The pitcher stares in. Frank Thomas stares a comebacker to the mound. The barrel end of his bat draws tight ovals that seem to hang in the air like smoke rings. His right foot resides outside the batter's box, but then chalk outlines aren't for home run hitters; they're for homicide victims, and Frank Thomas on a playing field has never been the victim. He has always been the perp.
He was snuffing out runners at first base as a 10-year-old centerfielder. He is now a 23-year-old MVP candidate who stands 6'5", weighs an eighth of a ton and wears the street gang colors of the Chicago White Sox. But even as a 10-year-old, he was no less imposing in the batter's box. "Kids would throw the ball behind him, over the backstop, all over the place," says his father, Frank Sr. "They'd do anything to avoid pitching to him."
Frank Sr. speaks the truth, as a man named Frank should. The truth will set you free, and so will Frank Sr., in any number of ways. He is at once a Baptist deacon and a bail bondsman in Columbus, Ga., where he watched Frank Jr. grow up, his son and his dream both being pitched around.
They're still pitching around Frank Jr. Through Sunday, Thomas, a first baseman and designated hitter who's completing his first full big league season, was somehow hitting .326 and had driven in 103 runs while leading the majors with 117 walks. His on-base percentage was a major league best .458. He had reached base in a ridiculous 126 of his 135 games, hitting to all fields and exhibiting a patience at the plate that Sox coach Walt Hriniak likens to that of Ted Williams.
It's a wonder that anyone has pitched to him. Thomas would have had 118 walks, but on Aug. 3 against the Baltimore Orioles he swung at a pitch high and outside. "That was ball four," he said to White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in the dugout after belting it for a 430-foot homer to left.
At week's end Thomas had 30 home runs, each one of them a seat-seeking missile launched from that menacing ready position at the plate. "I'm not trying to be a bad boy when I go up there," he says. "I'm not taking a home run cut every time. I don't have a home run trot. This is my physical appearance. I worked very hard for it. But I don't play it up."
This jumbo Frank is not a hot dog. When he was at Auburn he was embarrassed by the players from visiting teams who would tour the Tigers' Plainsman Park, pointing to spots beyond the 385-foot signs in the gaps and on the 45-foot-high scoreboard, telling their younger teammates where Thomas's bombs had landed the previous season. He was uncomfortable when the University of Houston stopped the team's stretching exercises to watch him take batting practice. And Thomas circled the bases with his head down, rather than with one flap down, after hitting a ball over the leftfield wall at Mississippi State, and over the pickups and flatbed trucks parked behind it, and over the Weber grills and the students stretching out behind those.
The jumbo Frank is not a hot dog. It's just that the jumbo Frank comes with everything on it. He wears size 14 black hightops that resemble the ones he tied on as a tight end at Auburn. And he wears pants so long that when Will Perdue, the 7-foot backup center for the Chicago Bulls, worked out with the White Sox before a June game at Comiskey Park, Perdue fit comfortably into Thomas's trou.
Like the other White Sox, he wears those two icons of badness that go with the team's silver-and-black gangster road suits: a black belt and a black hat. But he also wears black wristbands. And he wears black batting gloves. And he wears a bold brush stroke of eye black on either cheekbone. "The eye black is my war paint," he says. "When I put it on, it's time to go to war."
Yet before he goes to war, he's likely to go shopping. If Frank Thomas is as bad as he looks, how come he's so fussy about his wardrobe? If Frank Thomas is as bad as pitchers think he is, would he apologize for anything, much less tardiness? "Sorry, big guy," he says, arriving late for a game-day interview. "I overslept." If Frank Thomas is so bad, why is it that he calls you "big guy" when the Sox carry fungo bats that aren't as trim as you are?
"We loved him," says Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird, the beneficiary of Thomas's Tiger football scholarship. "He was fun to be around—always smiling, always bright-eyed. I never saw what I thought was a football player's mentality with Frank. He was very focused, but never in a head-banging way."
But as a nine-year-old tight end, Thomas was laying out 12-year-old linebackers like bathroom tile. Chester Murray, his Pop Warner coach, returned with nine-year-old Frank from one bludgeoning of 12-year-olds in Savannah and said to Frank Sr., "This kid will be a professional athlete. I don't know in what sport. But he will be a professional athlete."
The words warmed the heart of the boy's father and occupied an anteroom in his mind. In the 1950s, Frank Sr. had little opportunity to be discovered by college recruiters or professional scouts as a centerfielder and shortstop on the sandlots of Columbus. He could hope, however, that things would be different for the youngest of the five children born to him and Charlie Mae Thomas. "I'm not bragging," says Frank Sr., 49, relaxing in the den decorated with a Frankophile's souvenirs. "But Frank did so well in all sports. And he loved them all. I never crammed them down his throat. I never had to worry about him. It didn't matter what time of day or night it was, I knew Frank was at the Boys Club or the playground, somewhere with a ball in his hands."
As a senior at Columbus High, Frank was a 6'4" forward who could smoke the jump shot from the corner and evoke images of Auburn's Charles Barkley on the break. He hit .440 for the baseball team and 1.000 for the football team, converting all 15 of his extra-point attempts as a placekicking tight end. Word was out among baseball scouts that Auburn football coach Pat Dye had visited the Thomases in that den on Dunhill Drive. But it was only the lack of interest from the scouts that led Thomas to accept a football scholarship to Auburn.
"If I were a [baseball] scouting director, I'd have fired some scouts," says Baird. "I truly believe Frank would have signed out of high school if he'd been drafted. A lot of scouts now say, 'Well, we knew he was going to play football at Auburn.' That's bull. If they had asked him, he probably would have signed for a pittance."
Dye gave Thomas playing time as a freshman for a team on which P.T. was a precious thing. The 1986 Tigers finished sixth in the final Associated Press poll after beating Southern Cal in the Citrus Bowl. Thomas caught three passes for 45 yards that season and might have followed teammates Lawyer Tillman, Brent Fullwood and Aundray Bruce to the NFL had Dye not exempted him from spring practice to play baseball, as Dye had also done for 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.
"Frank was really a baseball player who played football," says Baird, who had watched Thomas loop balls over light towers when Thomas was in high school. "He was a baseball fan. He followed the game and knew all the league leaders. When Bo was here, I don't think he knew who George Brett was."
As a freshman first baseman at Auburn, Thomas hit .359, led the Tigers in RBIs and set a school record for home runs with 21, almost all of them prodigious. "He hit a huge one at Georgia," recalls Baird. "He hit one over the scoreboard in centerfield at Georgia Tech Stadium," says Frank Sr. "That was a driiive." Frank Thomas, it appeared, would never look back.
He should have, however. On the first day of full-contact football drills in his sophomore year, a ball carrier for whom he was blocking ran into his right leg from behind, straining ligaments in the knee. Thomas abandoned football, but baseball followed him, slobbering on the heels of his hightops even as he was cut from the '88 Olympic team.
"It was a constant battle to prove myself in baseball," he says. "My junior year , I had to prove to the Olympic team that I could play. That was my best year. I hit .403 and my stock really rose."
The White Sox made him the seventh pick in the '89 June draft, and in 1990 Thomas joined the White Sox spring roster in Sarasota, Fla., where Larry Himes, Chicago's general manager at the time, told him he would start the season with Double A Birmingham, no matter how he performed in camp. "The game plan was to send him to the minors for some seasoning," says White Sox manager Jeff Torborg, who privately thought that Thomas had been seasoned enough during his unseasonably warm spring.
How warm was it? "I dominated that spring," says Thomas with a shrug. "I just dominated. I think they didn't know how to handle that. They thought it was just a flash, or that I was in a little groove. I don't know. But that was me. I just didn't have a chance to prove it last year."
Thomas drove from Sarasota to Birmingham. That, as his father might say, was a driiive. Frank Jr. split the trip in half by stopping in Columbus to talk with Frank Sr., alternately taking words of consolation and offering some in return. "He was hurt," says Frank Sr. "Really hurt. But he was going up there dedicated to working hard and being ready."
He was going not just to Birmingham. He was going for a cycle of sorts: Geographically he was going north, psychologically he was going south ("I was going crazy," he says), and physically he was going in another dimension entirely. "I was going night after night hitting home run after home run," is how Thomas puts his minor league player-of-the-year performance of last summer. "I thought, Why can't the big league team use this? It had no one who could produce at first base, and I thought, What the hell is going on? I didn't understand that. I was stepping on the gas as much as possible."
He finally pulled into the big time on Aug. 2 of last year, ludicrously late as far as fans on Chicago's South Side were concerned. "They had a serious watch for me," says Thomas, laughing.
"We immediately pushed him into the heat of a pennant race," says Torborg, who has memorized Thomas's stats for the final two months of last season. "He responded right away—.330, seven home runs, 31 RBIs. I said this spring that he couldn't continue to have that kind of monthly development. But he has."
Like the White Sox's new uniforms—"I love the look," says Thomas—their lineup appears to have been tailored around Thomas. He bats in the three hole, behind third baseman Robin Ventura, who has realized his own considerable potential this season while exercising the franking privilege that goes with fronting for Thomas. "With Frank behind me and Tim Raines in front of me," says Ventura, "I'm getting good pitches to hit."
Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson—praise-babbling film blurber Joel Siegel has nothing on Anderson—says of Ventura and Thomas, "They're the two best players I've seen in 22 years." Down, Sparky. Heel. And yet....
Toronto Blue Jay pitcher Bob MacDonald, who in fairness is a rookie, walked Ventura to get to Thomas in the seventh inning of a 6-6 tie at the SkyDome on July 30. Thomas hit a two-run homer to the Northwest Territories to win the game. What MacDonald didn't know is that when Thomas steps to the plate and stands there like statuary, save for the smoke rings floating from the barrel of his bat, he is actually bringing two people to the box. "When Frank is at bat," says Frank Sr., "I feel like I'm at the plate."
A hitch in the Navy, hopping from base to base like overnight air cargo, soured Frank Sr. on flying. He has never seen his son play a big league game in person. "But I got a satellite dish," he says. "I get every game on SportsChannel or WGN. I sit back in my recliner, the game comes on, and I got a better seat than any seat at Comiskey Park."
Reclined in his recliner in front of the TV in the den, surrounded by reminders of the children, Frank Sr. will watch the 11 p.m. news and occasionally see on the screen his recliner and his TV and his den, footage that two local stations taped there when Frank Jr. was finally drafted a mere two years ago. The draft-day scene will pop up on channel 3 or channel 9, usually spliced into highlights of a Thomas home run from earlier in the evening.
"He's made me prouder than a father could be," Frank Sr. says at such moments. He then makes a needless apology for his pride. "I don't mean to talk so long," he says. "But sometimes when the memories come back like this, it's hard to stop them."
Especially these days, when the memories are just beginning.