Thomas protested the calls publicly. Word of his reaction swept through the league, and the other umpires circled wagons. They began to call the inside-corner pitch a strike on Thomas, however far he jumped back. White Sox lefthander Mike Sirotka noticed a change in opposing pitchers. "They lost the fear of facing Frank," Sirotka says. "From 1995 to '97 you could see the fear in their eyes. When they started establishing the inside strike on him, you could see their confidence."
Thomas had a new zone to adjust to. "I faced him in '97, and I remember throwing him good pitches inside, right on the corner, and [the umpires] never called a strike," says the Toronto Blue Jays' Kelvim Escobar. "Good pitches! Then they started calling it, and he was in trouble. You threw a fastball in the 90s on the inside corner, and he couldn't hit it." Thomas still stroked 29 home runs, with 109 RBIs, but his batting average plunged to .265. It was the first time in his career he had finished a season below .300.
Those who knew him well could sense that he had also lost that passion for hitting and for the game that had driven and sustained him. "It was all gone in '98," says Ventura. "He had that same passion and ability to focus, but now it was directed at something other than baseball: his music company. He became obsessed with that. He talked about it as he had talked about hitting. That's fine. Nothing wrong with having an obsession. But it took over. And baseball didn't get that same level of attention."
Thomas says he has always had a deep love of music. As he grew rich playing baseball, he began investing heavily in the music business, founding his own recording label, Un-D-Nyable Entertainment, and searching for people to run it and for rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop talent to make it grow. He has yet to strike platinum with any performer in his stable—this summer Thomas is putting out an album by various Un-D-Nyable artists—and he denies reports that he has lost upward of $3 million in the business. "What I've spent is irrelevant," he says. "I still have a studio. It takes one record to turn things around."
Thomas's continuing embrace of the music business conspired with other factors—his injuries, his failure to adjust to the expanded strike zone and dramatic changes in the White Sox roster—to turn his abbreviated '99 season into the least productive and most controversial of his career. The loss of Ventura and Albert Belle to free agency left Thomas unprotected in a lineup consisting largely of young, unproven talent. "Who's going to protect me?" he asked Manuel before last season.
The question of the year, however, was, Who's going to protect first base? Thomas is only an average fielder with a serviceable arm, and he spent most of '99 in a tiresome struggle with Manuel over whether he would play the field or be the designated hitter. Thomas did not want to play first base. "Frank doesn't think he's adequate out there," Manuel told the press. "He doesn't want to be embarrassed in public."
When Thomas addressed the subject, he was wildly inconsistent. On the eve of spring training, noting that he needed to be a complete player to make the Hall of Fame—"I know I need to play first base to get in," he said—he announced he would play 125 games in the field. A week later he lowered the estimate to 80 games. He then cut it to twice or three times a week. Manuel said Thomas hit better as a first baseman than as a DH, and whenever this point was raised to Thomas, he said, "In 1997 I won the batting title DH'ing. I haven't heard one person bring that up."
That is simply not true, and a stat-hound like Thomas should have known it. In '97 he played 97 games at first and hit .363; in 49 games as a DH he hit .314. In '98, when he played most of his games (146 of 160) as a DH, his batting average went south. His young teammates seemed bewildered by his intransigence, and he isolated himself further by spending as little time as possible in the dugout during games in which he was the DH. At one game in '98 a Chicago player used a stopwatch and determined that Thomas was on the bench for less than two minutes.
When pressed to play first, Thomas showed none of the aplomb expected of a veteran. Last Aug. 8, for instance, he waved at and missed a soft two-hopper near first base that launched a five-run inning in a 7-5 loss to the Oakland A's. "I f———booted it," Thomas railed. "That's why I'm a DH, not a first baseman. Throw me out there. I don't give a s—-!" He did not play in the field again last year.
His season had turned into a litany of whining and excuses. Rather than adjust to the bigger strike zone, he complained about the pitches he was not getting. "I used to get two or three pitches a game right down the middle of the plate," he said in late August. "I don't get that anymore. They've been coming up and in on me four times a day. They pound me in, in, in! Now they're called strikes. A few years ago the pitchers didn't get those calls."