Friday, December 02, 2005

The End of an Era

There will be no trumpets of adoration. No victory lap around the Comiskey outfield. No Bo Jackson riding a priceless Harley in from the bullpen. No teary farewell speech, no last hurrah, no dramatic "final at-bat of your career home run".

Frank Thomas will have none of that, and it's a damn shame.

Just six weeks after finally reaching the top and getting the World Series ring he so hungered for, Frank Thomas and the White Sox are almost certain to part ways. With the resigning of Paul Konerko and the trade for Jim Thome, the Sox have the full complement of DH/1B power. There is no longer room for the Greatest Player in White Sox History.

The Big Hurt was never fully loved in this city - he never had the smooth image of Michael, the happy-happy joy-joy antics of Sosa, or the blue-collar appeal of Brian Urlacher. Which is unfortunate, because after MJ he was the greatest athlete Chicago has ever seen. That's right, I said it, and the stats back me up.

In seven or eight years, when his name begins to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, you wonder if the baseball writers will be able to see the plain truth: Thomas was hands-down the best hitter of the 1990s. From 1991 to 1997, Thomas' worst season was a .308 campaign in 1995. He had eight consecutive seasons with 100 RBI and 100 runs scored, and hit 30+ homers in six of his first seven full seasons. He had five 40+ home run years and the lowest on-base percentage of his career was .381 in 1998. A career .307 hitter with 448 home runs AND a career OBP of .427. The career leader in just about every hitting category for the White Sox.

And yet he had no gimmick, no schtick, just a towering presence and a surly demanor. It produced stats any fan would kill for, and yet casual sports fans found it very difficult to love Frank Thomas. The real Sox fans knew better. Perhaps that is what is most tragic about Thomas' legacy - unlike Barry Bonds' "SuperDiva" act in which the slugger seems to egg his critics on, Thomas never sought the spotlight. He was never trying to be confrontational. Trouble seemed to find him, and he would say something off-the-cuff and see it blow up in his face.

More to the point, Thomas has been cheated out of his place in the discussion of current baseball legends because of steroids. The guy was a tight end at Auburn throwing vicious pancake blocks in the SEC while Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were shooting up in the bathroom. Unless Frank was on the juice from about age 11 on, he got where he was on pure skill and hard work, only to see confessed cheaters like Jason Giambi get the 2000 AL MVP award ahead of him.

And so it is the end of a 16-year era on the Southside, as Frank Thomas is going, going, and very likely gone. He will land on his feet somewhere, and we'll try to root for him to cross the 500 HR plateau. In a fair world he would do it in a White Sox uniform and enter the Hall of Fame as one of the last players to spend their entire career with one organization. ESPN's Rumor Mill reports that the TWINS are interested for a power-hitter to jump start their anemic offense. Minnesota? Frank, please don't. Don't make this Sox fan who grew up cheering for you treat you like the enemy. That was always Frank Thomas' downfall - he could never make Chicago think he wasn't the enemy.

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