Friday, June 10, 2005

Frank Thomas and the Magical, Misty Night at Tiger Stadium

Tim "Rock" Raines and Frank Posted by Hello

Will and I were huge Frank Thomas fans even before I came into possession of the glorious sphere now known as "The Frank Ball."

The slugger came onto the scene just around the time both of us had moved to Flint. And we believed the tall first-baseman with the mega-watt smile would be the person to finally lead the moribund White Sox to better things.

We both had the life-sized poster of Frank — his last name was unnecessary by now — gracing our homes and collected his cards.

But actual contact with our hero was elusive.

We were on the field before the final game at Comiskey Park, rubbing elbows with Sox catcher Ron Karkovice and reliever Scott Radinsky, but Frank was nowhere to be found.

A year later we waited on a long cattle-chute autograph line at the White Sox Winterfest, snaking back and forth while Frank signed, smiled and posed with other fans — only to have the slugger heart-breakingly replaced with other signers as we inched closer. Minnie Minoso and then-manager Gene LaMont are nice guys, but we wanted Frank.

And at one Tigers-Sox game, an early afternoon shower washed out batting practice, leaving players lots of time to sign autographs. Two-thirds of the Sox signed a ball for me — but Frank remained in the clubhouse.

So when the White Sox were in Detroit for a series with the Tigers in early 1992, we weren’t discouraged by the showers that fell throughout the day.

In fact, we liked going to Tiger Stadium in such conditions. The vast majority of the lower deck is covered, and the rain kept a lot of people home, especially early in the season. We’d buy the cheapest tickets and sit pretty much wherever we wanted.

My favorite spot was section 224, right behind the visitors’ dugout on the first-base side and with easy access to a concession stand. That night Will and I were joined by friends John and Emily — my wife wanted no part of damp, cold nights at the ballpark.

There was a miserable drizzle that fell through most of the night, light enough to keep playing and wet enough to either send people home early or keep under cover. We sat toward the back of the section, bundled up and well under the overhang.

I wore a 1980s-era Sox cap — with a purpose, of course.

The new, black cap with the Old English lettering was all the rage, even with people who didn’t follow baseball. I wanted to show I was an actual Sox fan — such things are important.

I’ve followed the team as a secondary favorite since Tom Seaver played for them from 1984 to 1986, and had to stand out from the bandwagon-jumping cap-buyers. The tri-color 1980s cap, with the futuristic S-O-X, is so brutally ugly that only a real fan would be caught with such a thing. Keep in mind, this was long before the retro craze that made all things ugly popular again.

By later in the game, the drizzle diminished into more of a mist and there was probably less than a thousand people in the stands. Emily and I decided to move down to the row of seats directly behind the Sox dugout during the eighth inning. The orange-capped Tiger Stadium ushers had long-since lost interest in chasing seat-hoppers.

Frank was playing first base, so we were able to get a close look. After the inning ended Frank walked back toward the dugout and glanced up. We weren’t hard to see since all the other seats were empty. That, and we were screaming his name.

I think Frank heard us.

I think people in the left field stands probably heard us.

He looked up, flashed the mega-watt grin.

We had made eye-contact with Frank. Yes!

We were not leaving those seats.

The Tigers went meekly in the bottom of the ninth. Out No. 3 was a routine grounder to short with an easy throw to our man Frank at first. Game over.

Walking back to the dugout, Frank looked up, making eye contact a second time. Yes!

Then the unthinkable happened.

As he got closer, Frank took the gameball from his glove. "HEY!" he said in my direction, then tossed the ball — a soft arc through the mist to my outstretched left hand.

It took a nano-second for the gloriousness of the moment to sink in. Frank Thomas, the elusive Frank Thomas, had just given me a ball that ended a Major League game.

I remember yelling "Thanks, Frank!" and some guy saying "Hey, can I have that?" As if.

I’d once snagged a foul ball at a New Britain Red Sox game, and had a batting practice ball from the Rochester Red Wings from when I was on the field for an interview. Valued treasures, to be sure. But this one was special.

Frank’s career with the Sox has had ups and downs. He was once a sure-thing for Cooperstown, now he’s more of a borderline candidate. I think he’ll get in, but I’m nothing if not loyal. The game ball is enshrined in plastic with a card from that year, an permanent exhibit in the baseball room of what has come to be known as the "magical, misty night at Tiger Stadium."

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