In his prime, Big Hurt proved he's among the best
Ascension to feared hitter in 1990s wasn't setback-free journey for Thomas
Frank Thomas is a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. The results will be announced exclusively on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com live on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET as part of a three-hour live show beginning at noon. On Thursday, MLB.com and MLB Network will air the news conferences featuring the electees live from New York at 11 a.m. ET.
CHICAGO -- "I just think I should get a hit every time up.'' -- Frank Thomas, 1994.
Imagine then, how Frank Thomas must have felt when he was cut from the Columbus (Ga.) High School team the first time he tried out. Or how he felt when he wasn't drafted after hitting .440 with power as a senior.
Or after being passed up for a spot on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Or when he was selected after two other college standouts -- LSU's Ben McDonald and Texas Tech's Donald Harris -- and four high school players in the 1989 Draft, when his tools were the most gaudy, even though he had been attending Auburn University on a football scholarship.
And finally, for a hitter who thought he should get at least a single every time up, what was it like for Thomas to be sent to Double-A after tearing up the Grapefruit League in his first Spring Training?
When Thomas was in his prime, from 1990-97, he made hitting look as easy as any hitter in the game. But the long line of setbacks that set the stage for his baby-faced assault on the American League demonstrate that baseball was never really the gift it might have seemed.
Ed Farmer, the former White Sox pitcher and long-time broadcaster, was scouting college players for the Orioles in 1989. He advised his bosses to take McDonald with the first overall pick, and Thomas has never let him forget it. Nor that he hit .600 off McDonald.
"Ed, you know, you liked Ben McDonald more than me," Thomas once said. "What do you think now?"
"Well, I still like him," Farmer said. "But not better than you."
Despite a run of injuries to his biceps and ankle that limited production at the end of his career, Thomas is a lifetime .301 hitter with 521 home runs. There are only five players with .300 averages who hit more home runs -- Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Manny Ramirez.
From 1991-97, Thomas hit .300-plus every season with 20-plus home runs and at least 100 walks, runs and RBIs. Ted Williams, who did it six times, is the only other hitter who put together more than four consecutive such seasons.
Thomas was the Joey Votto of his era. He was happy to take walks when pitchers were trying to get him to chase balls off the plate. He hit mammoth home runs since he picked up a bat but loved nothing more than taking a tough two-strike pitch to right field for the kind of hit that Hawk Harrelson calls a "duck-snort."
As is true for the Reds' Votto, Thomas was criticized at times for taking too many pitches. Even some teammates wanted to see him expand the strike zone to try to hit more home runs or get a runner home from second or third. But it was Thomas' stubborn discipline that made him so difficult for pitchers to face.
Former White Sox manager Jim Fregosi says Thomas has "the eye of a leadoff man." The late Don Rowe, then Milwaukee's pitching coach, was once asked to recall some of Thomas' best at-bats. He couldn't think of any, saying "I usually cover my eyes."
Left-hander Jimmy Key, who averaged 2.3 walks per nine innings over his career, once threw Thomas 12 balls in a sequence of 13 pitches, walking him three times. Thomas led the AL in walks in four of his first five seasons, and wound up with 1,667, which ranks 10th on the all-time list.
Hitting coach Walt Hriniak was complimenting Thomas when he said he had the same approach as diminutive teammate Joey Cora. In the midst of his back-to-back MVP seasons for the White Sox in 1993 and '94, Thomas said he took more satisfaction from piling up little hits than driving monster shots out of the ballpark.
"I don't especially care about the home run title, because people will say, 'Dang. Six-five, 275 pounds. He's supposed to win that,'" Thomas said. "I'd rather have the hitting title. Guys my size aren't supposed to win that."
No, they aren't. But Thomas did, batting .347 in 1997. He became the largest player ever to win a batting title, which further cemented his reputation as one of the greatest hitters of all time.
He'll go to bed on Tuesday one phone call away from Cooperstown. Everything points his way, which is as it should be for a guy who expected a hit every time he swung the bat.