We’d spent the afternoon walking around Shoot-The-Bull, an old 3-on-3 basketball tournament you’d enter after rounding up a few friends, choosing a clever team name and clipping the entry form from the Tribune sports section. Sponsored by the dynasty-era Bulls, it was a popular summer event in Chicago that crammed the hot asphalt of Columbus Drive in Grant Park with endless rows of half-courts and temporary hoops.
I was 15 years old. It was the summer of O.J., the World Cup on American soil and Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun airing on MTV each hour. The Bulls were the biggest show in sports those days, but we soon left the park and hopped a Red Line train toward the Sox/35th stop for a Saturday night date to see two of the men who were busy working their way into that spotlight.
With a retired Michael Jordan pushing the first-threepeat Bulls into their first Airless season, many were saying that 26-year-old Frank Thomas of the White Sox was the heir apparent for sports king of the city. His resume to that point was certainly deserving. Heading into the 1994 season, “The Big Hurt” was already boasting a .321 career average, a 1.002 OPS and 104 homers. He’d won the AL MVP in 1993 for the AL West champion White Sox, stood near the front of the line for national endorsement deals and was already drawing comparisons to upper-echelon Hall of Famers. At 6-5 and 240 pounds, he was Chicago’s “City of Broad Shoulders” nickname come to life.
About the only star in baseball who could seemingly eclipse the bulk of Thomas’ football-playing frame on a national level was 24-year-old Ken Griffey Jr., who was in town for the second of a three-game set with the Seattle Mariners. Griffey was already in his sixth big-league season with 132 homers, countless defensive highlights and that famous 1989 Upper Deck rookie card to his name.
Griffey won the All-Star vote in ‘94 with a then-record 6+ million votes. Thomas started the same game at first. They were stars No. 1 and 1A in baseball that season and they’d top the 1994 AL MVP vote with Thomas winning his second straight award. They’d share a Sports Illustrated cover in early August with the magazine saying they were two powerful reasons to keep playing baseball in spite of the labor doom that’d end up leading to a World Series-killing strike later that month.
We got off the train well before first pitch. We didn’t have tickets, but we did have a father who prided himself on finding deals on the street. He knew this would be among our toughest challenges, though. Not only were there four of us — my father, my brother, a friend and myself — but Griffey and the Mariners in town to play the first-place White Sox was a hot ticket. Yes, the strike was just two weeks away, but the possibility of a work stoppage hadn’t hampered interest. I remember thinking this was our last chance to see live baseball for awhile, a feeling that must have been shared by the 42,300 people that’d pack Comiskey Park that night. It’d turn out to be the second-to-last home game of the season for the White Sox as they headed out west on a road trip that’d take them up to the strike.
We made one trip down 35th Street with four fingers raised in the air. Nothing. We made another fruitless trip and then we wrapped our way around the south side of the stadium. The few tickets that were for sale were way out of our price range. Game time was creeping closer. Dad made the executive decision to retreat back to the downtown skyscrapers where maybe we could watch the game in a restaurant.
Sorry guys, he said. We tried.
We clicked back through the turnstiles feeling defeated and descended back to the El platform that divided the busy Dan Ryan Expressway. Dad was disappointed he couldn’t deliver on the tickets while my brother, my friend and I lamented not being able to see Thomas and Griffey face off in person. We had geared our entire day toward this. We had looked forward to it for weeks.
A Howard-bound train arrived to take us back north, but when the doors opened, our path was blocked by a man getting off the train in a hurry.
He was holding four tickets.
Now, if you’re not believing this story, take that feeling and multiply it by 100 because that’s what we thought when those doors opened and it appeared there was a chance our night would continue.
"Selling?" my dad asked.
"Yup," said the man.
"I’ll take $80 for the four," the man said. "That way I won’t have to go up to the street, sell them, then pay another fare and wait for a train."
That was more information than he should have offered to a man who lived to negotiate. My dad immediately sensed he had complete leverage. The train chimes sounded. The doors were about to close and the train was about to continue on its way.
"All I’ve got is $60," my dad offered.
"Fine," said the man, clearly wanting to rid himself of the tickets.
He then disappeared back onto middle of the train before heading toward Saturday night plans we couldn’t imagine being better than what he’d just sold to us at a bargain-basement price.
With a pleased father tagging close behind us, we dashed back up to street-level, made our way to the gate and up to a packed concourse that smelled of Kosher hot dogs and grilled onions. Usually confined by budget to the upper deck, we were thrilled to find our seats were in the lower level, just above third base. No sooner had we taken our places than the entire ballpark came to a standstill.
Frank Thomas was leaving the batting circle and coming to the plate.
To this day, I’ve never personally seen a ballpark completely shut down for a plate appearance quite like Comiskey Park did in those early years of Frank Thomas. Maybe Wrigley Field for Sammy Sosa in the late ’90s, but not really. With Sosa during the Home Run Chase and the years after, it was Home Run or Bust and his free-swinging approach didn’t create much intrigue during the actual at-bat. You’d wait for a strikeout or a big crack of the bat and that was it.
Thomas at the plate was different. His sheer size was what arrested the crowd at first, his gridiron bulk creating a belief he’d instead been drafted for the Bears and got lost on his way to Soldier Field.
That thought quickly vanished once the at-bat started, though. There should be no way someone Thomas’ size should have owned such a mastery of the strike zone or been able to command a bat through the zone with such precision. Simple physics seemed to tell us so.
Yet Big Frank defied all that in creating at-bats that were just as fun to watch for the process as the result. Watching him work a walk or settle for a single because it’s what he was given was a reward in itself. It’s why my dad told us to appreciate that we were seeing something special. That we’d one day talk about seeing one of the greatest hitters of all-time. As I write this piece, it occurs to me he was more right than he could have known.
Watching Thomas leave the yard was something else, too. Has it ever been more fun to watch someone so completely and utterly obliterate a pitcher’s mistake quite like Thomas did? Watch this clip as Thomas destroys Baltimore’s Ben McDonald for the first White Sox homer in new Comiskey Park history. Listen to the tone of Tom Paciorek’s voice as the curveball leaves McDonald’s hand. Everyone in that park knows the ball is gone before Thomas even swings.
And the crowd reaction through the whole clip? Amazing.
I wish I could tell you I remember all the little details of Thomas’ first at-bat that night in July of 1994, but my memory needs to lean on the crutch Baseball-Reference always provides. The box score tells me that Shawn Boskie was pitching for the Mariners and that Tim Raines was on first. The count was 1-0. The crowd waited to see what Thomas would do after Griffey grounded out in his first at-bat against Jack McDowell.
And what else could Frank have done? On that second pitch from Boskie, Thomas went opposite field for a deep home run to right field, not unlike Jose Abreu has done in his spectacular rookie season for the White Sox this season. It was Thomas’ 36th home run of the season.
We whooped and hollered as Comiskey Park’s scoreboard lit up and shot fireworks into the sky. They boomed over the sold-out park, over the expressway and over the El tracks we probably should have been on had we not chosen to stand in front of the right train door. It was still light out so we saw the smoke clear and drift toward the Robert Taylor homes on the other side of the Dan Ryan. It’s a special thing when you attend a baseball game and are instantly gratified by the thing you came to see.
Thomas would end up going 2-for-5 with a homer and three RBI in that 4-2 White Sox win to bring his season average to .365 and his OPS to 1.252. Griffey would go 0-for-4 from the DH spot and would take the next day off, disappointing those who held tickets for Sunday’s game. (We also saw a 19-year-old named Alex Rodriguez go 0-for-2 in just his 17th big-league game. Anyone know what happened to that guy?)
With the win, the Sox took a one-game lead over the burgeoning Cleveland Indians powerhouse in the new AL Central. They’d own the same lead two weeks later when the strike began. That race remains one of the spectacular possibilities the labor stoppage robbed from us.
Thomas would finish that MVP season with 38 homers, 34 doubles, 109 walks and a slash line of .353/.487/.729 over 113 games. Griffey was halted at 40 homers and .323/.402/.674 line over 111 games. Could either or both have made a run at Roger Maris? We’ll never know.
Thomas would go onto play 11 more seasons on the South Side. He had some downtimes. He struggled with injury, occasionally fought with the media and lost the 2000 AL MVP to a roided-up Jason Giambi. But there were also plenty of highlights including a ring with the 2005 World Series team and being the only ballplayer to willingly go before Congress and testify when Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro went through their rep-killing charades.
After a good campaign in Oakland and then hitting his 500th in a Blue Jays uniform, Thomas is retired and back in Chicago, as visible as he was during his career. He analyzes baseball for Comcast Sports Net and is involved with several business ventures, including his own brand of “Big Hurt” beer (which I can’t profess to having tried … yet). He’s the living and accessible symbol of ’90s Chicago sports here in town as Michael Jordan does his thing in North Carolina and Sosa remains in exile. He’s still an avatar for a town that still fancies itself as hard-nosed and working-class, even if the reality doesn’t exactly mirror that.
As Thomas’ career wound down, I made a habit of telling my dad and brother we’d road trip to Cooperstown to see him inducted. I still remember pulling this card from a pack of Topps in 1990 and having my dad tell me to take good care of it, that the kneeling first baseman in the Auburn uniform could end up making the Hall of Fame one day. I thought it’d be cool to bring the whole thing full circle.
And so we’ll pack up our car on Friday and head east on a highway occupied by other White Sox and Cubs fans. Greg Maddux is also going in, which makes for a better trip even though I associate him more with helping me learn the cruel realities of money and free agency in sport rather than any particular childhood moment.
What’s crazy is that our trip will come almost 20 years to the day we trolled the streets outside Comiskey in order to see Thomas and Griffey (who’d also be going in this year were it not for 33 forgettable games in 2010). While we’ve changed a lot in those two decades since, our desire to see the best in baseball hasn’t.