7/18/2014 7:06 P.M. ET
2014 Hall of Fame class has distinct Chicago feel
Thomas, Maddux, La Russa all launched illustrious careers in Windy City
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- Frank Thomas can't help himself.
His exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum includes three different versions of Thomas/No. 35 jerseys, with the ones he wore in Oakland and Toronto hanging alongside the one he wore in 16 seasons with the White Sox. He's now a studio analyst with FOX Sports 1, reporting on all 30 franchises.
But there's one franchise Thomas will never be objective about. He still uses personal pronouns to refer to the White Sox.
"We have a very competitive ballclub right now," Thomas said on Friday, answering a question about the state of baseball in Chicago.
We ... not they. That says a lot about Thomas' relationship with his old franchise, which brought him back to do some pregame and postgame broadcasting after he retired.
While next week's Hall of Fame induction week extends the Cooperstown spotlight on the Braves' incredible run of division championships and the Yankees' dynasty under Joe Torre, there's reason for fans to celebrate in St. Louis, Oakland and, especially, Chicago.
Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tony La Russa and Thomas launched their careers in Chicago, spending a combined 32 years with the Cubs or White Sox. Both Maddux and La Russa, who managed the White Sox from 1979-86, are sentimental about the organizations that first recognized their potential.
La Russa, who was 34 when the White Sox hired him to replace Don Kessinger, said he was "shocked" when Sox owner Bill Veeck and general manager Roland Hemond offered him his first job as a manager. They were acting on the recommendation of the late Paul Richards, who had mentored La Russa during his brief tenure as a Minor League manager.
"I got there, felt I was totally unprepared," La Russa said Friday. "I give Paul Richards a lot of credit. He taught me something that has always stuck with me -- that you manage by trusting your gut, not trying to cover your butt."
Maddux joined the Cubs in September 1986, a little more than two months after the White Sox fired La Russa. He demonstrated his loyalty to the Cubs by declining to be depicted in a Braves cap on his Hall of Fame plaque, which had been expected. He opted for a blank cap, as have many others with split careers.
"I think he didn't want to take sides," said Bobby Cox, the longtime Braves manager who will join Maddux and Tom Glavine in the six-man Class of 2014. "He spent equal time with the Cubs and the Braves, just about, including Minor League time. He didn't want to offend anybody. I think that's for good reason. He won some Cy Young Awards with [both teams]. You're not going to find a better pitcher than Greg Maddux. I think the Chicago fans can celebrate this induction, as well as the Atlanta Braves."
Thomas' loyalty is not divided. He is beloved by the fans who watched him win back-to-back American League MVP Awards at the new Comiskey Park in 1993-94, and you can be sure that a large number of White Sox fans will be at the Clark Sports Center field when Thomas makes his induction speech next week.
Thomas' last two seasons with the White Sox were marked by long stints on the disabled list from broken bones in his left foot, which appeared career threatening. He wasn't on the postseason roster when the Sox won the 2005 World Series, but he turned into a highly visible cheerleader.
"It was the closing chapter of my Chicago career," Thomas said. "I'd been there a long time, through all the ups and downs, through all the roster changes, the manager changes, everything else. ... To finally have that happen in a year that was full of injuries to me [was bittersweet]. I tried to come back from a major ankle injury. I had a sense of what was about to happen that year. I kind of came back a little too early. I had a little impact on that team, and I'm glad I had an impact on that team. I wanted to play on that team, and fortunately that team won the World Series. It was the crowning moment of my Chicago career. Having that ring right now in my trophy case is what it's all about."
During a conference call with baseball writers, Thomas was asked about active hitters who are similar to him in their ability to hit for power and average. He pointed to Miguel Cabrera as the best in the game, but said he was been very impressed by White Sox rookie Jose Abreu, who defected from Cuba last year.
"We have a kid right now in Chicago who is a very capable hitter," Thomas said. "He's 26, 27 years old. Just think about what he could have [already] accomplished in the big leagues if he had been here the last five or six years. I think Jose Abreu is the same type hitter I've always been, Miguel's always been."
Thomas knows this has been a down period for Chicago baseball. But he sees bright days ahead for both the Cubs and White Sox.
"I think both teams are going to be just fine," Thomas said. "You look at the Cubs on the North Side. They've been on a rebuilding plan last three years, and they have such a talented group that is going to be in the big leagues the next few years. As for the Sox, not that far away. We have a very competitive ballclub right now. We just need to concentrate on more pitching to back up the hitting we have, and we'll be right back in contention."
That was spoken like a guy whose heart is still on the South Side.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.