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Inside Baseball

Doubting Thomas?
The White Sox did, and Frank Thomas is motivated to prove them

So it has come to this for a 34-year-old, two-time MVP who was
once a lock for Cooperstown: Frank Thomas has never had more to
prove. Entering his 14th year with the White Sox, Thomas is no
longer the team's most consistent slugger (he's been supplanted
by Magglio Ordonez), and he doesn't dominate the headlines as he
once did (the acquisitions of pitchers Bartolo Colon and Billy
Koch--not Thomas's off-season pouting--were the big news on the
South Side this winter). "We need him," says shortstop Jose
Valentin. "At the same time, this team is not just Frank."

Team executives also seem to believe that parting ways with
Thomas, who hit a career-low .252 as Chicago's designated hitter
last year, would be no big hurt. In October owner Jerry
Reinsdorf, based on the recommendation of general manager Kenny
Williams, exercised the "diminished skills" clause in Thomas's
contract, allowing the club to defer all but $250,000 of his
annual $10.4 million salary for the 2003 season. Angered by the
move, Thomas exercised another clause that enabled him to test
the free-agent market. But he wound up signing a one-year, $5
million deal with the White Sox after failing to receive a better
offer. The franchise's all-time leader in home runs and RBIs now
makes less than three of his teammates. "That's a slap in the
face," Thomas said on the spring's first day of full workouts.

Thomas is determined to become one of the game's top hitters
again, and apparently there's little reason he can't. The torn
right triceps that sidelined him for most of 2001 and still
hampered him last season is completely healed, and he spent the
off-season getting into top shape. And with an incentive-laden
contract, he could earn up to an additional $3 million this year.

Thomas arrived at camp two weeks early to train with hitting guru
Walt Hriniak, his batting coach for six years, beginning in in
1990, his rookie season. They last paired in 2000, when Thomas
rebounded from a dismal season to hit .328 with 43 homers and
earn American League Comeback Player of the Year honors. This
year Hriniak worked with Thomas on driving more balls to the
opposite field. "I have to get back to centerfield and right
centerfield, which was my strength for years," says Thomas, a
career .314 hitter who bats righthanded. "I've been trying to
lead the league in homers the past few years instead of batting

Thomas says he's ready to put the tumultuous off-season behind
him. "The reason I'm not as bitter as I would have been is that
Kenny went out and made some serious moves," says Thomas. "For
the first time in a long time, I feel we can [be playing] in
October if everybody plays at a high level."

That's a good sign coming from someone who was a clubhouse
headache last season. Thomas sparred with manager Jerry Manuel,
who benched him for three games in July without saying why, and
first baseman Paul Konerko, who criticized Thomas for missing
pregame stretching just before the All-Star break.

"Hopefully he has his mind straight," says Valentin. "[Last
season] we were complaining about Frank doing this and that, and
we weren't taking care of our own business. The only way we can
help Frank is to show him that we can do it without him."

Hall Committee Vote
No Inductees, But A Good Concept

The reengineered Veterans Committee came under harsh attack last
week when it upheld the elite standards of the Hall of Fame and
the voting history of the baseball writers by electing no one to
the Hall. But as committee member and Hall of Fame second baseman
Joe Morgan said, "Maybe the writers have done a pretty good job."

Because the committee considers only borderline candidates--after
all, the writers vote in the most obvious ones--its task should
be difficult and shutouts should not be a surprise. And although
the Veterans Committee rejected all 41 eligible candidates,
including 26 former players who had already failed to be inducted
by the writers 15 times, that hardly renders it moot, as some
critics claimed. The Veterans' vote, like the writers', is a
fluid process that requires time. Gary Carter, for instance,
received only 42% of the vote in his first year on the writers'
ballot. It wasn't until last year, on his sixth try, that he
reached the 75% required for enshrinement. Each year brought more
perspective on Carter's career, and his candidacy gradually
gathered momentum.

The 85-man Veterans Committee (58 Hall of Fame players, managers
and executives; 25 Hall of Fame writers and broadcasters; and two
holdovers from the old Veterans Committee) now knows that Gil
Hodges (62%), Doug Harvey (61%), Tony Oliva (59%) and Ron Santo
(57%) are considered most worthy by its membership. "Maybe,"
Morgan said of his colleagues, "they'll say, 'I missed that guy,'
[and reconsider on the next vote]."

Because no one considers the writers infallible, the current
committee serves an important purpose. Hodges is exactly the type
of player the committee should be considering. Over 15 years the
former Dodgers first baseman received more total votes from the
writers than any other man not enshrined. He outpolled 24 future
Hall of Famers during his years on the ballot. Since Hodges came
off the ballot in 1984, the Hall has admitted fellow first
basemen Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda--yet Hodges had better
on-base and slugging percentages than Perez, and made more
All-Star teams and had more 30-homer seasons than Perez and
Cepeda. Hodges also managed the 1969 Mets to one of the most
shocking world championships in history, a contribution that
could not be taken into account during his time on the writers'

The Veterans Committee will vote again on players in 2005 and
managers, umpires and executives in 2007. Said Morgan, "You have
to give the process a chance." --Tom Verducci

Orioles Move On after Tragedy
A Grim Reminder For Skipper

Steve Bechler's number 51 is painted in a black circle on the
right-centerfield wall of the stadium at the Orioles'
spring-training complex in Fort Lauderdale, and each member of
the team wears a small black patch bearing that number on the
right sleeve of his jersey. Those reminders of the death of
Belcher, 23, from multisystem organ failure on Feb. 17, linger in
camp even as the team is moving forward. They are especially
eerie for manager Mike Hargrove, who was the Indians' skipper in
1993 when relief pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died in a
boating accident during spring training. "If you try to figure
out why it happened twice, it drives you nuts," Hargrove says.
"This has brought back all the old, bad feelings."

Bechler's case is different from the deaths of Olin, a leader on
the field and in the clubhouse, who had been Cleveland's closer
in '92, and Crews, a six-year vet who had just come over from the
Dodgers, which racked Hargrove and the Indians all season. A
righthanded pitching prospect with just three major league
appearances, Bechler was expected to spend the season at Triple A
Ottawa and was not yet an integral figure in Baltimore's
clubhouse. "While Steve's death does affect us, it may not be
something that's out there all the time," Hargrove says. "We've
been able to take the tragedy and put it in a place where it
needs to be put, so we can go on with our lives. Most of our
people have been able to do that." --Daniel G. Habib


COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER The death of his pitcher brought back other tragic memories for Hargrove.

B/W PHOTO: MARK KAUFFMAN Snubbed by two sets of Hall voters, Hodges still has a shot with the Veterans panel.

Comeback Candidates

Frank Thomas (above) isn't the only big-name major leaguer who's
looking to rebound from a disappointing season. Here are five
other former All-Stars who hope to return to form in 2003.

Name Position Team 2002 Stats

ROBERTO ALOMAR 2B Mets (.266, 11 HRs, 53 RBIs)
Struggled against National League pitching in 2002, but should
improve this season and will benefit from hitting second in a set

KEVIN BROWN RHP Dodgers (10 starts, 3--4, 4.81 ERA)
Five-time All-Star has appeared in only 37 games over the past
two years, but says he's recovered from back and elbow injuries

JUAN GONZALEZ RF Rangers (.282, 8 HRs, 35 RBIs)
Almost always has a monster season in final year of his
contract; this season should be no different for 33-year-old
slugger and two-time MVP

KEN GRIFFEY JR. CF Reds (.264, 8 HRs, 23 RBIs)
Plagued by injuries since arriving in Cincinnati in 2000, he
spent off-season working with personal trainer to strengthen his

JASON KENDALL C Pirates (.283, 3 HRs, 44 RBIs)
Suffered huge power outage and nagging injuries last season, but
production will not fully return until he stops pressing and
adjusts to PNC Park