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Big Hurt's influence felt far and wide

Former teammates, current players point to Hall of Famer as inspiration

CHICAGO -- Before there was devotion pledged to the White Sox, there was love and respect for Frank Thomas for many diehard supporters who are in their late 20s and early 30s.

That sound of ball meeting bat when Thomas connected and the instant in-stadium electricity that developed whenever Thomas' massive 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame stepped to the plate hooked fans before they even knew anyone else on the roster. Thomas inspired and influenced those who watched him from the stands or on television, those who played alongside him and those who later achieved their own professional sports success but might have never met the Big Hurt or had a direct White Sox connection.

After Thomas was elected as a first-ballot Hall of Famer with 83.7 percent of the BBWAA vote as announced on Jan. 8, Brewers pitcher Tom Gorzelanny (@TGorz) tweeted how he "idolized" Thomas growing up in Chicago. The 31-year-old southpaw from Evergreen Park, a suburb located 20 minutes south of U.S. Cellular Field, prepped at Marist High School and spent time at Triton College in River Glove, Ill.

Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis, who attended Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., added this following commentary from his Twitter account (@TheJK_Kid).

"Congrats to the guys that got in to the HOF today! Happy to see the Big Hurt get in, grew up watching him smash them on the south side."

Brandon McCarthy, who had the chance to play with Thomas during the 2005 World Series championship season, spoke years ago of joining Thomas' fan club becoming one of his earlier baseball memories. Nationals hurler Drew Storen has a similar connection as an Indiana native who witnessed Thomas' hitting prowess on display.

Even Tim Tebow, the frequently discussed former NFL quarterback, recalled his baseball days in relation to Thomas via a congratulatory tweet (@TimTebow).

"My first little league team was the White Sox & I rocked number 35! #rolemodel."

Younger White Sox teammates who had the chance to watch Thomas in person knew about his accomplishments before they even suited up together. And that impact was felt well outside of Chicago.

"Oh my god, yeah. I collected his baseball cards," said former White Sox outfielder Brian Anderson, who played with Thomas in '05. "I remember being nine years old. He was amazing. He was a household name and I lived in California.

"Just his size stands out. In football, I can understand thighs and strength like that. But for being as big and strong as he was, to whip the bat through the zone like he did, I remember watching him hit balls down and in one-handed 450 feet to left-center."

Anderson joked about hitting fourth behind Thomas with Triple-A Charlotte in '05, when Thomas was on an injury rehab assignment, and the thrill of launching back-to-back homers with the future Hall of Famer. Thomas used to call Anderson "Hollywood" because of his blonde hair and blue eyes.

Bobby Jenks admittedly didn't know Thomas very well, but described him recently as a major superstar who was down to earth. Thomas would try to help his pitchers with what certain opposing hitters were looking for in specific counts, according to the one-time White Sox closer.

Add in Aaron Rowand, a friend and former teammate, referring to Thomas as "one of the nicest guys you ever want to meet" and the whole slightly self-absorbed tag that was at times attached to Thomas gets pushed aside.

"He wasn't a guy who enjoyed the media attention. He enjoyed the game more than anything else. He didn't actively pursue self promotion," said Rowand of Thomas. "He let what he did on the field speak for itself.

"You talk to guys that played with him, and he treated everybody the same. He wasn't a guy who treated rookies bad. He wasn't a bad clubhouse guy. He treated you like a big leaguer before you were a big leaguer. He's that kind of guy."

Fame and attention naturally came along with the ridiculous numbers Thomas put up from 1991-98 in particular, as the big man had a cameo in the television classic "Married With Children" in '94 and in the Tom Selleck movie "Mr. Baseball" in '92. But the legion of people who watched Thomas in baseball understood his excellence without the Hollywood connection.

Whether he knows it or not, Thomas' hard work and eye-catching production done the right way represented baseball for a number of people who are now celebrating his Hall of Fame induction and some who are carving out their own Major League niches.

"I've never forget Opening Day in Kansas City one year," said Rowand when asked for a specific Thomas memory. "He busted his bat, got jammed and homered. And that's not a small park. He could do whatever he wanted to do in that batter's box."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.
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