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Emotional Frank Thomas shows heartwarming side in Cooperstown

Updated: August 29, 2014 1:11PM



COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Once the tears started, they never really stopped. And seeing as how they started the moment Frank Thomas stepped to the podium Sunday, there was a very good chance he was going to be at flood stage three minutes into his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Thomas is an emotional guy. We know that. We had seen it, along with a lot of fine hitting, in his 16 seasons with the White Sox. What we hadn’t seen much of, at least in this quantity, was the graciousness he displayed here. The scope of his gratitude was so wide that the huge crowd threatened to be swept away. By that and the tears. It wasn’t just the names Thomas mentioned — and he mentioned a lot — it was the feeling with which he mentioned them.

The self-absorbed hitter we had witnessed so often over the years, that guy we media members certainly had no trouble portraying, was nowhere to be seen.

He had a special message for his dad, who passed away in 2001.

“Frank Sr., I know you’re watching and smiling from heaven,’’ he said. “Without you, I know 100 percent I wouldn’t be here in Cooperstown today. Thanks for pushing me and always preaching to me, ‘You can be someone special if you really work at it.’ I took that to heart, Pops. Look at us today.’’

A handkerchief came to the rescue. It would get quite a workout. Maybe yours did, too.

Thomas cried for his late agent, Robert Fraley, who had died in a plane accident along with golfer Payne Stewart in 1999. He named 138 teammates, which might sound excessive, but he said he had to cut out about 50 others because of time constraints.

In a staccato burst, the first-ballot Hall of Famer mentioned players you might know and players you might not know.

“One-Dog, Rock, Grebeck, RV, Ozzie . . .’’

Big names, little names, no-names.

“Blackjack, The Deacon, Sugar Ray . . .’’

Shall he go on? He shall.

“Graffanino, Marte, Bartolo . . .’’

It was a run-on sentence of appreciation, and you couldn’t help but forgive him his excess.

He named Sox trainers, clubhouse attendants, coaches, managers, general managers and, with emphasis, “Kenny Williams,’’ with whom he had clashed after signing with the Athletics in 2006. He had “special love’’ for former Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak, who played a big role in Thomas’ .301 career batting average and 521 home runs.

“I could always remember you saying, ‘Keep your effing head down and finish, Frank,’ ’’ Thomas said, his voice cracking.

He could have talked more about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, but what he said was enough: “To all you kids out there, just remember one thing from today: There are no shortcuts to success.’’

Had he gone on more, he might have been accused of whining about the cheaters who had stolen some individual awards, stolen some of his thunder. He didn’t.

Instead, this day was about many of the people who had helped him throughout his life. And the more he talked about them, the more his hard edges seemed to melt away. Funny how that works.

We hadn’t seen enough of this Frank Thomas when he was with the Sox. Not like this. Not with this much earnestness. Maybe letting his guard down as a player would have taken away from his ability to concentrate on baseball. Who knows? But it was nice to see this version of him.

Getting into the Hall of Fame affects people in different ways. The haughty can become haughtier. For Thomas, it seems to have drilled down and found a deep reserve of humility.

Everyone seemed happy on this day, perhaps even fellow inductee Tony La Russa, though I’ll need scientific proof. Greg Maddux told the crowd that Cubs fans “were maybe the best in baseball’’ and reiterated what he had said the day before, that he had left for Atlanta after the 1992 season to win a World Series. Ouch again.

“Sorry, Chicago,’’ he said.

But this turned out to be Thomas’ show. He started crying when he first caught sight of his mom, Charlie Mae, who he said hadn’t been outside of Columbus, Georgia, in 15 years.

Of his father, he later told media members, “You guys don’t understand: My dad was my everything.’’

Over and over again during his career, Thomas said he was misunderstood. After a 17-minute, 43-second speech, we understand a little better now.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MorrisseyCST



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