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Big Hurt trying to put pain of lost season behind him

White Sox star says he won't let off-field problems distract him again.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 1999


TUCSON -- The nickname was one of the best in baseball. But last season, it became more than a nickname. It became the perfect description of Frank Thomas' life.

The big hurt.

His family life fell to pieces. He no longer played the field. And a man whom many considered the best hitter in the game shared a batting average with slightly above-average utility infielders.

Frank Thomas, .265 hitter? What's wrong with this picture?

Everything.

"Last year was not a fun season," Thomas said. "But it builds character and you move on with your life. I had seven excellent years and then one bump in the road. It's over with. It's time to get back to business."

When business is good, there are few better than Thomas. In seven previous seasons, Thomas hit below .317 once, and that was a .308 that included 40 home runs and 111 RBI. He is the only major-leaguer to bat over .300 with 20 homers and 100 RBI, runs and walks in seven straight seasons.

Thomas, 30, never found his groove last season. He was beset by marital problems that he acknowledges but refuses to discuss. He has hinted that those problems aren't completely behind him, but the toll they took on his game are.

His manager has noticed the change.

"While the season was playing itself out, you could tell there was some strain on his life that was a big concern to him, and it began to permeate in the clubhouse," Jerry Manuel said. "Guys would come up to me and say, "Frank's a little different this time. This is not really Frank that you're seeing.'

"I think he's put those things behind him. If not, I think he's got a way of handling them that he didn't last year."

Manuel also has seen a change in Thomas on the field, thanks mostly to his return at first base.

Last year was Thomas' first as a designated hitter. The move was designed to save his ailing right shoulder, which was operated on in 1992. But it was apparent he was struggling to find his rhythm. That has returned this spring, and Thomas is hitting .308 through Thursday.

"I'm willing to play first base," Thomas said. "I'm too young to be a designated hitter. I want to be a Hall of Famer and to do that, you have to be a complete player."

"As long as Frank can be adequate (in the field), I'd prefer that he be out there," Manuel said. "If playing first base helps him to hit .350, we should give him every opportunity to do that."

To that end, Thomas is trying to give himself the opportunity. When 1998 ended, the 6-foot-5 Thomas weighed about 280 pounds. At camp, he has been reported at 265, with plans to shave another 10.

But will it be enough? Last season, Thomas had Robin Ventura and Albert Belle protecting him. As the White Sox purge players (even the Big Hurt is trade bait these days), Thomas could find the going even more difficult as pitchers work around him.

Or he could become the rock around which younger players such as Paul Konerko, Jeff Abbott and Mike Caruso flourish.

"He definitely has Hall of Fame credentials ... and having a man of that stature on the field is very important for our young players," Manuel said. "They can look over there at him and they might feel more comfortable."

One thing seems clear. Thomas already is more comfortable than he was at this point last spring.

"Last year was humbling for me," he said. "I've always been able to put up numbers. It was an off year for me, but I was still able to put up numbers (29 homers, 109 RBI) other people would love to have."
-- Information from Times wires and the Chicago Daily Herald was used in this report.

"Last year was not a fun season. But it builds character and you move on with your life. I had seven excellent years and then one bump in the road."
-- FRANK THOMAS

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