An anticipatory buzz spreads through the stands at Milwaukee's County Stadium every time Gorman Thomas strides to the plate. The drone increases as the Brewer slugger stretches his neck; the tension mounts as he tugs at his batting gloves, draws a deep breath and settles into the box. But when Thomas swings at a pitch with his 37-ounce bat, the crowd grows silent as everyone in the park wonders: What's it going to be this time, a hit or a miss?
Milwaukee fans have learned to expect something special from the 28-year-old Thomas every game. At his best, Stormin' Gorman will hit a line-drive home run or make a long running catch in centerfield. At his worst, he'll strike out and, true to his nickname, fling his bat and slam his helmet to the ground.
Thomas' stats reflect his ups and downs. At week's end he had 36 homers, tying him with Boston's Fred Lynn for the American League lead, and his 104 RBIs were tied with Jim Rice for third best in the league. But he was also batting .238, the lowest average among the league's starting centerfielders, and his 145 strikeouts led the majors. In fact, Thomas is an outside threat to surpass Bobby Bonds' major league record of 189 strikeouts in a season. Anything is possible for a player who once whiffed eight straight times.
Thomas has learned to live with his shortcomings. "I'd like to go 5 for 5 every night and hit for a super-high average," he says, "but it just ain't going to happen. I've always struck out but I've always hit homers and driven in runs, too, and that's what I'm paid to do. If I tried to change I'd be doing something unnatural."
Many of Thomas' strikeouts come with no one on base, when he fully unleashes his hard, uppercut stroke in an effort to "go for the pump." But he also knows there are times when the water should be left in the well. "I think about hitting a homer every time I bat," Thomas says, "but you have to put it in perspective. A single with men in scoring position means more than a strikeout with men in scoring position."
Milwaukee Manager George Bamberger agrees that Thomas should concentrate on producing runs instead of a high batting average. That's why he moved him to fourth in the batting order last April, when Milwaukee's regular cleanup man, Larry Hisle, went out with a torn rotator cuff. That's also why Bamberger says he would never pinch-hit for Thomas. "You never know when he's going to hit one out," Bamberger says, "and he bears down more with men on base." True enough, Thomas was batting .251 with men in scoring position and .260 in "clutch-hitting" situations, which include those occasions when Thomas has an opportunity to tie the score or put Milwaukee ahead.
Thomas' low batting average was somewhat misleading because he had drawn 82 bases on balls, the fourth highest in the league and a major reason why his on-base average was .350.
For all his power, Thomas is proudest of his fielding. At 6'3", 205 pounds, he has a build that seems more suited to playing running back than centerfield—and he performs with a football player's abandon. Four times this season Thomas has knocked himself out by crashing into outfield walls while pursuing fly balls, but he has committed only two errors. Bamberger, who shifts other Brewer regulars in and out of the designated hitter's spot, is not about to waste Thomas' aggressive fielding by making him a DH; he has performed that role in only four games in the last two years. "I feel I have no peer as a centerfielder," Thomas says. "I want...I deserve to win a Gold Glove."
This is only Thomas' second full season in the majors, even though he signed with Milwaukee in 1969. Brewer General Manager Harry Dalton believes that there were two reasons for Thomas' slow progress: 1) the Brewers may have expected too much from him too soon; and 2) he hurt himself with his lack of dedication. Noting Thomas' love of golf, the outdoors and good times, Dalton says, "It's hard for management to be tolerant of a player and give him total commitment when the player doesn't bring 100% of himself to the park."
Even Thomas admits baseball wasn't the only thing in his life. "I used to be terrible," he says. "I'd stay out all night, then turn around and hunt or play golf all day."
Thomas earned his first shot with the Brewers by hitting 51 home runs for Sacramento in 1974. After playing parts of the next two seasons in Milwaukee, he was sent down to Spokane in the Pacific Coast League in 1977 for what Dalton calls "possibly his last chance" to prove himself. Thomas responded with his finest professional season: a .322 batting average, 36 homers and 114 RBIs. "He realized that he had to stop letting everything else get in the way of his baseball or he just wouldn't make it," says John Felske, his Spokane manager.
Thomas showed he belonged in the majors last season by hitting 32 homers, driving in 86 runs and batting .246. Of course, he struck out 133 times, but clearly that is the nature of the beast. And he is good-natured. The Brewers automatically assume that Thomas is responsible for any clubhouse prank, such as the wide-eyed salmon heads that peered from former First Baseman Tony Muser's locker last year or the live frog that found its way into Sal Bando's athletic supporter during training camp this spring. Recently Thomas filled cigarettes with exploding powder and put up a sign inviting teammates to have a smoke.
The Brewer who lights up one of the loaded cigarettes is in for a big surprise, but then surprises are what Thomas promises.