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The Big Hurt Still Hurts

I grew up with a Frank Thomas poster on my bedroom wall. His biceps bulged through his pinstriped White Sox jersey as he connected with a pitch and sent it across the Dan Ryan. Above him were big, bold, black letters: “The Big Hurt.”

The funny thing about Frank is that he was very big, but not bold—at least not in the self-assured way Ditka or Jordan or even Ozzie were. He stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 240 pounds, yet there was something fragile about him. He hit 500 home runs but once brought a doctor’s note to get out of a spring training shuttle run.

During the 1999 season—when Frank hit only 15 home runs—I took down the poster and replaced it with one of Pedro Martinez. I’m sorry, Frank. You deserved better.

By all accounts, Frank today is a success. He’s a certain Hall-of-Famer, undiminished by the allegations of steroid use that have shrunken giants such as Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds down to size. He’s a successful entrepreneur, even if Big Hurt Beer gets lousy reviews from the beer snobs. And he has both a World Series ring and a statue on the outfield concourse at U.S. Cellular Field.

Still, Frank is appreciated by Sox fans more than adored. He remains a shade short of legendary. Frank was never gritty enough for Bridgeport or savvy enough for downtown. Even now, 14 years later, I wonder why I took the poster down, and who’s to blame: Frank or me?

Before a Sox game against the Tigers last September, I saw Frank standing at the batting cage next to Robin Ventura during batting practice. He lives in Las Vegas now, but spends about half the year here for business, and for the Sox pre- and post-game work he does for Comcast. He wore a black sport coat stretched over his impossibly large shoulders. Even in retirement, he strikes an imposing figure.

And I still get butterflies when I see him. The rush sends me back to Sox Fests in the ‘90s, when I’d wait three hours for an autograph; or when I went to games with my dad and a Big Hurt homer excited me more than a Sox win.

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A few minutes later, we stood in front of the Sox’s third base dugout. I asked whether he felt overlooked in his adopted hometown.

“No,” Frank said, shaking his head. But as he answered without hesitation, it was clear he’d thought about it. “You had Michael Jordan, who’s one of the greatest athletes in the world,” he said. “No one is bigger than Michael Jordan. Sammy was on the other side of town doing crazy stuff. Scottie Pippen was here doing his amazing magic every night and Richard Dent was with the Bears. I was part of the crew. I was part of the Big Five.”

Time may have healed some wounds—or Frank just doesn’t want to talk about them. Some of his pain was self-inflicted, of course. He complained (some would say whined) about not getting the respect he deserved, and infamously held out over the “diminished skills” clause in his contract, which stipulated that if his stats dipped so would his salary.

His rough seasons in the late ‘90s followed a very public divorce, and he reportedly lost millions on his unfortunately named record label, Un-D-Nyable. Critics charged that he worried too much about his numbers and not enough about the team, and his teammates appeared to agree sometimes. Frank and Ventura once came close to blows in the dugout at Yankee Stadium.

“It’s not easy to be the man,” Ozzie Guillen once said of Frank. “He wanted to be the man, but he doesn’t know how.”

But Frank suffered from bad luck, too. Foot injuries slowed him down and robbed him of what should have been his career highlight: the 2005 World Series. He played just 34 games that year before ankle surgery, leaving Carl Everett as the designated hitter.

The strike hit when he was at the peak of his game and cost him another shot at the World Series. After that, the Sox slipped and Sammy Sosa stole the show. Frank lost out on what would have been his third MVP award to another cheat, Jason Giambi, in 2000.

Frank was booed at home. Perhaps nothing drew the ire of Sox fans more than, in 1999, when he was sent home from a road trip in Texas after some in the clubhouse doubted his claim that he was hurt (surgery later revealed a very real bone spur). With a chuckle, we called him the Big Skirt.

By the time he left town, GM Kenny Williams wasn’t holding back. “He’s an idiot. He’s selfish. That’s why we don’t miss him,” Williams said in February 2006. He added: “We don’t miss his attitude. We don’t miss the whining. We don’t miss it. Good riddance. See you later.”

Back at the Cell on the day I met him, Frank glossed over all the difficulties. “We’re all okay today,” he said, as his gaze shifted beyond the left field fence. “Ozzie will always be Ozzie, Robin is a great man—look what he’s done this year. I think I’m on good terms with everyone here. I’ve got the statue out there.”

When our conversation turned to his regrets, there was a hint of irony when he mentioned a warning from Guillen that came early in his career, when he was winning MVP awards and racking up huge numbers.

“Ozzie always told me, ‘You’re gonna have a fucking rough end of your career,’” Frank said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I was a young kid. He told me, ‘You do this shit every day, people are going to expect it.’”

People did expect it. And Frank delivered it with extraordinary consistency—enough to merit a plaque in Cooperstown.

“I don’t think I had enough fun,” he said. “I had a lot of fun, but I didn’t have enough. I always had that edge that I had to be great every day. It bogs you down a little bit.”

The most damning critique of Frank’s career was that he was soft. He couldn’t lead a team, play through pain, or hit the inside pitch. Fans happily overlooked steroids, but the perception of weakness, apparently, was unforgiveable. Frank was a real person with real muscles and real weaknesses. So whose fault is that? His or ours? His or mine?

Walking past a souvenir shop in Wrigleyville a few days after talking to him, I found myself staring at his smiling face in the window. It was a framed poster of what looked like a blown-up baseball card, three feet tall and two feet across.

The image was of a young Frank, his face flashing a wide smile and seemingly endless hope for the future. He looked happy, like a hero.

I bought the poster and hung it in my kitchen. It turns out it’s never too late to measure our heroes.

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cst_logo-sqEDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the first in a series of stories published in partnership with The Chicago Sun-Times. To learn more about our partnership, read this note from our founders.

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