‘Big Hurt’ shows big heart

By Scott Merkin
Updated: August 29, 2010

Frank Thomas cries as he wipes his face as his No. 35 jersey was retired before Sunday's game between the Yankees and White Sox in Chicago. He's the 10th White Sox player whose number has been retired.

Frank Thomas cries as he wipes his face as his No. 35 jersey was retired before Sunday's game between the Yankees and White Sox in Chicago. He's the 10th White Sox player whose number has been retired.

CHICAGO — The tribute began with the introduction Frank Thomas’ former teammates, from Carlton Fisk to Jermaine Dye. It moved on to the presentation of a portrait expertly done by Vernon Wells Sr., along with a framed No. 35 jersey.

Then, the moment came amidst this 30-minute ceremony when Thomas took his place on the left-center field wall at U.S. Cellular Field with the eight players who previously had their numbers retired.

Billy Pierce and Fisk did the honors, pulling down a black draping to reveal Thomas and No. 35 in between the two. And at that moment, the Big Hurt, all 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds of him, showed some big emotions.

“I’m emotionally drained,” said Thomas, surrounded by media in the pressbox during Sunday’s contest with the Yankees, making his fourth interview stop of the afternoon.

“I didn’t expect it, but to see a montage like that and to give Hawk [Harrelson] a hug, the tears started flowing with Hawk. It got me,” Thomas said. “And then to see the picture on the wall just broke me down.”

Harrelson, the television voice of the White Sox who gave Thomas his all-too-familiar moniker, served as emcee for the event, which had the overflow crowd packing the ballpark close to an hour before the first pitch.

It included a video vignette highlighting the outstanding career achievements of this likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, who will be eligible for induction along with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and others in 2014.

Thomas concluded his 18-year career with a .301 average, 521 home runs, 1,704 RBIs and 1,494 runs scored. He is one of four players in baseball history to have a .300 average, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and 1,500 walks for their career, joining Mel Ott, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

Not bad Hall of Fame company.

“Well, I saw Frank come up when he was just a youngster,” Fisk said. “I was going to say, ‘When he was a little guy,’ but Frank never was a little guy. Right off the bat, he acted like a big leaguer and proved it, too.”

Fisk went on to explain how young guys often don’t get a second chance if they don’t prove themselves right away. Thomas not only proved himself, but spearheaded Chicago’s return as an American League force.

“Frank put this ballclub back on the map,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said of the man he played in the same infield with and also managed. “The ’70s, ’80s … all of a sudden Frank came up and we had a good run.

“He’s the best hitter ever to wear this uniform. He should feel proud about it. He worked very hard to do what he did. He will always be remembered in this organization. The fans — every time they walk to the ballpark, they will see his number on the wall.”

Sunday’s dignitaries were assembled, in part, from a list provided by Thomas. As the big man joked later in the afternoon, this weekend turned out to be a rough one for teammates to get to Chicago, with many of their kids starting college.

But Thomas received phone calls of congratulations from Lance Johnson, Robin Ventura, Roberto Hernandez and Ray Durham, to name a few, along with his good friend Tim Raines, who is at home with his wife, as they are expecting twins.

There was plenty of love showered upon Thomas by the 39,433 in attendance. His departure from the White Sox after the 2005 season included a bit of acrimony with general manager Ken Williams, an issue since resolved.

The White Sox fans clearly didn’t forget their hero, judging by the ovation he received with every move he made Sunday.

“They meant a lot and they still mean a lot,” Thomas said of the fan base. “They treated me with love here, special, special love. To hear 40,000 giving you a standing ovation, it just got to me. I’ll remember this the rest of my life. I’m a very proud man, and this was probably the proudest day of my life.”

Getting elected to the Hall of Fame might top this moment for Thomas. He also will have a life-sized sculpture unveiled on the outfield concourse next season — in a hitting pose, of course.

That day still might not have the emotion of Sunday. Thomas got so caught up in the moment that he threw away the speech he had previously written and just spoke spontaneously, from his heart.

“Coming from a small town in Georgia, I could only dream of something like this,” said Thomas, thanking the organization, after sharing a hug with chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, his teammates and the fans.

“Eighteen years in this game and 16 full ones here, it brought back a lot of memories, thinking about all the teammates and all the great times, good and bad times,” Thomas said. “It just got to me. I was emotionally caught up.”