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Monday, July 22

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Airbags

I grew up in a house where baseball was not really considered a sport. This is a common sentiment among many immigrant families that come from countries where the sport isn't played. Where my father took a liking to football and basketball immediately, he disdained baseball. It makes sense — when you grow up with soccer and boxing as the primary sports, the lack of speed and contact in baseball can be a shock.

But something made me begin liking baseball. It was a checked swing.

Namely, Frank Thomas' checked swing. Despite having a North Side family, I was drawn to the White Sox, probably because everybody seemed to love the cause, and I'm a natural contrarian. Also, most Cubs games were on TV during the day back then, whereas White Sox games started right around the time you got home from school. And watching them one afternoon against the hated Indians, I saw Frank Thomas check a swing, and I finally appreciated baseball.

I can't speak for past generations of players, but nobody I've seen play the game can check a swing like Frank Thomas. It's a thing of beauty. The pitch comes out, he begins to unwind his massive body, and with that amazing eye for the ball and the discipline of a Shaolin monk, he just freezes, stopping cold mid-swing, despite his enormous size and terrifying momentum going into the pitch. What a swing.

The Sox let Frank Thomas go last week, with little fanfare from the press as they fawned over the re-signing of Paul Konerko and importing of big hitter Jim Thome into town. And while I'm thrilled about those moves, it hurts to see Frank, who was given the nickname "The Big Hurt" by colorful Sox announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, go hunting for another team. The idea of Big Hurt in any other colors is almost too much to bear.

A lot of older Sox fans didn't care for Thomas, insisting he was too fragile and too self-concerned, getting into contract spats. They guffawed when Thomas pointed out that part of the reason the Sox were the less popular Chicago team was because they were on the "poor side of town." Immediately sports talk radio shows were flooded with anecdotal evidence that the South Side was not, in fact, poorer than the North Side. Blah blah blah. None of that ever mattered to me or most of my friends. What mattered was that amazing checked swing.

I had the good fortune to meet Frank Thomas outside of the Funky Buddha Lounge on Grand Avenue. He had a throng of people around him, most of whom probably had only the vaguest idea who he was. He stopped to talk to everybody. He shook everybody's hand. He signed autographs. That Big Hurt smile never left his face, and when I told him he check a hell of a swing, he winked.

In my years of watching baseball, I haven't seen a pure hitter as good as Thomas, who could also knock the skin of the ball. At his best, he was among the greatest who ever played the game. Never a great fielder, though he rarely embarrassed himself out there, either. But that's not the point. A guy his size is just supposed to go out and swing and swing away, to try to crush the ball. Not the Big Hurt. Pitchers were audibly terrified when he strode to the plate, and that made this Chicagoan proud. Smart, affable, a big teddy bear who put the fear of God in the opponent's ace. Real Men Wear Black was their slogan for a few years, and it was obvious whom they meant: the Big Hurt, who bestrode the Dan Ryan like a Colossus.

Between 1993 and 2000, the peak of his career, Frank walked an impossible 885 times, and reached base almost 50 percent, a remarkable number for a slugger. Contrast this to, say, Sammy Sosa, who at the height of his career, when he was chasing the home run record, reached base just a third of the time.

Those of us who grew up watching Frank were chagrined at his injury this season, which must have made the White Sox World Series victory bittersweet for him. But we also remembered those 100 at-bats in the middle of the season, when Frank provided all the offense, swatting 12 homers and knocking in 26 runs in 34 games. Whenever Frank has been healthy, he's been there producing for the team. When he hoisted that World Series trophy, he deserved it, no matter anybody thinks of him.

No doubt, Frank Thomas was, is, one of the best players to play the game, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and regardless of his intermittent public fiascos, a class act and truly a nice guy.

Now we're feeling the Big Hurt, watching Big Frank leave town. But as he heads towards the final years of his career, there's no doubting Thomas' place in baseball history, and in the lives of a generation of Sox fans.

We'll miss you, Frank.

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Comments

miss ellen / December 14, 2005 4:30 PM

cheers to Big Frank! great read, ramsin. did you catch the piece in the trib earlier this week about frank's rebar? maybe that was the secret to his check swing!

B. Naturus / December 15, 2005 1:17 PM

Great story! Is it true you are also an expert on the Bears?

Jeffa / December 16, 2005 10:41 AM

Great write-up, Ramsin.

Though I'm a Cubs fan (alright, stop your booing), I am originally from downstate; as such, I save all my hatin' for the team that really deserves it -- the dreaded St. Louis Cardinals. Growing up, I regarded the ChiSox, like the rest of the AL, as a kind of benign anomoly -- why have a DH, after all? Shouldn't the pitcher have to take an at bat? And what was with that wacko strike zone they used to call in the 1980s?

Despite my indifference to the AL, I have been a fan and a defender of Frank Thomas for years. In a career of almost 7000 at bats, he has a .307 career batting average, 448 home runs, and a .995 OPS. Awesome.

Plus, he is funny and a smart, smart guy. Perhaps he is a bit too fragile, both physically and emotionally, but I would keep him on my all-time team (fantasy or real) no matter what.

Here's to Ramsin for a great tribute for a great player.

Some questions for discussion:

1) Is Frank a Hall of Famer? (It seems obvious that he is, though because he has less than 500 HR, maybe some jerk sportswriter may balk at this).

2) Is Frank a first-round HoF inductee? (I say he deserves it, but his years spent primarily as DH rather than a position player, as well as the recent struggles with injuries seem to call this into question).

3) Will Frank hurt or help his HoF credentials if he plays another season or two as a journeyman DH? (He seems well enough to contribute 20-60 HR to some AL offense over the next couple of seasons (Oakland? Seattle?) but you never know . . . )

Looking forward to your next column.

 

About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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