Frank Thomas: We Got So Much by Pete Segall

Pete Segall lives in Chicago. His fiction has appeared in Epoch.

I think about Frank Thomas and I think about the very end of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Be assured, this has nothing to do with the book itself, this will not be about sociopathic Texas lawmen, I will not be attempting to channel anyone’s unsettlingly clear inner voice as they commit acts of savagery. There are only a couple of lines I keep coming back to. Not even a complete sentence, just a plainitive fragment, a fleeting elegiac.

It’s not total coincidence that I mention Thomas and Thompson in the same breath. For years Jim Thompson belonged to the legion of writers who, despite dedicated readers and a powerful reputation, was out-of-print and generally ignored. He died in 1977 in not very good shape. Then came a couple of well-received screen adaptations – After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters – and interest reignited. Vintage republished his books. The first one I found was The Killer Inside Me, with the orange print, the uncomfortable closeup of some grizzled fellow, the superlative-of-crazy blurb from either Stanley Kubrick or Stephen King. The year was 1991. That was also Frank’s first full year with the White Sox. So the two are both residents of the same substrata of memory, the mucky shale of adolescence. They are dredged together, heaped into the sunlight and perhaps their years in a dank and psychically red-lined place have caused a bit of conjoining or fusing.

“All of us that started the game with a crooked cue,” go the lines, and don’t worry, this is not spoilerage of any kind, “that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”

No, Big Frank never did bad, not especially bad, not until the dimming conclusion, at least, when he was with finished with the White Sox and had moved on to the A’s and Blue Jays, when I suppose that simply failing to be great was a form of doing bad for Frank. And at first base he was graceless, mechanical, Golemy; demon of grounders, arrythmic of glove. I won’t begrudge him that. It’s the wanted so much and got so little that won’t stop ringing for me.

Obviously the White Sox got more than so little from Frank Thomas. To imply that he was anything approaching disappointing is absurd. At best it’s self-girding contrarianism. I won’t even get into what it is at worst. I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. No, it isn’t. Frank was, quite possibly, the best pure hitter of the 1990s. Barry Bonds belongs in the conversation. Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr., too. You could make the prima facie argument that Thomas was the best of them all and not get too many weird looks.

He is 21st all-time in home runs and tenth in walks; Baseball Reference has him at 21st in runs created and 47th in Offensive Wins Above Replacement. In 1994 his Adjusted OPS+ was 211 – that’s tied for the 25th best OPS+ in a single season. Those with season numbers better than that fall into one of three categories: people named Ruth, Williams, Mantle, Hornsby or Gehrig; people born during the Fillmore administration; and people generally associated with the use of performance enhancers. He was easily the franchise’s best hitter since Shoeless Joe Jackson.

What’s getting Frank for me is history. Not his but his team’s. The unfairness of expectation. Being put in the miserable role of redeemer on a club where defeat was normal.

There are many ways one could describe the experience of following the White Sox in the 20th Century. I’ll go with Stultifying. They were a team that lost a lot, and in the blandest ways. The outlying awfulness of the 1919 Black Sox team needn’t be rehashed here. Listen to the nicknames our guys had: Ol’ Aches and Pains, No Neck, Shoeless. They sound more likely to bum a freight to the Big Rock Candy Mountain than win games. The White Sox were baseball afterthoughts, schedule ballast, a place to play between Kansas City and Milwaukee.

A recap of the Sox’ postseasons post-1919 business, ante-Frank, might help with context. It won’t take long.

There was the ’59 team, the Go-Go Sox, as they were known, that lost the World Series to the Dodgers and the ’83 team that won the AL West by 20 games and then managed to score all of three runs in the ALCS against the Orioles.

The end.

Nelson Algren compared loving Chicago to loving a woman with a broken nose. The all of us who started the game with a crooked cue, that’s being a White Sox fan. Algren, it should be noted, spent his career chronicling the downtrodden and was a lifelong White Sox fan.

I turned six the summer of the Winning Ugly team in ’83. You grow up, a flash in your awareness of that one season where it felt like they were going to win but then everything just turned blank, and anything similar seems utterly unfathomable. Just not possible. Sure, the way time is doled out at the ages of six, seven, eight has something to do with that. From 1984 until the year Frank arrived there was one winning season for the White Sox. Six years is epochs when you’re that young. But losing 90 games a season with some frequency also does something to what you come to expect.

It seemed like Frank had been promised to us. That he would arrive to make some tectonic difference. That years of mediocrity, not out and out suffering, not a championship lost through an opposing act of God, not a dislodged franchise (though it almost came to that), no heroics or disasters or things in the highlight reels, just regular, unremarkable, catalepsy-inducing mediocrity, would be redeemed by our grinning behemoth.

He was drafted in 1989. The Tribune calls him “slugging Auburn first baseman.”

“I was hoping Chicago got me,” says the draftee.

“They’re not doing well at first base and they’re not doing well as a team.” You wonder about the expression on his face when he adds, “I’m excited about that.”

Is that just reflexive politeness coming out, a rhetorical pardon me to maybe not bloviate a few grand off his signing bonus? Or maybe he’s smiling. Maybe there’s that grin. That wide, easy smile we’d come to love, effortless, guileless, pleased. He is going to lift this club up. He’s going to make them do well as a team. He wants to do this. He knows that he can.

So the draft is in June. July 1’s Tribune gamer has the hed: Sox ‘future’ gets view of sad present. They’d lost 6-3 to the Royals with Frank in attendance. They finish 69-92.

He hits .529 in Spring Training the next year and is assigned to Double-A Birmingham. On March 30 of the next year the Trib calls him “a phenom.” On April 20 the Tribune starts a “Thomas watch” to track his performance. The reports come every couple of days. Most of them mention massive home runs, multiple runs driven in, “onslaughts,” “assaults,” “power;” a piece on July 20 exults in the 104 walks he’s drawn in 97 games. On August 3 he makes his major league debut in the first game of a double-header against the Brewers and drives in the winning run with a groundout.

It seemed like Frank had been promised to us. That he would arrive to make some tectonic difference.The team somehow wins 94 games. It’s still nine games behind the A’s but they’d get swept by the Reds in the World Series anyway. 94 wins. Things look bright and it isn’t just Frank. There’s a stretch of young talent, recent kids drafted out of college and ready to play: Robin Ventura (Oklahoma State), Alex Fernandez (Miami). Plus the haul from dealing Harold Baines to the Rangers: Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez. Your closer, Bobby Thigpen, has just saved 57 games. That’s a record. This is quite a core. It’s advertising campaign stuff, cover of the preview magazines, bold names in Beckett’s. And finally, it was ours.

What Frank became was the face of a franchise that had essentially been faceless. We had been noise, for sure, we forfeited games and wore shorts; our entrenchment in the psyche of certain Chicago demographics was leagues deep. But Frank mattered in baseball, not just Chicago. He was put in the movies to banish Tom Selleck to Japan.

Frank’s first season slash line: .318/.453/.553. The technical term is yowza. He walks 138 times but he also strikes out 112. Two years later that number is down to 54. His ability to guard the plate was uncanny. A man who’s 6’5” tends to engender a sizeable strike zone but Frank learned to parry, deflect, use his wingspan to protect himself against expeditions to the outside of the plate, his strength to slap away anyone working the inside.

It’s the booming home runs to left field I remember most, where his arms seem to jerk down over the middle of the plate. The motion is smooth and violent. On the especially bludgeoned balls to dead center or right-center he hops onto his toes a bit, the shifting of his energy bumping around his entire body. But you can see him above (around the 50 second mark) taking out a Randy fastball to right at the Kingdome. He’s practically flatfooted, he barely has time to raise his back foot. The shoulders dip slightly, the trunk torques. He simply whips the ball out of the park.

If you want a real demonstration of how pure a hitter Frank was, you can find on YouTube a video of his appearance on the David Letterman program from 1994, during the strike that would end the season. Frank, pursuer of the Triple Crown that year, is acting as an emissary of the players. Letterman quizzes him on the strike (probably the easiest pitches he looked at all year); Frank, in a roomy suit approximately the color of a smoothie (the quality of the video is poor) seems comfortable more or less. The grin is on fantastic display throughout. Frank’s relationship with the tetchy Chicago sports media corps was never an amicable one and the writers took it out on Frank by painting him as surly, self-absorbed, petulent. But the Frank being interviewed here is open and warm, growing gradually more at ease as he adjusts to Letterman’s pogo-stick presence.

To close the interview out Letterman has Thomas take swings at pieces of fruit on a makeshift tee. He doesn’t seem to be into the gag initially. “It’s all about bat speed?” Letterman asks and Frank nods, unconvincingly. He’s busy taking practice swings, loosening up. He’s thorough enough that Letterman actually grows impatient, tells him to get on with it. His first swing, at an apple, is a little disorganized. But when it’s finished Frank is laughing pretty heartily. His second swing, at a grapefruit, is a little more in character; bits of exploded fruit come down on the first rows of the audience. It’s the third swing when he looks like he really means it. It might as well have been Charles Nagy throwing out there, not a canteloupe on a piece of plastic. Even Letterman can appreciate the power and exactitude he’s bringing. Watch where the canteloupe hits the plastic shield on the slow motion replay. That thing was headed for the bleachers over the bullpen in left center.

The greatest World Series never played, of course, was that ’94 Series between the White Sox and Expos. It was inevitable.He couldn’t even let joke swings be a joke. That’s the kind of hitter Frank was.

By 1993 he was MVP; the Sox won their first division title in a decade. He won the award again the next season.

The greatest World Series never played, of course, was that ’94 Series between the White Sox and Expos. It was inevitable. The Yankees were a few games better than the Sox but I’m doing away with any ALDS/CS uncertainty. The Expos were 34 over .500. It was going to happen. The team whose owner was instrumental in creating the work stoppage against the team whose future in their original city was probably doomed permanently by not playing in a World Series they never could have. The Flying Dutchman vs. the Wandering Jew. The Damned vs. The Bereft.

Frank was featured (albeit with Ken Griffey Jr.) on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August as “a powerful reason to keep playing ball.”
Would this niggling got so little not be here if Frank had done what baseball heroism means unless you’re a 38 year old journeyman for whom merely getting your name on the official scoresheet counts as salvation and just won the World Series? But he did. He did win a World Series. He was on the 2005 team. I forget that sometimes, it seems at such a far remove from the times I associate him with. The White Sox won the World Series and history ended. Frank didn’t play after July of that year, suffering a stress fracture in his right foot, which had been injured the year before as well. The closest he got to the playoff run was throwing out the first page for Game 1 of the ALDS.

So why’s it there? Why do I think about Frank and then think about unmet expectations? There are four baseball players with a career .300 average, 500 home runs, 1500 RBI (bad metric but whatever), 1000 runs and 1500 walks: Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Frank. We saw it. We got to be there for this. Did he descend upon a franchise so benighted – “All of us that started the game with a crooked cue” – that individual brilliance gets a little duller next to collective disappointment?

The Sox went to the playoffs twice with Frank, in ’93 and 2000. He did hit .353 the first time, with a home run and a staggering 10 walks in 27 plate appearances, but that was against Joe Carter’s Mitch Williamsing Blue Jays. Footnote to the miracle. In 2000 the Sox were swept by the Mariners. Frank went 0 for 13.

But what about his regular season numbers that year? .328 (good for a batting title), 43 home runs, 143 RBI. He won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award, finished second in MVP voting to Jason Giambi.

(Giambi and Frank are linked in other quarters as well: they were the only active players to be interviewed by the commission headed for former senator George Mitchell on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Giambi, of course, confessed to steroid use. Frank spoke voluntarily about the expansiveness of the problem. Given how broad PED use turned out to be this would seem to be the equivalent of standing up in a brothel and bragging about not having syphillis, but Frank’s actions never came across as grandstanding or self-aggrandizement or score-settling [would Frank, for instance, still be buried in memory and statistically behind Bonds or McGwire if the latter two had been clean?]. His stance in favor of regular PED testing is not popular with the Players Association and is endlessly sensible.)

His final seasons with the Sox were injury-riddled and/or disappointing. His 42 home run season in 2003 came with 115 strikeouts (to just 100 walks) and a .267 batting average. An OPS of .952 would be impressive by most standards. It was below average for Frank. When he left the team before the 2006 season he expressed disappointment at being jettisoned so brusquely from the team he openly wished to retire with. General Manager Kenny Williams responded by calling him “an idiot.” When he did retire in 2010 the press conference was at US Cellular Field. The air was cleared. He wept when the Sox retired his number 35 last August. This July a statue of him will be unveiled at US Cellular. He does spot duty for the studio portion of the local cable coverage. He is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2014 and will be elected on his first ballot.

Again then: why so little? Well maybe it has less to do with Frank and more to do with us, who wanted so much. There isn’t a lot else we could have asked for. We got our public figure, our stratospheric stats, our notoriety. We got our World Series – something I, as a legally competent adult citizen, did not believe I would ever see. Frank was there in the locker room and the champagne and half a year later he’s in Oakland on an incentive-heavy contract.

I have never enjoyed watching a baseball player as much as I enjoyed Frank. Nor appreciated nor marveled. He brought a fineness to power. His swing was a subtle action of muscle. Seamless and brutal. A sullen and sulky adolescent, between his Thompson and Carver books and gloomy German movies he doesn’t really understand except for their gloominess, could still sit and admire any one of his at-bats. But now that he’s receded it kills me nine different ways but there just isn’t any way I can get away from asking even though the rational zones of my brain tell me this is assinine and the parts yoked to memory are already answering yes, it’s plenty: is that it? Is that all we got?

The Sox lost 4-0 last night. They’re ten games out. They might make a run when the weather turns better.

7 Responses to “Frank Thomas: We Got So Much by Pete Segall”

  • Nice work. Thanks.

  • This was great. Shooting from some interesting angles. Very enjoyable read.

  • It’s a little bittersweet, the whole thing. Thank you for this.

  • Frank was so good, and yet he could have been so much better. From the strike that cut short his unbelievable 1994 season, to the injury upon injury upon injury that shortened many more seasons (including the most important one of all), to the crap team that surrounded him for a good part of the ’90s and early 2000s, to the steroids that pushed Giambi ahead of him for the 2000 MVP award, there are so many reasons to believe that Frank Thomas could have been a baseball legend, and not just a White Sox legend/baseball great. Having been born in 1991 and not truly following baseball until 2004-ish, I experienced little of his greatness first-hand, and I never realized what a savior he was to the franchise, especially after they almost moved to Tampa Bay. He had one of the sweetest swings in the game, he was one of the most intimidating power hitters, and he did it all clean. He is, hands down, the greatest White Sox who ever lived.

  • This was absolutely beautiful. An exceptional piece from a true Chicagoan and White Sox fan. I always loved Frank Thomas and when I told a friend so this summer, they compared it to saying “my favorite player is Michael Jordan”, the popular answer. But it’s true. Frank Thomas was a marvel to behold, a giant of a man who hit broken-bat home runs and drove in runs with duck snorts to left field.

    Frank Thomas’ last White Sox season may have been his most poetic. With bad legs and a not-fully-healed biceps injury, basically unable to run the bases, he knew it was home runs or bust. So he hit 12 homers in a mere 105 at-bats. Best pure hitter of the decade? It’s a tie with Junior. A very close tie.

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