CHICAGO -- Frank Thomas used to be one of the biggest, brightest stars in baseball, but his inability to lift himself above the flagging fortunes of the declining Chicago White Sox franchise has left him looking very ordinary in an otherwise extraordinary season.
Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa and pitching phenom Kerry Wood have stolen the heart of the Second City, leaving Thomas to languish in the relative obscurity of his 1998 statistics and share in the futility of an organization that he recently dubbed "a laughingstock."
Thomas failed to make the American League All-Star team for the first time since his debut in the midseason classic in 1993. He was outpointed in the fan voting by nondescript Cleveland Indians slugger Jim Thome and low-key Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, and rightfully so. He finished the first half with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs in a season when the league's top hitters are on pace to challenge the single-season record in both categories.
Of course, he is merely a reflection of his team. The White Sox lose the fan voting every night in Chicago. The Cubs dominate the market, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf apparently has lost his desire to compete with them. Whether Thomas is a victim of that organizational malaise or one of the contributing factors remains an open question.
The situation has gotten so bad that a high-profile Chicago columnist barely caused a ripple when he called Thursday for the White Sox to trade Thomas. They are considering trading everyone else, so why not?
Thomas isn't doing the team or himself any good going through the motions in Chicago when he could rekindle his competitive fire with a contending club and bring the rebuilding White Sox a package of young players in return.
The White Sox, however, appear more likely to deal third baseman Robin Ventura, despite public pronouncements to the contrary. They would trade high-priced outfielder Albert Belle in a minute, but nobody wants to assume his huge contract. Thomas is a relative bargain at an average annual salary of $7.9 million per year (through 2001), so he probably isn't going anywhere.
Trouble is, neither are the White Sox.
The Cubs entered the second half five games behind the first-place Houston Astros in the NL Central and facing a 37-game span of which 25 are on the road. It is a critical juncture in the season, because the Cubs have the worst road record (16-23) of any winning team.
W ill Braves upgrade bullpen?
The Atlanta Braves still are waiting to see whether struggling closer Mark Wohlers benefits from a three-week minor-league assignment. If not, look for general manager John Schuerholz to make a deal later this month to bolster the bullpen, the only trouble spot on an otherwise dominating ballclub.
"Assuming Wohlers comes back, I like our bullpen because it settles everyone down," Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said. "But even with that, I think you can tweak it to improve it by adding another left-hander. If Wohlers doesn't come back, you've got to do something. If you're going to try to tweak anything, you've got to try and tweak the bullpen because everything else is solid."
That scenario could create some interesting trade possibilities, perhaps involving the soon-to-rebuild Orioles. Earlier speculation about a possible Roberto Alomar-for-Kevin Millwood trade was ridiculous -- because of Alomar's pending free agency and Millwood's breakthrough 1998 performance -- but a deal that included both Alomar and Orioles closer Armando Benitez might be more plausible.
Just a thought.
More dirty Sox
The White Sox entered the second half with a starting rotation that consisted of veterans Jaime Navarro and James Baldwin and promising Mike Sirotka, Jim Parque and John Snyder. Not one of them has an ERA below 5.00.
Cincinnati Reds second baseman Bret Boone became the first third-generation All-Star, following grandfather Ray Boone and father Bob Boone, but he'd rather gain recognition on his own merits.
"It's just a bonus," Boone said. "When I first got called up in '92, everybody made a big deal of it [being a third-generation player], but to me, it wasn't my motivation. I wanted to be a major-league player, and I was lucky enough to be able to make a career out of it.
"It's nice for me to make my first All-Star Game and be recognized. The fact that I'm the first third-generation guy, it's special, but it pays more of a tribute to what my grandfather and father did before me."
Heat is on
Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez should have known that expectations would be inflated when he became the highest-paid player in baseball history, but he said last week that the intensity of the fans in Boston makes him uncomfortable.
"What I didn't expect was to have it in every game I stepped out there," Martinez told reporters. "That was kind of a little surprise. I thought they would understand that in some games I would have to give it up and some games would go wrong. They don't take any of that.