Even before the strike calls turned against him, Thomas's public statements weren't always endearing. Before the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier, in 1997, Thomas told a television reporter that he did not know much about Robinson and gave the impression that he didn't much care. Last August, as Sosa and Mark McGwire were engaged in a home run race in the National League, Thomas complained that he was nearly being hit by many inside pitches, and while he said he was happy for Sosa and McGwire, he insinuated that they wouldn't hit 50 homers apiece if they were in the American League. "Pitchers don't have to hit in [this] league," he said. "That's the difference." In other words, Sosa and McGwire had an advantage: National League pitchers were reluctant to throw inside for fear they would face retaliation at the plate. Right or wrong, Thomas was seen as diminishing the other sluggers' feats of power as he made excuses for himself.
Just two years after leading the league in hitting, five years after winning his second straight MVP, Thomas was a mess. His swing was a "jigsaw puzzle," as he put it, and he could not figure it out. His right ankle and foot were in constant pain, and his popularity had been diminished by the controversy that he stirred up almost daily. On Aug. 30 Thomas went 0 for 8 in a doubleheader against the Seattle Mariners, striking out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of the first game, and the crowd at Comiskey Park booed him lustily for the first time. The next day, after going 0 for 3 against the Mariners and being booed again, Thomas agreed, at Manuel's urging, to take instruction from White Sox hitting coach Von Joshua, whom Thomas had virtually ignored since Joshua was hired the year before. Joshua worked with him for 25 minutes. The coach was buoyed by Thomas's effort. When the Tribune's Teddy Greenstein told Thomas of Joshua's enthusiasm, the Sullen of Swat deadpanned, "Good for Von."
The season was a bust for Thomas. It ended on the day that Manuel sent him home from Texas. That set off a storm that raged for days on Chicago talk radio. Mike North, a program host on WSCR, believes Thomas is "the most unpopular superstar who ever played in Chicago. Don't get me wrong. Frank is a nice guy, but he's a whiner. He's a crybaby. 'I don't wanna play first. I don't wanna do this. I don't wanna do that.' He cries to umpires when things don't go his way. Everybody is to blame but him. We're a blue-collar town. The town of Bobby Hull, Dick Butkus, Michael Jordan, Ernie Banks, Gale Sayers. These guys were warriors, and Frank Thomas is not a warrior. There wasn't anything those guys wouldn't do for the team. There are things Frank Thomas won't do for his team. He's no longer the Big Hurt. He's not The Man."
It was not the easiest of winters for Frank Thomas. He lost one of his best friends—Robert Fraley, his agent—in the plane crash that also killed Payne Stewart. "I heard about it when I got off an airplane myself," Thomas says. "I called my office, and my assistant told me. I had to sit down. I was in shock. I still find myself thinking to call [Robert] now and then. It was extremely hard. I'll never get over it."
In addition, on the eve of spring training, Thomas's father, Frank Sr., took gravely ill with kidney failure and heart problems. Frank flew home to Georgia to be at his side. "I thought we were going to lose him," Thomas says. "I have a very ill father right now. We're all on borrowed time."
Fame is as fleeting as life itself, and no one knows better about borrowed time than a 31-year-old former hitting star who is battling back from injury in a world of changing strike zones and 95-mph fastballs on the inside corner. He arrived in Tucson to begin training for a new season and immediately had the blowup with Manuel. "I feel like I've been at the center of a storm for a year straight now," Thomas says. "I've always tried to be positive and focused. Seems like everyone wants controversy out of me. I'm not a controversial person. I'm not a troublemaker." Finally, he says, "Maybe I wasn't made to be a superstar."
No sooner had he made his peace with Manuel than old teammates from camps around the country were putting the knock on him as a leader. "He's not the kind of guy to be around young talent," Guillen, now with the Atlanta Braves, was quoted as saying. "He's not going to pull a player over and explain something to him. The White Sox thought he'd be the man to teach the kids how to play the game. They were wrong, because he doesn't know how."
Thomas winces when he hears that. "That's childish," he says. "Ozzie is a fun guy, but sometimes he's full of s—-."
For all that was swirling around him in Tucson, Thomas remained cheerful and composed. He no longer carries all of the freight that commanded so much of his attention. Big Hurt Enterprises, the company that marketed him, is "all but defunct," according to the Sun-Times, having slashed its staff from seven to one after Thomas lost or gave up most of his endorsement deals-including the five-year, $5 million contract with Reebok, which was canceled two years early when Thomas began wearing Franklin batting gloves. (One former Big Hurt employee told the Sun-Times that once Thomas signed his first big contract with the Sox, he lost interest in marketing himself; others, including Barb Kozuh, Thomas's former personal manager, say he became distracted by the music business.) Meanwhile, the Frank Thomas Charitable Foundation is inactive, according to the Sun-Times, though Thomas denies this. As for the record company, Thomas cut its staff by more than two thirds because, Kozuh believes, "he has decided to concentrate on baseball."
All he has to focus on now is getting his stroke back and adjusting to his larger strike zone. Several afternoons in late February, Hriniak would stroll into the White Sox camp, answering an alarm that Thomas had first sounded in January. Together the two men would hike to the batting cages for a private lesson in the science of hitting a baseball. Hour upon hour Hriniak flipped baseballs to Thomas in the cage, bellowing encouragement as beads of sweat coursed down the hitter's face. "Keep your head down," Hriniak growled. "Where your head goes, the rest of your body follows."