Frank Thomas once said of me, “I’d like to stick a bat up his ass sideways.’’ My retort was that he probably wouldn’t make contact. This was at a stage in his career when Chicago didn’t love him very much, when unrefined White Sox fans referred to The Big Hurt as “The Big Skirt,’’ when his talents were fading to the point that team management — yet another example of the jerk quotient that always infected owner Jerry Reinsdorf — installed a “diminished skills’’ clause in Thomas’ contract. In the final indignity, the team released him in 2005, following a World Series championship to which he didn’t contribute because of injury.
But what none of us ever could know at the time, including Thomas and the White Sox, was that a Hall of Fame induction foundation was being built then and there. Earlier in 2005, a Congressional panel had made a mockery of Major League Baseball in exposing its PED abusers on Capitol Hill. That is where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were taken down as cheaters in the court of public perception. And that is where Thomas, whose once-historic offensive numbers had been minimized by the hype over McGwire and Sosa and their steroids-fueled power exploits, finally began to win justice and revenge.
Yes, Thomas tended to have problems with his nightlife binges and his weight. “Stop eating that hot dog,’’ Ozzie Guillen, who served as his manager and teammate, once yelled at him in a clubhouse. But never, ever did Thomas succumb to the steroids temptation that pathetically defined his era. While Barry Bonds was falsely breaking home-run records, McGwire’s back was breaking out with acne and Sosa was blowing kisses to crowds worshipping a phony, Thomas languished in the anonymity of Chicago’s South Side.
That he would hear the cheers in Cooperstown, a decade later, is a sweet ending to a sometimes bitter tale.
“To all you kids, just remember one thing from today, there are no shortcuts to success,” he said on stage at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That was his only comment about PEDs. That’s all he had to say in the speech, having made his point throughout his career and the day before in a news conference. “I wasn’t THE voice against steroids. But I had the biggest voice,’’ Thomas said. “I probably lost more than anybody else in that steroid era. I could have had more MVPs, bigger contracts, things that I deserved.”
Today, he has something more honorable than hardware and money: his integrity and dignity.
Just as important, as we remembered the .301 career batting average and the 521 homers and the 1,704 RBIs and the seven straight seasons in which he hit .300 with at least 20 homers and 100 RBIs and 100 walks, he thanked his parents with tears.
“Frank Sr., I know you’re watching,’’ Thomas said. “Without you, I know 100 percent I wouldn’t be here in Cooperstown today. You always preached to me, `You can be someone special if you really work at it.’ I took that to heart, Pop. Mom, I thank you for all the motherly love and support. I know it wasn’t easy.’’
He never knew the easy way.
Just the right way.