Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hurt So Good

Congrats to Frank Thomas, whose number 35 was retired by the White Sox today. I watched the ceremony on TV and was surprised by how much emotion I felt. Although, I came to realize that Frank Thomas has been one of the most important sports figures during my time as a baseball fan.

I remember when I was a kid in Ohio looking at baseball cards in '91 or '92 and coming across a Frank Thomas rookie card and thinking, "Man, I wish he were on the Reds." And when I moved to Chicago in August '92, Thomas quickly became a player I liked to watch. His '93 and '94 seasons were awesome. Unfortunately for the Sox, the '94 season was cut short by a strike and we'll never know how that would have ended up for them.

As the years went on, Thomas had a rocky relationship with the Chicago media. For a town that loved Jordan, and later Sammy Sosa, some wondered why Frank Thomas could never figure out how to play the media for more favorable reviews. And frankly, the answer was that the Big Hurt didn't want to be bothered by the media.

My opinions about Frank Thomas have changed many times over the years. I began as an admirer, then soured when he didn't get along with the media, then I lost interest when other players started surpassing him in the late 90s, then I laughed at him when the Sox exercised a diminished skills clause in his contract. By the time the Sox won the World Series without the Big Hurt in the playoffs, I was indifferent to the fact that he didn't get to be on the field when that happened.

When the White Sox and Frank Thomas parted ways after the 2005 season, it was on bitter terms. Thomas was mad at Kenny Williams for thinking he was basically done--and those two had a huge argument. When Thomas left, my thought was good riddance.

But like I say, my opinions of Thomas have kept changing through the years. This past season he came back to Chicago and started doing some local TV work. It was kind of funny to think of Frank Thomas being in the media, and he's made light of the fact as well. He was quick to admit that he had been naive in his youth regarding how he treated the media. And I soon found myself enjoying his in-studio analysis, as well as his on-field interviews with players. Earlier this season I saw Thomas provide the color commentary with Hawk Harrelson in the booth for the first time, and while he was somewhat inexperienced with the broadcasting aspect, I saw huge potential. I also found myself enjoying his ability to bring a current perspective to the game. It might seem like a small thing, but Thomas really expanded his MLB horizons during his short stints with the Blue Jays and A's. He knows a lot about today's players and coaches, and he had great stories to share.

There were a few years here in Chicago where Sammy Sosa was a sports god and Frank Thomas was a bum. And I'm just as guilty as the next guy for being more interested in Sosa than Thomas from 1998 to 2003. But as people reflect on the steroid era, a lot of thinking has changed.

During today's ceremony, in many ways Thomas' career came full circle. And so did a big part of my sports-watching life. Whether it was looking at his baseball card as a kid in Ohio, seeing him play at my first baseball game in a Chicago park, reading negative newspaper columns about him, watching him hit his 400th homer on TV, or listening to fans call the radio station to spout their opinions about him, those are all just memories now. Little entertaining distractions to get me through the day to day, but over time they add up to something more.

The story of Frank Thomas is still being written. But as a baseball player, I'll remember him as the best hitter to ever wear the White Sox uniform.

1 comment:

Greg said...

As soon as I posted this, I learned that the White Sox have acquired Manny Ramirez. Hmm... maybe now Manny is the greatest hitter to ever wear the White Sox uniform? Let the debate begin!

Although, if we're talking about playing in their prime, then Thomas still safely holds that title.