NEW YORK -- Following a two-sport career at Auburn, Frank Thomas was the seventh pick of the 1989 major league draft. He spent only eight months in the minors, and in his first full big league season with the White Sox in 1991, he led the American League in walks, on-base percentage and OPS while winning a Silver Slugger at first base and finishing third in the league's MVP voting.
Despite that early success, Thomas had a critic of sorts at home. Around this time, his father, Frank Sr., told him, "Yeah, you're doing really well, but you're not Hank Aaron."
The Thomases are Georgia natives, and Aaron's games with the Braves were often appointment television for them. "When he broke that record," Thomas said, referring to Aaron's 715th home run, which he hit in 1974 when Thomas was almost six years old, "it was such a joy in the state and such a pride for an African-American family."
Thomas and Aaron have been in the same setting a few times over the years, but the 45-year-old hasn't yet introduced himself to his boyhood hero.
"When I see him, I'm in awe," Thomas said. "I've seen him at a few events, but I've always shied away."
Thomas figures to get another chance at that first meeting this July in Cooperstown now that he's joined Aaron as a Hall of Famer. Thomas received 83.7 percent of the vote, the results of which were announced Wednesday. That's well above the 75 percent threshold needed for enshrinement, though below that of pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who were both in the 90s. Thomas admitted looking at the ballot numerous times in anticipation of yesterday and realized he wasn't going to match the 300-game winners.
"I was nervous," he said. "I knew I would be third. I told guys, 'I'm not worried about my percentage. I got in.'"
So anxious was Thomas about the election news that he awoke at 7 a.m. on Wednesday and worked out to burn off nervous energy. Due to superstition, no one in his family, which includes his wife and five children, was allowed to pack for a possible flight to New York, a trip they would take if he were elected. That made for a hectic hour getting seven people ready to leave after the phone call, but "it was the worth hassle," he said.
"Yesterday I had to be the grumpiest father in the world," Thomas said, "but once that call happened, I became the happiest father in the world."
Thomas' excitement about everything related to the Hall of Fame is endearing, especially given that his stellar credentials made him a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. He won two AL MVPs, made five All-Star appearances, hit 521 home runs (tied with Ted Williams and Willie McCovey for 18th all-time) and posted a .419 career OBP (20th) and he surpasses the JAWS standard for the average Hall of Fame first baseman.
"Consistent and driven," Thomas said, when asked for adjectives by which he'd like to be remembered. "I guess I don't want to call myself a diamond, but it was many years of polishing my career and getting it to where I was."
It's a career that looks even better in hindsight. Thomas debuted at a time before walks and OBP were so widely celebrated but he led the league in each of those categories four times. Since his first season of 1990, Thomas still ranks third among all big leaguers in walks and fourth in OBP. And while he played in the heart of the Steroid Era, a time when smacking 50 home runs became commonplace, he had five seasons of at least 40 home runs and 13 of at least 24 and was never suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Thomas, in fact, remains a vocal critic of PED use, and he has garnered more attention this week for his anti-steroid stance than for his batting stance. He reiterated after Thursday's Hall of Fame election press conference that PED users should not be in the Hall of Fame and noted that current Hall of Famers have been candid in telling him the same.
At Auburn, Thomas said, the team screened a film to freshman football players during orientation that warned them about steroids, noting football players who died because of their use and the effects it had on one's body a decade or two later.
"That affected me from day one," he said. "I would never do that to myself, my family. It just makes no sense."
Thomas' outspokenness on the subject isn't new -- he voluntarily cooperated with the Mitchell Report that came out in 2007 because he said he had nothing to hide -- but let's not forget that he wasn't just clean during his 19-year big league career, he was great.
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he was also imposing. That was true even in high school, when he helped Columbus (Ga.) High to a state title as a sophomore and was recruited to Auburn to play tight end on the football team and first base for the baseball team. It's little surprise, therefore, that high school pitchers were reluctant to offer anything too appealing, leading the teenaged Thomas to swing at any pitch even close to the strike zone. That prompted his high school coach to make him run after games -- the distance was based on "how many bad pitches I swung at," Thomas recalled -- and those punishment runs helped the future Hall of Famer develop impeccable plate discipline.
"I had a great high school career, but I didn't get drafted out of high school because people thought I was a football player," Thomas said. "Then I went to Auburn and my football coach was telling me, 'You should stick to baseball.'"
It was after his sophomore year at Auburn that football coach Pat Dye suggested that Thomas focus solely on baseball, noting that he could be a "decent" tight end -- even Thomas acknowledges his talents were "dime a dozen" in the SEC -- or he could be a "special" baseball player.
Though he never did match Aaron's exploits, that's exactly what Thomas turned out to be, in more ways that one. He is a deserving addition to the Hall of Fame, someone who was great even when baseball wasn't.