I have watched a lot of sports in my life. Too much sports. If I could have all the hours back that I've spent watching sports...
Well, there's no use in talking about that. That might get embarrassing.
And in all that television viewing, and in all those games attended in person, there is only one athlete who I can recall seeing for the very first time: Frank Thomas.
The Big Hurt.
It was in Cal's, a South Side greasy fast food joint that isn't there anymore. It had great gyros, a flat Ms. Pac Man and a TV in the corner. 1990. The White Sox were on the telly. Thomas had just debuted in a Sox uniform a few days before and the buzz was hard to miss. People were talking. They were excited. "Have you seen this Thomas kid? Holy bejeezus!"
This was it. This was the superstar the South Side had been waiting for. Thomas was the real deal and everyone knew it, or at least they were hoping, daring to think it. I hadn't seen him yet, but I already knew all about the big kid who couldn't miss.
Then I saw Thomas on that telly and he was...a baseball god. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but he was impressive and original. He was massive, menacing. I stared wide-eyed with an open mouth of unchewed food. I was in awe. The announcers said something about him playing tight end at Auburn and I thought, "Tight end? He's too big to be a tight end!" He glared toward the pitcher like he had been in that batter's box a thousand times before. He appeared pissed off and not to be messed with. His sheer size was a precursor to all the roided-up clowns who would dirty baseball later in the decade. He was the blueprint, the model. Other players saw the Big Hurt and asked, "How can I look like that?" He made hitting a baseball look like swinging a skateboard to hit a golf ball.
I don't even recall what Thomas did in that first at-bat I witnessed while sitting at Cal's, but it didn't matter. I had seen the future and he was huge and downright scary and, best of all, he was in a Sox uniform. He was ours.
I cannot remember the very first time I saw any other athlete.
Now, after seventeen years with the club, Thomas is officially no longer a member of the Sox, who have declined to offer arbitration, which is a not-so-complicated way of saying, "Thanks for the memories. Adios." So the Frank Thomas era is over. Era
. It's not often you can say that about a player, especially when talking in terms of all-time bests. Who was a better White Sox player? And how many players have their own eras? Few stars, especially in this day and age of endless offseason traffic, ever get to singlehandedly define an era of a franchise, for better or worse, the way Thomas did. Few ever will again.
Thomas first arrived on the scene in the late summer of 1990. The following spring - Thomas' true rookie year - the Sox would ditch the red and blue uniforms of the mixed 1980's and first don their current silver and black. They would also move out of the old Comiskey Park and into the Cell. Things were changing in a big way. The future was arriving.
New colors. New stadium.
And Frank Thomas. Back in black.
Let the 1990's begin.
And they did. And it was good. Almost instantly, Thomas was winning MVPs and the Sox, at long last, were serious contenders. In 1993 Thomas and the Sox lost the ALCS in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the most underrated teams of all time on its way to a second consective title. It was a heartbreak, but lessons were learned for the future, or at least that was the hope.
It was never to be found out.
In 1994 the Sox woulda, shoulda, coulda won the World Series. That was the team, man. The
team. They were going to do it. They had the best young hitter in baseball in Thomas and a young pitching staff just reaching its prime. Alas, we all know how that ended. There was to be no World Series won that year, and no World Series at all.
Of course, eleven years later the Thomas era culminated with a White Sox World Series title. This cannot be stated enough.
The Frank Thomas era ended on top of the mountain.
Only thing was, Thomas also had an innate and graceless flair for alienating Sox fans with unfortunate ease. It was practically a gift. Few players could be grumpy and childish and me, me, me quite like the Big Hurt, whose feelings were so easily hurt. Always hurt. To be blunt, he could be a big baby. Nothing was ever good enough, or fair. He had no reason to be happy. Someone was always out to get him. By the turn of the century, seemingly every Sox spring training officially began when Thomas arrived, possibly late, and aired his grievances concerning his contract, his status in the clubhouse, and whatever else he felt like getting off his chest at that moment. It was an entire offseason of brooding being spilled out to the pens of the listening media. He's here. Everyone gather around and listen to what Frank wants to groan about this year. It was Frank time and it was ugly.
It got old.
Sadly, somewhere along the line Thomas crossed a line.
Athletes, especially athletes as dominant as Thomas, are forgiven their indiscretions as easily as anyone in modern society. So maybe the first time Thomas acted like a sullen kid who had his candy taken away, you could write it off. Maybe the second time as well. After all, he was the face of the Sox and those stats. Oh, those stats. And come on, it's Frank!
But somewhere there is a line and Thomas crossed it. For a guy who could have owned the city of Chicago in a way perhaps only names like Jordan, Payton, and Ditka did before him, Thomas was often forgotten. He was the big brute on the South Side who was always upset about something. Leave him be. Forget about him. It's just Frank being Frank. He was one of the best hitters of his time, yet even to his own fans he was often thought of as just another whiny athlete with a big mouth and a bad attitude, or worse, a guy whose time here had run out, a guy who needed to be dealt. After all, before the 2005 season, the Sox, despite having one of the most feared lineups in baseball for several years, routinely finished in second place. A poor team attitude was often cited as the culprit. A cold clubhouse.
And often, Thomas was blamed.
Thomas never became the hero he was made to be.
Unsurprisingly, he has been grumbling this very week about the way it has ended here. He's got a problem with it. Frank being Frank.
And so it is that the Cubs' signing of Juan Pierre has received much bigger billing in the news the last couple of days. And that's sad, really. Thomas' time with the Sox has come to an end with a whimper, not a bang. But that's the exit he created. Not the media. Not the Sox. Not the fans.
Thomas walked the distance that now separates him from true adoration all by himself. Nobody pushed him.
Ironically, Thomas is being replaced by Jim Thome, another aging slugger just hoping to get healthy again. Something seems wrong with that picture, at least at first glance. I mean, if you want an old slugger with possible aches and pains, why not keep Thomas? After all, in his limited action this past season, he was still downright scary at the plate, even if his wobbly wheels barely allowed him to move.
But when you look at the picture again, it makes sense. Quite simply, it was time for the big guy to go. The Thomas era had ended long before the clock struck midnight on Thursday morning and made it official. Everyone knew that another season of wondering where Thomas fit in wouldn't be good for anyone, or much fun. Sometimes a clean break is best. Everything comes to an end.
Bridges weren't burned necessarily, but I'd be careful crossing them.
All in all, I'll say this: Thomas was one of the greatest hitters in the game for a long time, and still may be. As far as we can tell, he's always been clean, a noble accomplishment in and of itself in this filthy era of liars and cheats. Most importantly, the Sox won more than they lost during the Thomas era and the last time he sat in a Pale Hose dugout he witnessed the winning side of a World Series.
We all did.
And all season long, as Thomas watched his team win big without him, he never seemed to complain or ask, "Why me? Why now?" Instead he seemed to have a ready smile and some words of encouragement for his younger teammates who, for the first time in a nearly two decades, didn't need him.
You know it had to be killing him.
It was no longer his show and he had to accept that. What else could he do? So he did. There can be some peace found in this, both for Thomas as well as Sox fans. Maybe a World Series ring heals all scars and bad feelings. Maybe it means we'll look back at Thomas and remember mostly the good times and smile as any ugliness fades from our memories. I think it will.
And to true Sox fans, he'll never be known as Thomas or even the Big Hurt.
No, to true Sox fans, he'll always be Frank. Just Frank. He was always just Frank. First name only. It was almost like we knew him, and we did. Sort of. Through good times and bad.
So long, Frank. And see you soon.