Saturday, February 13, 2010

How will Chicago remember Big Hurt

A part of me is tempted to dig out a copy of the 1992 film “Mr. Baseball,” or go scouring around the various television channels that feature situation comedy reruns in search of “Married, with Children.”

Not that I care much about either that film (which was a second-rate attempt to create a romantic comedy centered around the world of professional baseball in Japan) or that crude sitcom that was supposedly set in our beloved Chicago.

BUT FRANK THOMAS back in his prime appeared in both of those settings, albeit just for quick cameos. Perhaps that is the reason why so many people had problems assuming that Thomas was truly a larger-than-life figure. He didn’t behave larger-than-life.

He just swung his bat during Chicago White Sox games for so many years, and for the first half of his career racked up statistics that put him in the company of the game’s true immortals. Various injuries managed to bring him down during the second half of his career to a level where he would have fit in completely with the Chicago Cubs.

But it was on the South Side that Thomas spent the bulk of his athletic career, and wished he could have spent his entire professional baseball career. But whether one wants to believe that Thomas was selfish or not, the reality is that ballplayers tend to move about from club to club (often because the ballclubs themselves swat them about).

Looking at the photographs taken Friday of Thomas with his new wife, his three kids by a previous wife and his newborn son (Frank III), he comes across as an aging ballplayer – one who realizes that his obituary is already written, no matter how much longer he really lives.

OF COURSE, THAT tends to be the case with most athletes – what with the way that the body doesn’t maintain its prime physical attributes for all that long.

The Thomas we’re going to see from here on in is going to be an aging man who occasionally dons his White Sox uniform (with the number 35 on the back that team officials say will be retired in ceremonies to be held Aug. 29).

We may even get a statue of Thomas erected at U.S. Cellular Field, so that fans of the future can stand next to it and create silly poses while a friend takes their picture. Perhaps there will even be some sort of incident involving vandalism to that statue (somebody’s going to hurt “the Big Hurt”).

I expect it because I can’t help but notice the amount of Internet commentary posted on Friday in response to Thomas officially retiring more than a season after he played his last game. Cubs fans seem to resent that the days of the early 2000s when they presemed their team had the big immortal superstar in Sammy Sosa are now long gone, and perhaps they missed seeing something special by not making more trips south of Roosevelt Road (where legendary columnist Mike Royko once wrote that a good way to provoke a barroom brawl was to play the jukebox in the middle of the Sox game on the bar’s TV set).

THERE ARE THE cheapshots about the latter part of his career, the fact that he played a portion as a designated hitter, and the claims that anybody who was THAT big had to be using steroids – even though it would have made Thomas the biggest hypocrite if he had because he spent the bulk of his career openly talking against steroid use (that is, when he wasn’t hitting .300 or better). For the record, when Thomas took those tests as a college football player (Auburn University), he failed – which is good. Plus, how many of us remember those Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball where Thomas appeared on the video screen and was questioned briefly by long-distance on the issue.

Those injuries at the end are a sad point because they deprived us local baseball fans of what would have been the cap to a Chicago baseball career – a World Series appearance.

Thomas was on the roster and in uniform during 2005, but missed most of the season due to injuries. He watched the World Series from the bench – just like Joe Borchard (the man who hit what remains the longest home run ever – 504 feet – at U.S. Cellular).

Our home run heroics that year came from Scott Podsednik (the guy who was acquired because he used to be able to steal a lot of bases), while the pitching performances of that year’s starting rotation (those four complete game victories in the final round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Angels) were the truly amazing games to watch.

SO IN A sense, Thomas gets put into the same class as Ernie Banks, whose Cubs teams never made it to a World Series or playoff round during his nearly 20 seasons as a ballplayer.

Not that it takes away from the joy we used to feel when we watched Thomas come through with a big hit or the intimidation factor we’d sense whenever other teams deliberately pitched around Thomas because they just knew he would hurt them big time if they weren’t careful.

But that is now all a part of the past. Thomas’ visage will go up on the outfield wall along with Luis Aparicio or Minnie Miñoso, and people will argue whether the best hitter to ever play for the White Sox is Thomas or “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.

And there will be those of us who will get a chuckle whenever that “Married, with Children” episode from 1994 airs – the one where Ed O’Neill’s “Al Bundy” character organizes his own protest to the baseball “strike” that year, and Thomas appeared as himself, along with Mike Piazza, Dave Winfield and Bret Saberhagen, to name a few.

I MIGHT SUGGEST that people would get a bigger kick out of Thomas’ youthful (only 24) appearance in “Mr. Baseball,” where he played the part of the future star ballplayer whose skilled hitting cost Tom Selleck’s character a job in U.S. baseball, thereby resulting in him playing a season with the Chunichi Dragons.

The only problem there is that Thomas’ character was a New York Yankee, and all too many White Sox fans become just a tad ill upon seeing “the Big Hurt” in Yankee pinstripes.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Does number 68 ( look familiar?

Some random thoughts ( from Frank Thomas on the day that he publicly accepted reality that he’s not a ballplayer any longer. At this moment in time, many people seem eager to see Thomas inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame come 2014, which would ( make Frank the first White Sox player inducted from the era the team was owned by Jerry Reinsdorf and his business associates (Carlton Fisk was inducted as a Boston Red Sox).

In the beginning, Frank Thomas was known primarily because he had the same name as a slow-footed, hard-hitting outfielder ( who played for various National League teams in the 1950s. Nobody would mistake ( the two now.

No comments: