Opinion Column: Frankly, we sold him short

By Mike Szwaja

With all that’s going on in baseball these days, I can’t help but think back to the 2000 season, particularly the 2000 Chicago White Sox, led by Frank Thomas’ .328 average, 43 home runs and 143 RBIs. The White Sox finished that season with the best record in the American League at 95-67, and Thomas was a shoo-in for the AL MVP award, right?

Wrong.

There was Jason Giambi, flexing his barbed wire-tattooed biceps and pulling his A’s cap over his rock star haircut, winning over baseball writers across the country with his intoxicating charisma … and his bat. Giambi’s numbers were eerily similar to Thomas’ – .333 average, 43 home runs and 137 RBIs – and the A’s finished with a 91-70 record.

Both teams lost in the AL Division series, but Giambi took home the MVP hardware. The award would have been another positive step in Thomas’ journey to Cooperstown – voters love guys with three MVPs – but a guy we now can at least suspect was taking steroids at the time won instead.

With that knowledge, Thomas could easily stand up and create a controversy by accusing Giambi of stealing the award from him, but that’s not like Thomas.

“I refuse to look back on it,” Thomas told the Daily Herald on Tuesday. “It took a few years to get over that one anyway. As I told you guys at the time, I felt I did everything possible to win it. But Jason won, and I tip my hat to him.”

See, Thomas never had “intoxicating charisma” like Giambi, which probably cost him the award in 2000. However, perhaps more importantly these days, Thomas has always been the anti-steroid ringleader.

For years, Thomas has urged baseball to take a more serious stance on the issue, and for years he was ignored. For years, he watched guys get stronger and put up better numbers as they approached their mid-30s and early 40s. For years, some saw Thomas’ complaints as sour grapes – jealousy attacks on players who got better with age while he saw his numbers come down to earth.

Portraying Thomas in a negative light always seemed to be the cool thing to do. Because he’s a straight-shooter, we’ve all been led to believe he’s a whining, complaining, unpleasant guy who just happened to be one of the greatest power hitters of the ’90s on the side.

Yet, slowly, Thomas is about to make a transition. We’re about to witness one of the biggest public adoration turnarounds in sports history.

When we finally know the truth about who did this and who didn’t do that with steroids, we’ll finally understand that Thomas’ past complaints were not in fact sour grapes. We’ll finally realize Thomas, never a cheater, was one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen. We’re close, but not yet there.

On Thursday, the Daily Illini ran a huge picture of Thomas on the front of the sports page. The caption explained that Thomas had been subpoenaed by Congress to speak at a Major League Baseball steroid hearing on March 17. Did it mention that Thomas is the only active player to come out and say he’s ready and willing to speak at the hearing? No.

On Wednesday evening’s SportsCenter, Dan Patrick listed all the players to receive the subpoenas, yet never did he mention the fact that Thomas was the only one seemingly willing to speak to Congress, aside from Jose Canseco. Instead, Patrick mentioned Thomas in the same breath and vain as guys such as Giambi, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Still no respect.

Despite his mammoth numbers, Thomas has been looked down upon his whole career. But after we learn, hopefully in the next few weeks, that he was one of the few power hitters who resisted the temptation of steroids and upheld his respect and integrity for the game of baseball, let’s give up the old gig and realize how truly great Frank Thomas was.