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WSI News - News Watch

Thomas accepts new phase of career

March 30, By Paul Sullivan; Chicago Tribune

MILWAUKEE - It happens to everyone sooner or later, and even Frank Thomas knows it's coming.

Whether you're a salesman or a supermodel, a sculptor or a superstar athlete, the day eventually will come when you're no longer looking down at the rest of your contemporaries.

Thomas took over the controls of the White Sox offense in 1991, his first full season in the majors, finishing third in American League Most Valuable Player balloting.

At 23 Thomas became the focal point of a franchise full of rising stars like Sammy Sosa, Robin Ventura and Jack McDowell and established veterans such as Carlton Fisk and Tim Raines.

But 11 years later Thomas stands at the crossroads of his career.

How he accepts the new reality may determine whether the White Sox end a 43-year pennant drought.

He may be "the Man" for now, but Thomas realizes either Magglio Ordonez or Paul Konerko could usurp that title within the next season or two.

The Sox got by without Thomas for five months last season and he knows he's not as indispensable as he was two years ago. The question Thomas soon will be facing is whether he can handle being a valuable sidekick instead of the leading man.

"If that happensit happens," Thomas said. "As you get older your skills deteriorate a little bit. Young kids like Magglio and Konerko, in their prime, they make things happen.

"I don't feel like I'm an old guy. I feel like I'm still in my prime. I'm not concerned with that. It's not that important to me at all. I mean, it's obvious. Magglio is making the same money I'm making. Why shouldn't he [be the focal point]? That's the way I look at it."

After missing most of 2001 after triceps surgery in May, Thomas arrived in camp this spring with a new attitude.

"No worries" was the mantra he repeated in Tucson and, thus far, Thomas has maintained his upbeat demeanor.

But spring training is spring training and there are those who believe Thomas will find something to get under his skin before too long.

When that possibility was broached, Thomas seemed surprised anyone would doubt he could keep the smile on his face for the next six months.

"I wouldn't know why they'd think that," he said. "I think it's important I do my best not to let that happen. I don't think I have anything to prove any more. I have to regulate my thoughts into helping this team win. As for the icon thing, I could care less about that anymore. It's not that important. I'm going to keep myself in this mode because it's very important to me in my personal life.

"I have kids to raise now and I have a job to do. Just go do it at the highest level possible. But the pressure is not going to be to prove I'm the best ballplayer of all time. It's not that important to me anymore."

The operative word is "anymore." Thomas has spent the bulk of his career trying to live up to the high expectations he built in his first four seasons. He won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993—leading the Sox into the postseason—and 1994. But now he must fight off age, injuries and the perception he's a malcontent in remission and can blow up at any time.

Early in his career Thomas once was criticized for reading the business page in the clubhouse. But Thomas said he didn't read a recent Wall Street Journal column on borderline Hall of Famers, an article that suggested his chances had diminished greatly because he has had only one dominant season since 1998.

Thomas acknowledged it's still a goal to be enshrined in Cooperstown. But he isn't obsessed with the notion.

"The bottom line is you can have a great career and still not get in," he said. "I'd love to get in and I'll continue to play hard and give it everything I can. But once the day is over, it's over for me now."

Last year was the worst in Thomas' life, starting with his spring training walkout, his father's death, his season-ending injury and David Wells' accusations that Thomas was exaggerating his injury.

But Thomas said he learned some valuable lessons, including the need to alter his relationship with Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

It was Reinsdorf's refusal to remove the "diminished skills" clause from Thomas' contract that led to the walkout and still bothers him.

"He's a tough guy," Thomas said of Reinsdorf. "I've dealt with him. I signed the contract I signed and it's over. No need to sit there and bicker about it. Not anymore. I'm resolved to the fact that I'm stuck with [five more years]. It's not a bad five years to be stuck with, but still, that's the way the game is.

"My obligation now is to go out and give this team everything I possibly can, and not worry about those things anymore. I understand that personal relationships and friendships just don't happen in business situations. They're difficult to deal with, so you separate yourself from that. I'm not trying to be his best friend anymore.

"It's very important to separate business and friendship. He has been very fair man with me throughout my career. There are no bad feelings toward him, but we aren't as tight as we were."

Thomas said he hopes to continue playing for two more seasons beyond 2006, when his Sox contract ends. Whether he'll end his career in a Sox uniform is a question he can't answer.

"Who knows?" he said. "It might be time to hang it up, but I always planned to play until I was 40 years old. I don't want to hang on too long. This is a great business and Harold [Baines] did the right thing. Keep going at it until the phone doesn't ring anymore. There's nothing wrong with that at all."

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