Big Hurt is far from forgotten

CHICAGO -- Frank Thomas was born to hit, as evidenced by his place atop the White Sox's leaderboard in home runs, doubles, slugging percentage and RBI. For many years, if someone asked you to predict who would be in the batter's box to deliver the big knock to liberate Sox fans from decades of despair, Thomas would have been the logical choice.

So what were the odds that Thomas' 2005 postseason highlight would take place on the pitcher's mound?

Two weeks ago, Chicago management recognized Thomas' 16 years of service with the club by asking him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1 of the Division Series against the Red Sox. Thomas threw a fastball to bench coach Harold Baines, then smiled and pumped his fist in triumph as the love rained down from the U.S. Cellular stands. He was a man in the throes of his very own Sally Field "You really like me!" moment.

"What a feeling," Thomas said. "Standing O all around the place. People really cheering me. I had tears in my eyes. To really know the fans cared that much about me -- it was a great feeling. One of my proudest moments in the game."

Those cheers help sustain Thomas these days, when his life is one big vicarious thrill. In Houston, fellow franchise icon Jeff Bagwell slips an Astros jersey over his tattered shoulder, watches games from the dugout and makes pinch-hitting cameos. That routine must seem like nirvana to Thomas, whose contribution consists of rooting on the boys, accommodating the press and hanging out in street clothes and one shoe.

It's that pesky left ankle. Thomas underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture of the navicular bone in the fall of 2004, and returned before he was fully healed. He hit .219 with 12 home runs in 105 at-bats this season, but had to shut it down for good in July.

Thomas expects to be out of the cast in early November and running by the start of the year. Meanwhile, his future in Chicago is a coin flip.

White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has said repeatedly that re-signing Paul Konerko is the team's top offseason priority. Thomas has a $10 million option, which the White Sox will surely decline in favor of a $3.5 million buyout.

If returning means signing a make-good contract with a low base salary and lots of incentives, Thomas seems intent on making the math work. Scan the list of active players and only Craig Biggio and John Smoltz have a longer active tenure with the same big-league club. That continuity means a lot to Thomas.

"This is home," he said. "I've been here 15 years and I don't know anywhere else. I'm sure we can work something out, and hopefully we will."

Williams is a little more circumspect. If the free-agent market for Konerko goes crazy -- a good possibility given that Konerko is the only Richie Sexson-caliber slugger available -- the White Sox will have to stretch their budget to the limit. Williams seems dubious about Thomas' health, and he says flat-out that Thomas' limited playing time and $8 million salary put a crimp in the team's ability to make moves this year.

"I would love to see the energy of Frank chasing 500, and it would be great to see him have one name on the back of his baseball card," Williams said. "But I can't let sentiment and personal feelings get in the way of what I feel are our best business decisions."

Thomas has some milestones left to chase. He needs 52 homers and 53 doubles to join the 500-500 club, a feat attained by only eight players in history. With 2,136 hits, Thomas won't come close to 3,000, but that's partly a reflection of his patience at the plate. Thomas' 1,466 walks contribute greatly to his .427 on base percentage, which places him 13th on the all-time list ahead of Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Hank Greenberg, among others.

The numbers are more meaningful, Thomas insists, because he has taken the high road and refrained from using steroids.

"I'm highly disappointed in the guys who were doing this stuff," Thomas said. "I have respect for the Hall of Famers, the guys who went to another level, and I worked my ass off to get to where I'm at. My numbers are all real numbers, and I take a lot of pride in that."

Unlike many of his teammates, Thomas has the benefit of historical perspective. He broke in with Chicago in 1990 on a roster that included Carlton Fisk, Ron Kittle, Steve "Psycho" Lyons and a young Sammy Sosa. He was around when Hawk Harrelson and Tom Paciorek were still a broadcast tandem and Ozzie Guillen was the White Sox shortstop instead of a Spanglish Casey Stengel-in-training.

Unfortunately, Thomas has had too many peripheral issues to contend with through the years. Big Hurt retrospectives in the Chicago papers this summer reflected on his contract squabbles and his clashes with Robin Ventura, Jerry Manuel, Carlos Lee and others. Even Guillen, who is now in Thomas' corner as White Sox manager, griped about his "I" and "me" tendencies when they were teammates in the '90s.

But at 37, Thomas finally seems to get it. He bought into Guillen's program in spring training and never dragged down the mood with his injury issues. Maybe the new, nicer Frank is just a fading star without a job, saying all the right things because of his self-preservation instincts. Or maybe he just wants to wind down his career properly, with a show of class.

"Frank has been a star, man," Williams said. "He's been as respectful of the new coaching staff and the way we're trying to go about things as you could possibly ask for. He's been supportive of his teammates at every turn."

After the White Sox clinched the American League Central title in Detroit in late September, Thomas made a point of flying to Cleveland for the final weekend and celebrating with his teammates at their hotel. He was trying to hide behind a pillar, in all his massiveness, until Jermaine Dye spotted him. The Big Hurt stepped out laughing and shaking a bottle of champagne. He had earned his right to drink from it.

"Frank's a legend," White Sox infielder Willie Harris said. "He's a legend to me and to everybody. It just feels good to have him around. He's Mr. White Sox."

Harris is a native of Cairo, Ga., (Jackie Robinson's hometown) and Thomas comes from Columbus, Ga., so they forged a bond from the start of spring training in 2002. Harris, newly arrived from Baltimore, was wondering how he would approach Thomas and stammer out a hello when he looked up and saw the big man standing at his locker.

"Let's go to work," Thomas told him.

This is the side of Frank Thomas that White Sox fans would like to imagine. Harris half-jokingly refers to Thomas as "the Big Softie," because he's more sensitive than the world will ever know.

"Frank's been good to me ever since I got here," Harris said. "He took me under his wing and taught me a lot as far as baseball goes. One thing he always tells me is, 'This game will humble you.' He says that a lot."

He says it with a heightened sense of awareness this October. The game, in all its capriciousness and cruelty, humbled Frank Thomas far too often this season, as he watched his team's dream story line unfold from the most uncomfortable of distances. So close, and yet so far.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.