 Elise would sue for divorce, saying Frank had been
"guilty of...grounds for dissolution of marriage" that she
preferred not to disclose.)
Things would only get worse for Thomas. Early in the '98 season,
still suffering the dislocation of a broken marriage, he seemed
to lose his unspoken privileges at the plate all at once, in one
game in April. "There were some very questionable pitches on the
inside that could have been called either way," recalls Schueler
of that day. "Frank, naturally, jumped back and took them in his
own style. The umpire called strikes on two consecutive pitches.
Frank didn't handle it right."
Thomas protested the calls publicly. Word of his reaction swept
through the league, and the other umpires circled wagons. They
began to call the inside-corner pitch a strike on Thomas, however
far he jumped back. White Sox lefthander Mike Sirotka noticed a
change in opposing pitchers. "They lost the fear of facing
Frank," Sirotka says. "From 1995 to '97 you could see the fear in
their eyes. When they started establishing the inside strike on
him, you could see their confidence."
Thomas had a new zone to adjust to. "I faced him in '97, and I
remember throwing him good pitches inside, right on the corner,
and [the umpires] never called a strike," says the Toronto Blue
Jays' Kelvim Escobar. "Good pitches! Then they started calling
it, and he was in trouble. You threw a fastball in the 90s on the
inside corner, and he couldn't hit it." Thomas still stroked 29
home runs, with 109 RBIs, but his batting average plunged to
.265. It was the first time in his career he had finished a
season below .300.
Those who knew him well could sense that he had also lost that
passion for hitting and for the game that had driven and
sustained him. "It was all gone in '98," says Ventura. "He had
that same passion and ability to focus, but now it was directed
at something other than baseball: his music company. He became
obsessed with that. He talked about it as he had talked about
hitting. That's fine. Nothing wrong with having an obsession. But
it took over. And baseball didn't get that same level of
Thomas says he has always had a deep love of music. As he grew
rich playing baseball, he began investing heavily in the music
business, founding his own recording label, Un-D-Nyable
Entertainment, and searching for people to run it and for
rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop talent to make it grow. He has yet
to strike platinum with any performer in his stable--this summer
Thomas is putting out an album by various Un-D-Nyable artists--and
he denies reports that he has lost upward of $3 million in the
business. "What I've spent is irrelevant," he says. "I still have
a studio. It takes one record to turn things around."
Thomas's continuing embrace of the music business conspired with
other factors--his injuries, his failure to adjust to the expanded
strike zone and dramatic changes in the White Sox roster--to turn
his abbreviated '99 season into the least productive and most
controversial of his career. The loss of Ventura and Albert Belle
to free agency left Thomas unprotected in a lineup consisting
largely of young, unproven talent. "Who's going to protect me?"
he asked Manuel before last season.
The question of the year, however, was, Who's going to protect
first base? Thomas is only an average fielder with a serviceable
arm, and he spent most of '99 in a tiresome struggle with Manuel
over whether he would play the field or be the designated
hitter. Thomas did not want to play first base. "Frank doesn't
think he's adequate out there," Manuel told the press. "He
doesn't want to be embarrassed in public."
When Thomas addressed the subject, he was wildly inconsistent. On
the eve of spring training, noting that he needed to be a
complete player to make the Hall of Fame--"I know I need to play
first base to get in," he said--he announced he would play 125
games in the field. A week later he lowered the estimate to 80
games. He then cut it to twice or three times a week. Manuel said
Thomas hit better as a first baseman than as a DH, and whenever
this point was raised to Thomas, he said, "In 1997 I won the
batting title DH'ing. I haven't heard one person bring that up."
That is simply not true, and a stat-hound like Thomas should have
known it. In '97 he played 97 games at first and hit .363; in 49
games as a DH he hit .314. In '98, when he played most of his
games (146 of 160) as a DH, his batting average went south. His
young teammates seemed bewildered by his intransigence, and he
isolated himself further by spending as little time as possible
in the dugout during games in which he was the DH. At one game in
'98 a Chicago player used a stopwatch and determined that Thomas
was on the bench for less than two minutes.
When pressed to play first, Thomas showed none of the aplomb
expected of a veteran. Last Aug. 8, for instance, he waved at and
missed a soft two-hopper near first base that launched a five-run
inning in a 7-5 loss to the Oakland A's. "I f------ booted it,"
Thomas railed. "That's why I'm a DH, not a first baseman. Throw
me out there. I don't give a s---!" He did not play in the field
again last year.
His season had turned into a litany of whining and excuses.
Rather than adjust to the bigger strike zone, he complained about
the pitches he was not getting. "I used to get two or three
pitches a game right down the middle of the plate," he said in
late August. "I don't get that anymore. They've been coming up
and in on me four times a day. They pound me in, in, in! Now
they're called strikes. A few years ago the pitchers didn't get
Even before the strike calls turned against him, Thomas's public
statements weren't always endearing. Before the 50th anniversary
of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier, in 1997,
Thomas told a television reporter that he did not know much about
Robinson and gave the impression that he didn't much care. Last
August, as Sosa and Mark McGwire were engaged in a home run race
in the National League, Thomas complained that he was nearly
being hit by many inside pitches, and while he said he was happy
for Sosa and McGwire, he insinuated that they wouldn't hit 50
homers apiece if they were in the American League. "Pitchers
don't have to hit in [this] league," he said. "That's the
difference." In other words, Sosa and McGwire had an advantage:
National League pitchers were reluctant to throw inside for fear
they would face retaliation at the plate. Right or wrong, Thomas
was seen as diminishing the other sluggers' feats of power as he
made excuses for himself.
Just two years after leading the league in hitting, five years
after winning his second straight MVP, Thomas was a mess. His
swing was a "jigsaw puzzle," as he put it, and he could not
figure it out. His right ankle and foot were in constant pain,
and his popularity had been diminished by the controversy that he
stirred up almost daily. On Aug. 30 Thomas went 0 for 8 in a
doubleheader against the Seattle Mariners, striking out with the
bases loaded in the ninth inning of the first game, and the crowd
at Comiskey Park booed him lustily for the first time. The next
day, after going 0 for 3 against the Mariners and being booed
again, Thomas agreed, at Manuel's urging, to take instruction
from White Sox hitting coach Von Joshua, whom Thomas had
virtually ignored since Joshua was hired the year before. Joshua
worked with him for 25 minutes. The coach was buoyed by Thomas's
effort. When the Tribune's Teddy Greenstein told Thomas of
Joshua's enthusiasm, the Sullen of Swat deadpanned, "Good for
The season was a bust for Thomas. It ended on the day that Manuel
sent him home from Texas. That set off a storm that raged for
days on Chicago talk radio. Mike North, a program host on WSCR,
believes Thomas is "the most unpopular superstar who ever played
in Chicago. Don't get me wrong. Frank is a nice guy, but he's a
whiner. He's a crybaby. 'I don't wanna play first. I don't wanna
do this. I don't wanna do that.' He cries to umpires when things
don't go his way. Everybody is to blame but him. We're a
blue-collar town. The town of Bobby Hull, Dick Butkus, Michael
Jordan, Ernie Banks, Gale Sayers. These guys were warriors, and
Frank Thomas is not a warrior. There wasn't anything those guys
wouldn't do for the team. There are things Frank Thomas won't do
for his team. He's no longer the Big Hurt. He's not The Man."
It was not the easiest of winters for Frank Thomas. He lost one
of his best friends--Robert Fraley, his agent--in the plane crash
that also killed Payne Stewart. "I heard about it when I got off
an airplane myself," Thomas says. "I called my office, and my
assistant told me. I had to sit down. I was in shock. I still
find myself thinking to call [Robert] now and then. It was
extremely hard. I'll never get over it."
In addition, on the eve of spring training, Thomas's father,
Frank Sr., took gravely ill with kidney failure and heart
problems. Frank flew home to Georgia to be at his side. "I
thought we were going to lose him," Thomas says. "I have a very
ill father right now. We're all on borrowed time."
Fame is as fleeting as life itself, and no one knows better about
borrowed time than a 31-year-old former hitting star who is
battling back from injury in a world of changing strike zones and
95-mph fastballs on the inside corner. He arrived in Tucson to
begin training for a new season and immediately had the blowup
with Manuel. "I feel like I've been at the center of a storm for
a year straight now," Thomas says. "I've always tried to be
positive and focused. Seems like everyone wants controversy out
of me. I'm not a controversial person. I'm not a troublemaker."
Finally, he says, "Maybe I wasn't made to be a superstar."
No sooner had he made his peace with Manuel than old teammates
from camps around the country were putting the knock on him as a
leader. "He's not the kind of guy to be around young talent,"
Guillen, now with the Atlanta Braves, was quoted as saying. "He's
not going to pull a player over and explain something to him. The
White Sox thought he'd be the man to teach the kids how to play
the game. They were wrong, because he doesn't know how."
Thomas winces when he hears that. "That's childish," he says.
"Ozzie is a fun guy, but sometimes he's full of s---."
For all that was swirling around him in Tucson, Thomas remained
cheerful and composed. He no longer carries all of the freight
that commanded so much of his attention. Big Hurt Enterprises,
the company that marketed him, is "all but defunct," according to
the Sun-Times, having slashed its staff from seven to one after
Thomas lost or gave up most of his endorsement deals--including
the five-year, $5 million contract with Reebok, which was
canceled two years early when Thomas began wearing Franklin
batting gloves. (One former Big Hurt employee told the Sun-Times
that once Thomas signed his first big contract with the Sox, he
lost interest in marketing himself; others, including Barb Kozuh,
Thomas's former personal manager, say he became distracted by the
music business.) Meanwhile, the Frank Thomas Charitable
Foundation is inactive, according to the Sun-Times, though Thomas
denies this. As for the record company, Thomas cut its staff by
more than two thirds because, Kozuh believes, "he has decided to
concentrate on baseball."
All he has to focus on now is getting his stroke back and
adjusting to his larger strike zone. Several afternoons in late
February, Hriniak would stroll into the White Sox camp, answering
an alarm that Thomas had first sounded in January. Together the
two men would hike to the batting cages for a private lesson in
the science of hitting a baseball. Hour upon hour Hriniak flipped
baseballs to Thomas in the cage, bellowing encouragement as beads
of sweat coursed down the hitter's face. "Keep your head down,"
Hriniak growled. "Where your head goes, the rest of your body
"You're going down too fast and coming up too soon. Keep your
"I like your head. Hit through the ball. Good contact!"
"Now you're a professional hitter! I'm liking what I see. Two
strikes on you now! Two strikes!"
"That's it! Most guys get two strikes on them, they're history.
Not you! Now gimme a real good finish with your head down!"
"Yep! Here's three-and-one! Don't pull it! Hit it hard up the
middle. Knock the pitcher off the f------ mound!"
"Line drive home run!"
Frank Thomas smiles. The Big Hurt may be on his way back.
A strong case can be made that Frank Thomas was the best hitter
of the last decade. He is the only player who ranked among the
top 10 in all the core hitting categories--batting average, runs,
home runs, RBIs and walks--over the past 10 years (minimum 2,500
CATEGORY THOMAS '90S RANK '90S LEADER
BATTING AVERAGE .320 4th Tony Gwynn (.344)
HOME RUNS 301 9th Mark McGwire (405)
RUNS BATTED IN 1,040 6th Albert Belle (1,099)
RUNS SCORED 968 4th Barry Bonds (1,091)
WALKS 1,076 2nd Barry Bonds (1,146)
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
TWO FOUR-CAR GARAGES AND AN 83-BY-23-FOOT BATTING CAGE.
WHETHER HE WOULD PLAY THE FIELD OR BE THE DH.
SEEMS LIKE EVERYONE WANTS CONTROVERSY OUT OF ME."