Spotlight misses two stars of a kind: Thomas and Bagwell

World Series

October 24, 2005|By RICK MAESE

Chicago -- A baby ballplayer was born in Georgia on May 27, 1968 . Around the corner: Little League, college, the majors, MVP awards, All-Star Games and finally, the World Series. Deep in the underbelly of the stadium last weekend, a hobbled ballplayer shook hands, laughed and introduced his children to strangers. Still smiling, Frank Thomas turned and limped through the corridor, a bulky orthopedic boot slowing down his gait.

Further down the long hallway, on the other side of a pair of double doors, Jeff Bagwell stood in front of his locker, ice packed around his right shoulder as he tried to explain away disappointment.

Back on May 27, 1968 , up in Boston , another baby ballplayer was born. Bagwell would climb the same baseball ladder as Thomas, eyeing the same prize on the top step. Bagwell and Thomas both had waited so long for the World Series.

Their childhood dream, though, has been distorted by circumstance. It's not often you pair together players such as Thomas and Bagwell, but their careers have traveled down remarkably parallel roads. Here they are together, finally intersecting and still not that much different.

As a dream is realized, neither is in position to have much effect in this series. Thomas was too hurt to be included on the White Sox postseason roster, and Bagwell appears to be too hurt to contribute to the Astros" efforts.

Both teams are trying to keep their two stars involved. Thomas threw out a ceremonial first pitch earlier in the postseason. Before Game 1 of the World Series, he was introduced to the hometown fans over the public-address system.

The Astros have gone to the extreme to honor Bagwell, allowing him to start even though he doesn't seem ready. The stage was set perfectly for him Saturday night. Bagwell was starting for the first time since May 3, slotted as the night's designated hitter.

With his team trailing 4-3 in the eighth, a star's shell came up to the plate with runners on second and third, a chance to put his team on top. White Sox rookie reliever Bobby Jenks fired a 100-mph fastball, and Bagwell missed in dramatic fashion, striking out to end the inning. It's the alternate ending to a baseball fairytale.

"I think I can help the team." he said yesterday. "I really do. Second-guess all you want, I just think it's easy to do in that situation, but it's a little unfair, too."

As well-intentioned as Bagwell might be, he can't throw a baseball and probably couldn't hit it near the warning track right now. It's still tough to blame Astros manager Phil Garner. Putting Bagwell in there was sentimental, if not smart.

Chris Burke probably earned a spot in the lineup this month. But Bagwell earned his spot over the past 14 years . Garner wants what every baseball fan would want: A star should have a chance to be a hero.

You don't think Thomas would give his left foot to be playing right now? Bagwell and Thomas have had such similar careers that it"d be more fitting if they were both healthy and could contribute something.

Aside from sharing the same birth date, each player was drafted in 1989 . They both played first base and both won MVP awards in 1994. Bagwell, a four-time All-Star, has a lifetime average of .297 with 449 homers. Thomas, a five-time All- Star, is a career .307 hitter with 449 home runs.

With the exceptions of Craig Biggio and John Smoltz, no active player has spent more time with one team than Thomas with the White Sox (16 seasons) and Bagwell with the Astros (15 ).

Hampered by injuries, Thomas had just 105 at-bats this season. And Bagwell, who underwent shoulder surgery in June, visited the plate just 100 times .

Both players face uncertain futures. The White Sox aren't expected to pick up Thomas" expensive option year. Bagwell's production has fallen the past couple of seasons.

Neither seems concerned with that now.

Their dreams were born on the exact same day 37 years ago. No, it's not exactly as either pictured, but they made it.

"As excited as I am that I get a chance to play, it's not about that anymore." Bagwell said. "It's about us finding a way to win this thing. For me to say I played in a World Series, that's not exactly how I scripted it. I want to win the World Series."

Thomas has had to accept that his best chance of winning a championship is by sitting on the bench and watching. As the series heads to Houston for Game 3 tomorrow, it's an option that Bagwell might need to start considering as well.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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