Chicago White Sox and Big Frank

Here’s my true story of becoming a Chicago White Sox fan. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so if sports had taken hold with me in the late 1970s I could be a bitter Steelers and Pirates fan, looking fondly, if distantly, at the good old days. OK, the Steelers have been good more often than bad lately. The Pirates have been awful. In any case I rebelled against my win-all-the-time local squads. In 1983 I noticed the White Sox. They were running away with their division, and I suppose my city of champions (in the 70s anyway) background had me jump on the bandwagon. The team, naturally, blew it in the playoffs and was pretty mediocre for the rest of the decade.

It wasn’t until the end of the decade that my love of the team was cemented. I started collecting baseball cards, back when they didn’t have a million different brands out every year. In 1990 the Sox made a memorable run at the Western Division title. Yes, the Sox were in the Western Division. My first favorite player was Bobby Thigpen. I bought a ton of his cards and was heartbroken when he slowly faded into oblivion after setting the league saves record that year. He had 57 saves that year, at the age of 26, then had 53 saves total before his career ended in Seattle in 1994. Thigpen’s fall accompanied another player’s rise.

If Billy Beane were a GM in 1989, he would have wet himself over Frank Thomas’s numbers. Here he was, a power-hitting first baseman who briefly played football for the Auburn Tigers, a guy who put up great numbers and got on base unlike any other college player at the time. He fell to number seven (my lucky number) in the draft and the Sox jumped on him. Big Frank made his debut on August 2, 1990, and hit .330 in 60 games with an on-base percentage of .454. Barry Bonds’ career on-base percentage is .443.

Combine this young talent on the rise with a team starting to jell and a love affair began. And before you think that I was just a stat-hound, I loved Frank for his personality also. He was an outgoing, friendly person who met his wife at a stop light. He started a foundation to raise money for leukemia research, as his younger sister died from the dreaded disease. When Michael Jordan decided to switch jobs (picking the Sox; take that, Cubs fans), Chicago was his for the taking.

Thomas won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993 and 1994. Some dispute that he deserved a MVP award in the strike-shortened 1994 season. It’s not because of his numbers. He finished third in batting, first in on-base percentage, second in home runs, third in runs batted in, and first in runs. He led the league in runs?!? He’s 6’5, 260 pounds. Are you kidding me?
He never had a Bobby Thigpen-esque meltdown, but things started slowing down once he turned 30. After winning a batting title in 1997, his average slipped to .265 in 1998. 1999 broke an eight-year streak of at least 100 runs, RBIs, and walks. At some point Thomas lost interest in playing first base and became a full-time designated hitter. In 2000 he had a bounce-back year, finishing second to steroid-boy Jason Giambi in the MVP vote. That was also the Sox’s last glimmer of hope, as a solid first half led to a gradual decline that ended in a first-round sweep to the Wild-Card Mariners. 2003 was another semi-spike with his fourth 40-home-run season, and as he looked to get back to the old Frank, and ankle injury ended his season early in 2004.

His personal life has suffered as well. Thomas was as much as a curmudgeon as Bonds, he just wasn’t as much of a national name for it to matter. His marriage fell apart, and bad investments led him to the brink of bankruptcy despite career earnings of more than 78 million dollars. There was a moment of redemption when Thomas testified to Congress during the steroid hearings. This got, appropriately, zero media play. He’s still recovering from his ankle injury, and won’t return until May at the earliest. It’s about 50/50 that Thomas will reach the formerly hallowed 500-home-run mark. He still is a Hall-of-Famer, and will be the first predominantly DH to get that award.

And now you see why I included on-base percentage as a scoring category in my head-to-head Yahoo fantasy league. Frank might be a good value in the 23rd round.

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