Baseball / Sports

Frank Thomas was larger than life in Chicago

Frank Thomas was a slugger, not a fighter.

But Thomas did have one brief moment of rage, in the summer of 1996 in the visitors' dugout of old Yankee Stadium, where he shoved White Sox teammate Robin Ventura in the chest after Ventura tried to stop him from arguing with plate umpire Mike Reilly.

Teammates Dave Martinez and Lyle Mouton got between the two and quickly broke up the skirmish. Manager Terry Bevington told his players not to talk about it with the media, but Martinez wasn't listening, telling reporters "Frank snapped."

"When a guy 275 pounds snaps, look out," Martinez said.

"Frank Flips, Sox Flop," read the next day's headline in the Tribune.

It turned out to be a blip during Thomas' Hall of Fame career -- which will be celebrated Sunday during the induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- and he and Ventura laughed about it soon after.

Ventura said it wasn't unusual then for Sox players to discuss things out loud.

"Siblings," he said. "When you're together that long ... there was plenty of other stuff that happened that you (media) guys didn't see. That was one of the few that happened close to the field."

Because of his stature as the Sox's biggest star, everything Thomas did during his Chicago days was magnified. That included his problems with manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Ken Williams and the day in 2001 pitcher David Wells ripped him on Wells' radio show for not playing hurt.

"If you don't have the guts to be out there, you know what, you don't need to be here," Wells said.

It turned out Thomas had suffered a season-ending triceps injury. Though Thomas and Wells ironed things out, it seemed like open season on "The Big Hurt," a constant topic on talk radio and in the newspapers.

Former teammate Tony Phillips believes one Chicago sports columnist constantly berated Thomas in an attempt to damage his reputation.

"Frank Thomas should be a fixture in Chicago because he was that type of person and that type of player," Phillips said. "Hopefully he'll get what he's looking for through his induction because he deserves it."

Thomas was never portrayed as a mentor to young players, but former Sox outfielder Mike Cameron recalled Thomas taking him under his wing when he arrived as a rookie in '96.

"Coming to spring training, we were staying in a hotel and he was staying in a big house, and he'd invite us over," Cameron said. "You don't ever see stuff like that. He was already a star when I got to the big leagues, and to be able to hang with him, and for Frank to share his insights on how to approach the game, it couldn't have been a better way for me to start a career."

Thomas was the centerpiece of a rebuilding project when he arrived in 1990 and one of the only remaining veterans during the next one in 2000.

"I think Frank started going crazy when Robin and I left (in '98)," former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He didn't know how to handle the media. He didn't know how to handle the other players.

"But when we were there (playing) together, Frank just worried about playing baseball and putting up numbers, and for a stretch of six to seven years, I never saw anybody better than him."

Ventura doesn't believe Thomas needed the old guard in the clubhouse. Thomas was going to be Thomas no matter who his teammates were.

"If he hadn't gotten another hit after we left and became unproductive, you could say that," Ventura said. "But he was fine. There's nothing further from the truth. Frank was going to hit."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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