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WSI News - News Watch

Frank Thomas is happy once again

March 29th, from the Associated Press

Frank Thomas didn't like the person he'd become.

A two-time AL MVP who'd once been one of the most feared hitters in the game, he was unhappy and unfulfilled. At times, his actions made him a poster boy for what fans hated most about the game.

Thomas insists the surly character wasn't really him. And he's eager to prove it.

``The last few conversations with my father, he was saying the same thing. 'You need to get back to having fun, the game's no fun for you anymore. You've never been a nasty person, a negative person, and it's looking that way now,''' Thomas recalled this spring.

``Like he told me, `Have more fun with it. You've accomplished a lot, so you need to really enjoy it.' And that's what I'm doing now.''

After four years marked by personal and professional problems, Thomas' mind is clear as he starts his 13th season -- a year he hopes will bring him the one thing missing from his illustrious career.

``The only thing I need to prove is that we can win a World Series championship,'' he said. ``The (individual) numbers don't count anymore for me. I want to be on a winning ball club. That's what's left for my career, to win it all.''

Thomas' rise was swift. He hit .318 with 32 homers and 109 RBIs his rookie season, starting a streak of eight straight years where he batted .300 or better with 100-plus RBIs.

In 1993, just his third full season, he was the unanimous choice for AL MVP. The next year, he became the first AL player since Roger Maris to win back-to-back MVPs as he led the league in slugging percentage (.729) and on-base percentage (.487).

He was just as successful off the field. Before Sammy Sosa's homer bonanza made him Chicago's favorite slugger, it was Thomas the fans revered. His No. 35 jersey was a staple in every South Side kid's wardrobe.

But the downward spiral began in 1998. Expected to carry the White Sox kiddie corps rebuilding program, Thomas faltered, hitting a career-low .265. The following year he managed just 15 home runs and 77 RBIs, career lows for a full season.

White Sox manager Jerry Manuel sent him home after he refused to pinch hit in doubleheader late in the 1999 season. He'd later have season-ending surgery to remove a large bone spur on his right ankle, but his image had already taken a hit.

When he got into a shouting match with Manuel over a spring training drill in February 2000, it sealed it: The Big Hurt had become the Big Baby.

``With success, stuff like that happens,'' Thomas said. ``If I was an average player or a below-average player, none of that stuff would have ever happened. But I did some spectacular things early in my career and people expect a certain level.

``Of course I got sensitive to that, because I never had that happen.''

Problems in his personal life didn't help. He was going through a divorce, and agent and close friend Robert Fraley died in the plane crash that killed Payne Stewart. His father and confidant, Frank Thomas Sr., got sick.

Thomas had a resurgence in 2000, when he hit .328 with career highs in homers (43) and RBIs (143) while leading the White Sox to their first division title since 1993. He also finished second to Jason Giambi in the AL MVP voting.

But all goodwill disappeared when he arrived at spring training last year, complained about his contract and then left camp for six days. Then in April, while playing first base, he dove for a ground ball and tore his right triceps.

The injury wasn't diagnosed for 13 days, though, and teammates griped privately that Thomas wasn't playing hurt. Then David Wells took the family feud public, criticizing Thomas on a national radio show.

``He didn't mean any harm by it,'' Thomas says now. ``He was trying to rally my butt. He said, `We needed you to go out there and help us win.' But he didn't know that I was going to be done for the season.''

Amid all that turmoil, Frank Thomas Sr. died.

``It's very tough,'' Thomas said. ``We always talked during the spring, twice during the week or whatever, and it's been difficult for me. But I know he's there for me. He's always wanted me to just have fun and play hard.''

Thomas stayed away from the White Sox while he recuperated, needing the space and time to grieve. And somewhere along the way, the gloom lifted.

The smile is back on his face, and so is his carefree attitude. He joined in clubhouse card games, and giggled as Kenny Lofton showed off some of his dance moves.

Even the jokes and razzing from teammates that once might have gotten under his skin make him laugh now.

``I think he really missed playing when he had the injury,'' Manuel said. ``The chance to get back on the baseball field, I think he feels good about being out there.''

Not even the prospect of playing first base can spoil his mood.

``I'm going to go out and approach it differently and have fun,'' Thomas said. ``Just tell me that day so I can go out and catch some ground balls and be ready to play.''

While he says personal achievements don't matter anymore, he has the potential to put up monster numbers again with Chicago's new lineup. Lofton and Ray Durham will give him plenty of RBI opportunities, and Magglio Ordonez and Paul Konerko are such good hitters that opponents can no longer pitch around Thomas.

One good season, and the off years are forgotten. One good season, and the bad behavior can be forgiven.

``I've learned a lesson: Put it in the rearview mirror and just move on,'' he said. ``I have a lot of career left, and I definitely want to take my game to another level once again.

``And show people the type of person I really am.''


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