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Smiling, but a Big Hurt still lingers

WP: Thomas celebrates as White Sox head to Series without him
Frank Thomas isn't letting the pain of his injury dampen the spirits of his fellow Chicago White Sox.Nam Y. Huh / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Everybody is gone, out on the field, and Big Frank is left alone again, his giant body propped on a padded seat near the lip of the dugout. He lets out a sigh, his gigantic hands fall to his knees and he casts a forlorn gaze at the medical boot strapped around his left foot.

Big Frank won't be sad. Nope. Not for himself, not when these men running and shouting before him, the men he calls his family, march onward through delirious champagne celebrations. This is what he has bled for, wept for, begged and pleaded to see. He has given 15 big league seasons, trotting around the bases in empty stadiums praying someday the searchlights would find his team. Now at last they have, in the very year Big Frank's left foot finally gave out.

Still, Frank Thomas smiles and when he does, it's like sunshine spreading across his wide face. The eyes twinkle, lips twist, teeth shine.

His left foot may never be right. There might not be enough pins and screws bolted to the bones to withstand the pressure of Big Frank's 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame. But he is still the face of the Chicago White Sox and no matter how much the foot aches and his heart breaks at the thought of missing the World Series, there are duties that come with his standing. The most significant is to be here on the field before the games as the players race to batting practice and Big Frank sits to the side, watching, smiling and staring down at the medical boot wrapped around his foot.

"If I didn't play all year it would have been tough," Thomas said. "But I've been with these guys all year and I still feel like I'm a part of it."

Then he laughed and it's a surprisingly soft laugh for a man so large.

"You know, I've been with this organization for 15 years and when I'm done and it wins again, I'll be a part of it, too. It's okay, it's not a big deal. I got to play this year and that was a big deal."

For six glorious weeks he was very much the player they used to call "the Big Hurt." His left foot, operated on during the winter, was healthy enough to let him play. This was the end of May and almost immediately he began hitting home runs again. In 34 games he had 12. Projected over a whole season that would be 58 home runs. But Big Frank wouldn't get a whole season.

By mid-July the foot was hurting again. He hit one last home run on July 18. That was it. Three days later he was back on the disabled list, then under an X-ray machine, which revealed yet another fracture. On went the medical boot and his year was over.

Still, he clings to those six glorious weeks as the only tangible link he has to this White Sox season.

"I wasn't 100 percent, but I was crushing the ball when I was back and it was fun," he said. "But by the all-star break it was getting worse and worse. I knew something wasn't right."

It's not easy being the face of a franchise whose seminal moments in the 88 years before last Sunday were the Black Sox scandal and Disco Demolition Night. For all of the 1990s and half of this decade, he is the one who had to come out of the shower following a loss, paste on a smile and tell the public that someday everything would be fine. At last it turns out he was right, but in the year when he can finally boast, it is instead A.J. Pierzynski and Aaron Rowand who get to deliver the nightly good news.

"I imagine it's tougher for Frank than it is for me," said Los Angeles Angels outfielder Tim Salmon, also the face of his franchise who missed all of this season with injuries. "I had the experience of winning the World Series in 2002. It's tougher for him because he hasn't been."

If this bothers Thomas he won't show it. When the White Sox clinched the American League Central Division title in a champagne carnage in Detroit, it was Thomas who was waiting for the team that night at its hotel in Cleveland. He had slipped into the bar, bought up all the champagne and then tried to hide behind a post in the lobby -- as much as a man his size can hide -- and then popped out, bubbly in hand.

There was Big Frank last Sunday night in Anaheim after the Game 5 victory over the Angels, refusing to fret about his aching foot as he hobbled around the clinching party that raged on the field. Someone wondered about his foot. Wasn't he worried about his foot? Thomas laughed. He'd think about that another day.

He spends postseason game days in a video room just behind the dugout, where he can sprawl across a couch, prop his foot on a table and watch the action on television. But when something big happens he can't help himself. He throws his feet off the table and hobbles out the clubhouse door, down a flight of steps, up another staircase and into the dugout where he can slap his meaty palms against those of his teammates. It is all he has now.

There is a chance that the foot won't ever heal right. He is 37 and his best days are probably behind him. His contract expires at the end of the season and there is talk the White Sox won't want to spend $8 million to keep him in Chicago, especially after going to their first World Series in 46 years without him.

But he has worn only a White Sox uniform and that is the source of lot of pride for him.

"You look at a lot of the other star players in the game who go from team to team," he said. "I feel I had to be doing something right to be here for all that time. When I go back on the field I will be 100 percent; I think I still have three good years left in me. I just want to get back in there."

Who knows if that chance will ever come? For Big Frank this might be as good as it gets.