Commentary

Bowing out gracefully, at peace

Sox legend Thomas retires at 41, says last five years 'humbled' him

Updated: February 13, 2010, 8:52 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- If everything had worked out exactly the way Frank Thomas wanted it, he would have never become a designated hitter, he would have played in the 2005 World Series, and he would have never left Chicago.

[+] EnlargeFrank Thomas
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Frank Thomas was edged out for the AL MVP in 2000 by Jason Giambi, a season during which Giambi used performance-enhancing drugs, he would later admit.
Oh yeah, and Jason Giambi would have never used steroids.

But dwelling on any of it Friday was pointless for the greatest hitter in White Sox history, and it would be equally silly of us on the day he announced his retirement from baseball. When Thomas slipped on the old Sox cap and smiled broadly for pictures at U.S. Cellular, you realized that if you're lucky, you might get to experience only a handful of athletes in a lifetime who made you stop what you were doing to watch them perform.

And who, in retrospect, never made you doubt the purity of that performance.

It is sad, perhaps, that Thomas' chances for a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction seems to have increased only as each shamed steroids user has been dragged through the public square. On Friday, to Thomas' credit, he let the obvious comparisons speak for themselves. Not even a shot at Giambi, who edged him out in 2000 for what would have been Thomas' third MVP award, only to admit later that that was a season in which he used performance-enhancing drugs.

"You can't be bitter about it," Thomas said. "I'm happy and proud because I competed at a high level with all that stuff going on. Who knows? Maybe I was the guy they were trying to imitate."

Thomas said he "didn't have a clue" about the abuse that was going on.

"Not at all, I didn't," he said. "People pointed out a couple guys, the [Jose] Cansecos, talking about [Mark] McGwire. People would come through and you'd be like, 'Whoa, where did that come through this year?' but I never spent enough time worrying about it."

Instead, he holed up in the weight room and in the batting cage, huddled with then-White Sox hitting instructor Walt Hriniak, who taught him to be selective, to avoid going for the long ball, advice Thomas followed even when it meant taking a walk when he could have tried to swing away and drive in a runner from third.

In high school, Thomas recalled, his baseball coach would take notes of all the bad pitches he went after and make him run sprints for each one.

"The next few days, you learn," Thomas said. "I didn't want to run all those sprints again, so I would work on my patience day in and day out."

To call Thomas a reluctant superstar would probably draw scoffs from those who thought his ego was even bigger than his biceps. Even now, it is a little startling to hear him refer to himself as a superstar and an icon. But it was like Michael Jordan's calling his teammates his supporting cast. It is the truth.

No one ever said Thomas was not a complex man. And on a day when the White Sox celebrated a son returning, you couldn't help recalling that time he admitted to not knowing the history of Jackie Robinson's career, something he apologized for profusely afterward. You also remembered the sullenness that was often interpreted as selfishness.

"We all have regrets," Thomas said when asked whether he wished he had handled himself differently at times. "I learned a lot of lessons my first 12 years of this game. I think the last five years humbled me. I really grew up. I went from a boy to a man."

[+] EnlargeFrank Thomas
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenThomas said his family helped him through the last 14 months of realization that his baseball career was over.
He admitted to "sadness" that he wasn't able to finish his career the way he wanted. He left Chicago angry and bitter after the club bought out his option, and he had a "big blowup" with general manager Kenny Williams, with whom he has since made amends.

If he was washed up, a lot of players would love to have had the kind of seasons in their prime that Thomas had in his last few with Oakland and Toronto, hitting a combined 65 home runs and 209 RBIs in 2006 and 2007 before an injury led to his release from the Blue Jays in 2008.

Clearly, sitting out last season was difficult, and at 41 years old, Thomas still looks as though he can knock out 30 or so.

"People told me, 'You'll know when it's really over,'" he said. "Physically, I probably still could do it, but mentally, I'm not there anymore. I'm at peace with it."

He appeared at peace. Standing before his wife Megan and four children -- Sterling, 17; Sloan, 15; Sydney, 13; and Frank Jr., 15 months -- he spoke of his son's burgeoning college and possible baseball career and said it was his family who got him through the last 14 months of realization that his own baseball career was finally over.

"Last night they said, 'Dad, we didn't realize your career was so good, we didn't know you did all this,' because they're kids and I'm just Dad," he said. "They just want their dad home. They don't care about baseball."

But he did.

"It's not like I just rolled out there every day," Thomas said. "I worked in the film room and in the weight room at the same time. I spent a lot of time at the ballpark. I cared about my performance day in and day out. I cared a little bit too much. That's something that bugged people, but I really cared about what I did. And I don't think everyone got to see how much I cared."

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  • Melissa Isaacson

    Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
    Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.