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It was as though the two men had been tossing and simmering in an angry hibernation all winter long, just itching for the chance to have it out again at spring training—to rekindle the unresolved hostilities on which the 1999 season ended so badly. At 9:45 a.m. on Feb. 26, on a sun-washed field of grass at the Chicago White Sox spring training complex in Tucson, manager Jerry Manuel was strolling the grounds like a playground superintendent, watching his players do stretching exercises, when he stopped and leaned over the supine form of his $7 million-a-year designated hitter, Frank Thomas. Once known as the Big Hurt, the embattled Thomas is now often conjured up on T-shirts or in the Chicago papers as the Little Hurt. Or the Big Blurt. Or, in the sharpest needle of all, the Big Skirt.
Thomas was once on a very fast and certain track to Cooperstown, there to join the two hitters to whom he was most often compared, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig, but today there is nothing either swift or sure about his journey to baseball immortality. For two seasons, since Manuel took over as White Sox manager, Thomas's numbers have slipped so far below his once lofty standards—from a .347 batting average in 1997 to .265 in 1998, and from 35 home runs in '97 to only 15 last year—that baseball men wonder whether the Thomas of old will ever return. "I've never seen the real Frank Thomas," Manuel still laments.
Yet a decidedly real Thomas was in Arizona on that February morning, all 6'5" and 270 pounds of him, rolling to his feet and, like a child trying to get out of climbing the rope in gym class, holding a note from a doctor excusing him from doing certain rigorous exercises, including the dread shuttle—a series of back-and-forth wind sprints between traffic cones set at varying distances. Thomas had undergone surgery on his right foot late last summer, and he was claiming that the foot was still too raw and tender for the sudden stops and starts of the shuttle. But Manuel wasn't buying the excuses. The scene was almost touching. The note was in Thomas's back pocket, folded up, and he was seen repeatedly taking it out, unfolding it, showing it to Manuel and then returning it to his pocket, as if he were nervous and unsure of what to do.
"Why aren't you going to do the shuttle?" Manuel demanded.
"Jerry, you're not listening to me!" Thomas pleaded. "I'm not 100 percent healthy. I'll run it when I am!"
"That's poor, Frank," Manuel said. "That's poor."
The two ended up at silent loggerheads. Manuel eventually ordered Thomas off the field, and as the team started running the shuttle, there was Thomas in a place and pose symbolic of his life as a player for much of last year: standing to the side by himself, away from his young team, his giant arms folded across his chest and his face marked by a scowl. General manager Ron Schueler saw the angry, embarrassed player head for the clubhouse and steered his golf cart over to Manuel.
Schueler thought for a moment. "This is something you have to work out," he said.
They worked it out, all right. The manager tracked his star player into the clubhouse. "Come into my office," Manuel said. He closed the door, but one could hear the two men shouting at each other, their voices rising and their words often profane. "That's a bunch of bulls—, and it had better stop!" Thomas yelled. "I'm not having it."