Friday, December 09, 2005

A Fan's Appreciation

Chicago Tribune commentator Jon Baskin on Frank Thomas' legacy:

To watch Frank hit in the '90s was an event. You stopped what you were doing and studied the TV as he planted his prodigious back foot and waved those massive arms. The announcers' voices went taut with excitement. The pitcher's eyes widened. This was Mozart, Einstein. You were in the presence of a kind of genius...

It was a simplistic but devastating formula. For all the things columnists say about him now, they rarely say this: Frank Thomas was the greatest hitter in the most offensively prolific decade in baseball history. Between 1991 and 1997, Frank hit .331 and averaged 36 home runs and 118 runs batted in a year. (His best year, 1994, was cut short by the strike.) Frank was robbed of what should have been his third MVP in 2000 and, as recently as 60 games into the 2004 season, when he sustained an injury, Frank remained one of the most potent offensive forces in the steroid-juiced American League. He was, quite simply, the greatest offensive force to ever set foot in Chicago.

But what the columnists would have us remember is that Frank studied his stats in the clubhouse, didn't know enough about Jackie Robinson, built his house with non-union workers. He wouldn't do a running drill in spring training.

To be sure, Frank has never been a natural leader, and, occasionally, he has done inexplicably stupid things, like when he held out in spring training for six days in 2001. But can you imagine Bonds or Clemens being held to answer for such small crimes? Ruth? Williams? Somehow, in Frank's case--maybe it was his ineptitude at defending himself--these things stuck. Before long, it was common knowledge that he was viewed as being petulant, selfish, acid in the clubhouse...

Maybe you were at U.S. Cellular Field on Memorial Day, when Frank came off the disabled list. The stadium was uncharacteristically packed. A buzz was in the air, old feuds forgotten. What mattered was that Frank Thomas was in the lineup; he was going to hit. The crowd stood and held its breath every time Frank was to bat. With each monstrous swing came an eruption of hope: Something spectacular might happen--at any moment, he might launch one.

It was clear on that day that Frank was in bad shape. He could barely run. His swing was slow. He couldn't reach the outside pitch. Still, he laid out a rope to left and walked in three at bats.

The fans--can you blame them?--wanted more Big Hurt. They knew his days were numbered.

You say Konerko is the perfect White Sox, the first baseman of our dreams. I'm glad we signed him, but the best Sox first baseman I know will be playing elsewhere next year.

I came of age as a White Sox fan in the golden era of Frank Thomas. He is the organization in my mind. It will be tough to stomach watching him hit his 500th home run as a member of the Oakland A's. He should've retired here. Paul Konerko is a worthy successor. But for those of us who watched Frank launch 448 bombs for the White Sox, who saw how much this year meant to him even though he barely played, it will be tough to say goodbye.

I hope he comes back for the ring ceremony. He deserves one final curtain call in front of the home fans.



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