Thomas enjoys his Opening Day

Thomas enjoys his Opening Day

CHICAGO -- The man walking around the White Sox clubhouse prior to Monday's game with the Angels at U.S. Cellular Field, featuring a smile as wide as his broad shoulders, had an intense but excitable aura about him usually reserved for a rookie making his Major League debut.

That same individual seemed just as upbeat following the White Sox's two-run, ninth-inning rally and 5-4 victory over the Angels. This jovial demeanor even took into consideration two hitless trips to the plate and a mild strain of his right hip flexor.

But for Frank Thomas, who officially began his 16th Major League season with a very eventful afternoon, it was just another of many days at the ballpark.

"It was the same old thing, really," Thomas said in a talk with the media following batting practice. "The 3:05 p.m. start was a little different for me. Most of the time, when you start Opening Day here, it's a 3:05 game.

"So, this is Opening Day for me. It's a holiday, and I'm going out there and do my job."

Thomas, who turned 37 on Friday, missed his first Opening Day in 15 years due to the ongoing rehabilitation process involving his surgically repaired left ankle. That long and winding road, which kept him out of action since July 6 of last season, also took him on the first trip to Triple-A Charlotte for an 11-game Minor League assignment.

During that stint, Thomas batted .190 (8-for-42) with one home run and four RBIs. He also picked up approximately six clubhouse dinner tabs along the way.

The ability for Thomas to move on his left ankle, as well as the ability to bounce back pain-wise while playing every day, was of far greater importance to the White Sox than his sponsorship of the postgame buffet. Thomas said that after four or five games, instincts took over and the pain was minimal.

Although he struggled against some top pitchers in the International League, Thomas felt as if he really started to swing the bat well during his last 10 trips to the plate for the Knights. He also was seeing the ball like he wanted, making it the perfect time for Thomas to return.

"It was a good experience down there," said Thomas of his trip to the Minors, which he knew was necessary to not embarrass himself offensively at the Major League level. "It was Spring Training for me, but the pitchers already were sharp and that's a little different for me. There was no false hope or false confidence down there.

"They had their moments of making me look bad, but I expected that," Thomas added. "As I get more at-bats, I'll get more and more comfortable."

Those at-bats began Monday, before a sellout crowd of 38,685 at U.S. Cellular Field, with Jarrod Washburn on the mound. Thomas hit two home runs off the Angels left-hander in a single game last year, but entered with a 3-for-15 career mark against him.

As Thomas stepped to the plate in the first inning, the crowd rose in a standing ovation for the career .308 hitter, who also has 436 home runs, 1,439 RBIs, 1,308 runs scored and 1,450 walks in 1,925 games with the White Sox. He is just one of 10 players in Major League history with a .300 average, 400 home runs, 1,000 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and 1,000 walks.

After taking Washburn's first pitch a little bit inside, Thomas popped out to first baseman Robb Quinlan on a high fastball to end the opening inning. The adrenaline produced by the tremendous crowd reaction might have caused Thomas to expand his strike zone in an attempt do something extra for the fans.

"I was pumped up man, the ovation out there today really got me going," Thomas said. "It hit me in the heart that the fans really do care about me."


"I was pumped up man; the ovation out there today really got me going. It hit me in the heart that the fans really do care about me."
-- Frank Thomas

In the third, Thomas drew a six-pitch walk and scored a run on Aaron Rowand's double. He just missed his first home run two pitches earlier, tapping his heart as he watched the drive hook foul.

"I wish that one ball had stayed fair," Thomas said with a smile. "That would have been a great way to come back."

A four-pitch at-bat in the fifth, which ended with a line drive to left, also ended Thomas' afternoon. Timo Perez pinch-hit for Thomas in the seventh, the same Perez who delivered the game-winning runs.

Ozzie Guillen said that Thomas would be out of Tuesday's lineup, after injuring himself while scoring the team's third run. Thomas mentioned that he left the game not wanting to turn his first day back into a two-week absence by aggravating the injury.

Although he wasn't a huge presence in terms of early production, Thomas' simple presence in the lineup's third slot stands as more than enough to alter the opposing team's approach.

"Whether he comes out here swinging like he was before he got hurt or not, it doesn't matter," said White Sox catcher Chris Widger, who has done his share of game-planning for contests against Thomas. "[The Angels] are over there right now, having a pitchers meeting, saying, 'What are we going to do with him?'

"It changes everything. In one way, Scott Podsednik changes the way everyone looks at our team. But Frank gives us that other dimension, which is no less important, but completely different."

Both Guillen and general manager Ken Williams share Widger's excitement with Thomas' return. But without trying to start any sort of controversy, Guillen mentioned that Thomas' playing time will be determined by matchups and there will be days when he's not in the lineup.

Neither Thomas nor Guillen really presented definitive answers on the big man playing first base, meaning it would be unlikely Thomas picks up many at-bats during next week's Interleague trip to Colorado and San Diego. But anyone who believes Thomas plans on making waves with his return couldn't be further from the truth -- unless the waves of applause coming his way are factored in.

   Frank Thomas  /   DH
Born: 05/27/68
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 275 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R

Instead, Thomas wants to give a struggling offense a needed boost. He also wants to help a first-place team maintain its hold at the top. It's a pleasant situation for Thomas from any viewpoint.

"We are all excited to have him back, and all we can do right now is put him in the lineup and let him get comfortable," Williams said of Thomas, who replaced Brandon McCarthy on the roster. "It has been a while since he's faced Major League pitching."

"I'm just happy to be back up here and have a role," Thomas added. "Wherever I fit in, I'm going to fit in. This team has found ways to win. This pitching staff has been dynamite. And if they can continue that, we will win a lot of ballgames. Hopefully, I can help take pressure off other guys in the lineup."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.