Big Hurt returns home to South Side

Big Hurt returns home to South Side

CHICAGO -- By the time the first pitch rolled around for Monday's series opener between the White Sox and the A's, Frank Thomas looked as if he had transformed from a Hall of Fame-bound slugger to a candidate seeking political office in the city of Chicago.

Thomas met with the media for 10 minutes in the Oakland dugout, an affable conversation with not even the hint of animosity. He shook hands and exchanged hugs with former White Sox teammates, such as shortstop Juan Uribe and third baseman Joe Crede, and even talked about hugging manager Ozzie Guillen as he left the hitting cage near the White Sox clubhouse.

The big man then moved to the fans seated next to the White Sox dugout and signed autographs for close to 20 minutes. Thomas moved over near the Oakland dugout and signed autographs for another 10-to-15 minutes. He did everything but kiss a baby.

But ultimately Thomas was just continuing the solid relationship he had fostered during his 16 years with the White Sox, before leaving during the past offseason as a free agent. The question as to whether Thomas would be booed or cheered upon his return was partially answered when he received a small ovation while signing autographs.

It was decidedly, and rightfully, settled, when Thomas came to bat with one out in the second. The 10th sellout crowd of the season stood in unison for approximately a three-minute standing ovation, causing Thomas to tip his helmet twice.

"He did so much for the White Sox that nobody should ever look at him as anything but one of the best -- if not the best -- players we've ever had," said Daniel Faye of South Holland, Ill. "I'd be shocked if I heard a single boo."

"I love Big Frank to death," added Phyllis Herrold of Rosemont, Ill. "All that stuff with Kenny [Williams, general manager], it seemed a little childish to me. If Frank and Kenny don't like each other, fine. But the fans here loved Big Frank and they always will."

This particular White Sox fan referred to the war of words that took place between the White Sox general manager and Thomas during Spring Training. To provide an overall summary, Thomas expressed displeasure for the manner in which the White Sox cut ties with their offensive leader in 12 separate career categories, and Williams had enough of Thomas' criticism.

Williams called Thomas "selfish," "an idiot" and added that the White Sox didn't miss the Big Hurt. He also warned Thomas to stay out of White Sox business. On Monday, Williams said very little outwardly about Thomas but spoke volumes for those who can read between the lines.

"Maybe I was ambiguous about what I had to say," said Williams, after answering "not at all" when asked if he wanted to smooth things over with Thomas. "Or maybe you guys didn't think it wasn't coming from the heart.

"What I had to say, I mean, and I don't feel any need to bring in any more clarity. Whatever these people have to ... they don't know what I know. All they know is what happened on the field, and they can react accordingly."

On the field, Thomas hit 448 home runs for the White Sox and drove in 1,465 runs. He also hit .307, walked 1,466 times and scored 1,327 runs. But with his injuries over the last two years, along with Guillen's desire to keep together a cohesive unit both on and off the field, the White Sox elected to buy out Thomas' contract at $3.5 million and go with Jim Thome and Paul Konerko.

The departure hurt Thomas emotionally, always believing he would finish his career with the White Sox. But that hurt had nothing to do with his feelings toward the White Sox fans or the city of Chicago.

"It was a different feeling walking in here today," said Thomas of his return. "But, to me, I feel like I'm at home, you know? This is where it's been for me, for 16 years, and it's good to come back here.

"This ballpark made me, so I shouldn't come in here feeling like I'm out of place now. As a matter of fact, I feel like I've been on a road trip for six weeks.

"I hope [the reception] is great," Thomas added. "I laid it on the line every night I played here. This is Chicago. I love Chicago. This is home, this is family and I expect the best."

He expected the best and Thomas received the best. Prior to the start of the second inning, the White Sox paid tribute to their one-time slugger with a montage of his career highlights on the center-field Jumbotron. They played songs such as "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," by Tears for Fears, and John Mellencamp's "Hurt So Good."

This particular montage ended with a line that read, "From your White Sox fans, thanks Frank."

And how did Thomas respond? He launched a 3-1 pitch from Jon Garland into the left-field stands for his eighth home run of the season. Thomas singled in the third, setting up a third run, and powered his ninth home run over the left-field bullpen with two outs in the fifth.

At that point, the loud cheers had turned to a smattering of boos.

"That's the way it should be," said Thomas with a smile, when asked before the game how he would handle the fans booing if he knocked out four hits and a couple of home runs. It turned out to be a very prophetic question.

Monday's entire evening was vintage Thomas. He hit the ball hard, ran gingerly around the bases and reluctantly took in the applause. It was a fitting tribute to a man who someday could be featured as a White Sox great in the Hall of Fame.

"I think so, but I've still got a long way to go," said Thomas of making the Hall of Fame. "Never say never. You just never know what might happen in this game, but that's something I can't control.

"I'm always looking forward to playing here. I love playing in this ballpark. I keep saying it over and over. This is home to me."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Mychael Urban, a national writer for MLB.com, contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.