With two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning a week ago Tuesday, Frank Thomas–who had been taking the night off–emerged from the dugout and stepped into the on-deck circle. The White Sox were down 5-2 to the Oakland Athletics, Dennis Eckersley was on the mound, and the game was all but over. Yet the fans went crazy, cheering, clapping, and shouting, and one could almost feel the tension in the air. It was reminiscent of the atmosphere right before an electrical storm hits. Didn’t these fans know the odds were greatly against Thomas even coming to the plate? Eckersley had already given up two hits and he wasn’t likely to give up another; he had walked the previous batter and wasn’t about to walk one more to allow Thomas a chance to hit. Didn’t they comprehend that even if Thomas did get up, the odds of him reaching base were only 50 percent, that the odds of him getting a hit were less than 40 percent, that the odds of him hitting a home run to–my god, best not think about it–win the game were much less than that? Didn’t they know that in the grand scheme of things it didn’t even matter whether the Sox won or lost this evening?

For anyone exposed to too much of the Cubs this season, the play of the White Sox and–even more remarkable–the attitude of their fans seemed utterly foreign, a whole new ball game. Here were people–both on the field and in the stands–who had a great deal of themselves invested in the outcome. When Lance Johnson nursed yet another walk out of Eckersley, to load the bases and bring Thomas to the plate, the 20,000 or so fans remaining in the new Comiskey Park were crazed. The scene established a few essential differences not merely between the Sox and the Cubs but between baseball and basketball.

A basketball fan expects his or her team to perform well and is disappointed when it doesn’t. After all, in a crucial moment a team ought to be able to put the ball in the hands of the proper player, and the coach ought to be able to create a play to give that player a decent shot at the basket–more than a 50-50 chance of success, one imagines. Yet in baseball even the best hitters fail in their task two-thirds of the time. Thomas, enjoying one of the greatest batting seasons anyone has ever seen in Chicago, has an on-base percentage of .500, meaning that the odds of him getting on base at all–by hit or by walk–are 50-50. So the mood, even in the critical moment of the game, is not one of expectation but of hope. Basketball fans are pessimists: they fear things won’t go the way they’re supposed to. Baseball fans are optimists: they believe that in spite of the odds their favorite player will come to the plate in a crucial moment and deliver a base hit when it counts. Cubs fans, of course, are sybaritic defeatists and a breed apart entirely.

It was such a pleasure to be reminded of the essential optimism of the baseball fan that Thomas’s at-bat itself was almost secondary. Almost. These, after all, were the White Sox–expected to win the American League Central Division quite easily this year and advance to the World Series–not the woebegone Cubs. And the dark side of hope and expectations was emphasized consistently last week as the Sox fought through an awful dry patch of the season. They lost five in a row and 11 of 13 after coasting into June in first place, in spite of a rough start to the season by pitching ace Jack McDowell and inconsistency on the part of bull pen stopper Roberto Hernandez. When Hernandez blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning against the California Angels last Friday, the fans booed the Sox off the field. Yes, this hope-and-expectation dynamic is a double-edged sword.

Still, there is no sporting thrill in Chicago right now to equal that of Thomas stepping to the plate. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with two out and nobody on in the first inning, with a man on in the middle innings, or–in that rare convergence of circumstances–as the potential lead run with men on base in the ninth. A large part of the reason for the excitement surrounding a Thomas plate appearance is that he is such a thoughtful hitter. From batter to batter and from base to base, baseball strategy is fairly simple. Yet the intricacies of strategy in the battle between pitcher and hitter match anything in sport–right up to chess–and the depth of strategy is never more apparent than when Thomas is at the plate. He knows how to work the count to get the pitch he wants to hit. He isn’t reluctant to accept a walk–the main factor in his leading the American League in runs scored this season. Most of all, he refuses to swing at a bad pitch. He is the sternest test for a pitcher to face because he is both the most fearsome and the most intelligent hitter of his era.

Against Eckersley, Thomas took a fastball outside. Then Eckersley dipped a slider across the inside corner. Then another fastball outside. Then, the key pitch of the sequence, Eckersley got an inside fastball past Thomas for a swinging strike. Two balls, two strikes–pitcher’s pitch–and Thomas hit a fastball hard but into the wind, which had just turned off the lake in the top of the inning, after the A’s had taken the lead–the sort of luck the Sox have had of late–and it was caught in right field to end the game.

Still, one last-inning disappointment aside, Thomas remains the best baseball player this city has ever seen. Consider the names: “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ernie Banks, Cap Anson, Eddie Collins, Luke Appling, Gabby Hartnett, Ron Santo, Carlton Fisk, and Billy Williams (please, not Ryne Sandberg, whom we’ll deal with later). Among pitchers: Ferguson Jenkins, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Early Wynn, and Ted Lyons. For peak value, Hack Wilson, Dick Allen, Eddie Cicotte, and Bruce Sutter. Thomas already is the best of them all. He is only the fifth player in baseball history to hit 20 homers, drive in 100 runs, score 100 times, draw 100 walks, and hit .300 three years in a row. The other four–Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams–are all in the Hall of Fame. And Thomas achieved it in his first three full seasons in the league. Entering last weekend, he led the league in runs with 67, walks with 60, and on-base percentage at .500. He was second in homers with 22 (hit his 23rd on Friday and 24th on Saturday), second in slugging percentage at .739, fourth in batting average at .369, and eighth in runs batted in with 54.

He has improved his fielding over the years (made a nice backhand stab and a couple of excellent stretches–an early-career problem–last Friday), and much more importantly he has matured as an on-field and off-field presence. In the clubhouse he has become a leader without claiming the role for himself, and at the plate–as we’ve already suggested–he carries the aura of someone who is at ease with high expectations. Last Friday he crushed a slider for a double the first time up–the ball exploded off his bat–hit a fastball deep to left the second time, just missed a curve and hit it deep to center the third, and the fourth–after he had discovered everything he could know about the pitcher, Brian Anderson, a young left-hander still learning the craft–he hit a second-pitch fastball over the right-field fence for a homer that gave the Sox their 3-0 lead going into the ninth.

At this point Thomas is at that level where one begins to talk about his supporting cast. The Sox remain very much the team they were last year, with the noteworthy addition of Julio Franco at designated hitter (batting behind Thomas, he leads the team in RBI). Pitching, however, has been inconsistent. The woes of McDowell and Hernandez have already been cited; while McDowell has shown signs of his old grit of late, the one thing a contending team cannot tolerate is an incontinent bull pen stopper. Elsewhere in the rotation, both Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez have been solid and sometimes (Alvarez especially) spectacular, and Jason Bere is a fantastic young pitcher, very pretty to watch with his textbook mechanics and his blistering, seemingly effortless fastball. Scott Ruffcorn is chewing up the AAA-level American Association at Nashville, waiting for the Sox to wake up and replace Scott Sanderson with him. But in the bull pen there is no one to take the place of Hernandez. It’s him, a desperation deal involving Ruffcorn, or bust.

Baseball is a mysterious sport. A team can have all the talent in the world and still suffer from a critical lapse from day to day–the situation the Sox found themselves in last week. All teams have their problems over the long season; the good teams keep their problems from becoming endemic. In the meantime, until the Sox right themselves each Thomas plate appearance is even more important than usual.

Ryne Sandberg could not have found a worse way to retire. Yes, players are human beings subject to human failings, but at some point–at best at the end of a career–his or her performance style and statistical records become entities in themselves, things to be picked up, handled, processed, and judged. Sandberg’s retirement–over diminished personal incentive, he said–tarnished rather than enhanced his on-field persona.

There are two elements of sport unique to the present era. One is the intense media scrutiny. It’s always been my opinion that an athlete tells us enough about himself or herself on the field. An athlete who in addition can eloquently discuss the tactics or–even more difficult than that–the psychology of sport is a rarity to be treasured, especially in a day and age when athletes are taught the delicate art of fending off both outside inquiries and self-examination. Sandberg, while a great player, worthy of respect for the way he performed, was not such a rarity.

The other element is, of course, the immense salaries today’s players earn. Do they deserve them? In the grand scheme of course not, but in the world of sport absolutely. Sport is such big business that a small, fair portion of it means tens of millions of dollars to a great player. The difference between a great player and someone beyond greatness is that the latter–a Greg Maddux, a Frank Thomas, up until this season a Barry Bonds–is capable of devoting the same intense dedication to his craft after he makes big money as he did before. Again, Sandberg does not meet this standard. It doesn’t make him an awful human being. How many of us would keep doing what we do for a living once we’d started making almost $1 million a month at it? My guess is most of us would last five months or less; most people who stayed on after that would just be putting in the hours. Yet it does diminish him next to the Madduxes and Thomases of the sports world. And as he never won a championship, he shares little with sports figures like Bobby Jones and Michael Jordan –players who achieved all they could early in their lives and then moved on.

Looking back on his career as a whole, Sandberg seems a player from another era, a perfectionist who stood out against today’s prevailing atmosphere of merely adequate professionalism, but who–in the end–proved himself unsuited to the extra demands and pressures placed on today’s athletes. In another decade, he might have finished with 3,000 hits. In this one, he merely quit.