Nearly three weeks into the season and without a home run, Frank Thomas finally dialed long distance last Friday. The Chicago White Sox first baseman rang his father in Columbus, Ga., after days of dodging Frank Sr.'s messages. "Been waiting for something good to talk about," Frank Jr. confessed later. "I couldn't wait anymore."
"Son," the father said, "how many home runs did you hit last year?"
"Forty," Frank Jr. replied.
"So that means you had about 120 games where you didn't do anything, huh?" Frank Sr. said. "You've got to relax and be yourself and quit worrying about home runs."
Later that night Thomas was batting with two outs in the ninth inning and his team trailing the New York Yankees by six runs. The count was 3 and 0, and White Sox manager Terry Bevington, through his third base coach, Doug Rader, gave Thomas the take sign. Thomas never bothered looking at Rader. He swung from his heels while trying for...what? A six-run homer? "That got noticed. It tells you he's thinking about himself and not the team," one teammate said afterward.
Thomas fouled off that pitch and eventually drew a walk in what ended as a 10-4 Chicago defeat. But the ill-advised swing typified the club's woeful start, which, alter an 8-7, 11-inning win on Sunday left it at 5-12 and in last place in the American League Central. Having signed free-agent slugger Albert Belle to a five-year, $55 million deal so they could have him bat fourth, behind Thomas, the White Sox are going for broke—and getting there. Thomas and Belle were supposed to be the most powerful tandem since Mantle and Maris. Instead, it's been the worst pairing since Rather and Chung. Through Sunday, Thomas and Belle had combined to hit .238 with only two home runs, both by Belle. After bashing 88 dingers last year, Thomas and Belle had not even outhomered the Colorado Rockies' pitchers, who also had a total of two.
"All spring people have been talking about home runs, home runs, home runs with us: How many are we going to hit?" Thomas says. "I got caught up in it. I've been trying to live up to those expectations, trying to hit home runs. I'm not that kind of hitter. I hit line drives, and some of them go out. I've got to get back to that."
This is Chicago, home of the blues. The Cubs and the White Sox are the worst teams in baseball, with the Cubs setting the National League record for most consecutive losses (14) to begin the season (page 92) and the White Sox stumbling to their worst start since 1968. At least the Cubbies are cloaked in the warm, fuzzy image of lovable losers. The White Sox get no such consolation, not given their $54.2 million payroll, their combustible cleanup hitter and a clubhouse that percolates more than a Starbucks shop. Bevington, the man charged with watching this pot boil, lost standing among some players on April 3 when he scolded veteran shortstop Ozzie Guillen in front of his teammates for bringing his children into the clubhouse on the day of a workout. The blowup appeared to further erode the manager's already unstable position. Bevington was treated as disposable over the winter when the team courted Jim Leyland to be its manager and when Rader, an obvious manager-in-waiting, was added to Bevington's staff. At week's end his career record with the White Sox, 147-145, was as undistinguished as his Q rating.
"It's been like that since day one," Bevington says of his job security. "I don't let it bother me. I'll just go get another job."
Meanwhile, Bevington and the White Sox front office have shown that they will approach Belle the way his former employers, the Cleveland Indians, did—as supplicants. Whereas Guillen's kids were unwelcome, when Belle brought a friend from Cleveland into the clubhouse to play cards and run errands, the White Sox not only allowed him to stay but also put him on the payroll. Lenny Spacek was hired as a security guard to sit with Belle in the clubhouse and the dugout and to accompany him on the road. When asked about Spacek's qualifications, Chicago general manager Ron Schueler said, "We'll start to train him now."