The Big Heart

Frank Thomas honors the memory of his sister by striving for unprecedented heights with his bat
Frank Thomas honors the memory of his sister by striving for unprecedented heights with his bat
August 07, 1994

The Big Hurt

All he wanted was one more walk. Why wouldn't she just get up and walk? He told her, C'mon, Pamela, quit kiddin' around. Time for breakfast. But every time she tried, she fell again.

This was Labor Day 1977. For the next two weeks they gave her tests. Only 2½ years old and being put through all this. She was his favorite person, and he was hers—the two babies of the family—and now this. The huge, pudgy nine-year-old brother with the baby face and the little sister nobody expected after seven childless years. Daddy said she was a love child, and really, with five older brothers and sisters smothering her, he was probably right. Mama worked at the mill, and Dad at the bail-bond office, and he and his sisters just took care of her. That's how it works in Columbus, Ga. And maybe the sisters get to be the boss, but he got to be her plaything. Man, she was quick, too. Turn your head and she was out the door. Now she couldn't get out of bed and walk to breakfast? Telling you, definitely not right.

He asked Mama on the phone, How come you're never around anymore? And when is Pamela coming home? But nobody had quite explained how quickly this stupid leukemia thing happens. She came home from Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta one weekend, without her hair but with a smile that looked like she had been saving it up her whole life. Three months later she was gone. Pamela died on Thanksgiving Day in Atlanta, just like that. And he wasn't even there.

He's a man now, and he knows it happens to families. He can go to her grave in the section they call Babyland at Riverdale Cemetery and almost keep from crying. But when you're nine and they just took your favorite person that's a hurt you don't think will ever go away.

The Big Hype

A curious thing happens to your average American baseball park when Frank Edward Thomas Jr. 26, steps to the plate. Cellular phones fold up. Hot dog sales drop dramatically. The line at the Speed Pitch gets short. And then he digs in, 6'5" and 275 pounds, all biceps and legs and glare, and that bat pacing back and forth, unfed, and the pitcher suddenly notices that he has been fondling the resin bag a little too long and the liner of his cap has dampened slightly.

Above Thomas's locker at Comiskey Park there is a piece of white athletic tape, put there by Thomas himself, with large block letters printed in black Magic Marker. It reads DBTH—short for Don't Believe the Hype. O.K., but can we at least listen to the numbers? Coming out of the big series in Cleveland in late July, the Big Hurt wasn't doing much for the first-place Chicago White Sox except leading the American League in hitting, runs, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, extra-base hits, ropes, bombs, shortstops moving out of the way of nuclear ground balls and number of clubhouse boys sent running for more double-strength Mylanta.

Try this on for size: This year, barring a protracted strike, Thomas could break Babe Ruth's records for runs, walks and extra-base hits in a single season. He could become the first man since Ted Williams to have an on-base percentage of .500 or higher, and the first since Williams with a slugging percentage above .700. Now here's a sentence without Ruth or Williams: Thomas looks as if he'll be the first man to bat .350, hit 50 home runs and walk 150 times in one season—period. Oh, and he's after the Triple Crown and Roger Maris's 61 home runs, too.

Basically, he is scaring baseball right out of its Bikes. Somebody asked Cleveland Indian manager Mike Hargrove the other day how to pitch to Thomas, and he said, "Throw it 10 feet in front of the plate and hope he doesn't hit it on the first hop." Already New York Yankee manager Buck Showalter has said he would consider walking him with the bases loaded. "I wish they'd let us put on the mask and shin guards," Cleveland pitcher Dennis Martinez says. "Pitchers shouldn't be left out there alone with him."

Built in the basement of a Coopers-town, N.Y., garage, Thomas is the unthinkable amalgam of Williams's eyes, Frank Howard's arms, Willie McCovey's legs, Rod Carew's hands and Ernie Banks's smile. There are quick-swinging guys like Tony Gwynn who can get a bat on a golf ball shot from a cannon; choosy guys like Wade Boggs who would not swing at a ball two inches off the black, even under court order; and buffed guys like Jose Canseco who leave balls at the feet of unsuspecting parking-lot attendants, hut nobody has ever been all of these guys until this guy. Asked to remember his favorite Thomas at bat, Milwaukee pitching coach Don Rowe couldn't think of any. "I usually cover my eyes," he said.

What pitchers are looking at is the baseball version of No Way Out. During one game in May, the Yankees' Jimmy Key threw Thomas 12 balls in 13 pitches, walking him three times. Macho diesel-thrower Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox says walking Thomas is fine with him. "Walk Frank Thomas?" says Toronto catcher Pat Borders. "I got no problem with that."

If you had the first pick in your Rotisserie League draft and let Thomas go, you can pack up your things and leave the country immediately. "He's doing things I've never seen in 17 years in the major leagues," says Toronto Blue Jay designated hitter Paul Molitor. Says the man lucky enough to bat behind Thomas, Julio Franco, "Playing with Frank is like being part of history." In fact, if Thomas does not win the first Triple Crown in 27 years, it may well be because Franco knocks him in so many times that Franco himself wins the RBI title. The long ball is not Thomas's main concern, however. "I don't especially care about the home run title," he says, "because people will say, 'Dang. Six-five, 275 pounds. He's supposed to win that.' I'd rather have the hitting title. Guys my size aren't supposed to win that."

To the true Frank Freak, this is where he really makes Ken Griffey his junior. Griffey may have as many home runs, but he's hitting 40 points less, striking out more often and scoring fewer runs. Put it this way: Almost any Frank Thomas baseball card goes for at least 20% more than any Ken Griffey card on the market.

Better yet, a few of them even go to Pamela.

AP

The Big Hurry

Looking back on it, maybe ESPN baseball analyst Dave Campbell ought not to have said what he said the other night, which was that it's possible to get the Big Hurt out with high heat inside, as Nolan Ryan did; Thomas was 0 for 12 with 11 strikeouts against Ryan, who retired after last season. Because right about now the door to the White Sox clubhouse is flying open and....

"Who the——is Dave Campbell!?" Thomas yells. "A——.213 hitter trying to tell me what I can't hit!? A——.213 hitter! Tellin' me I can't hit fastballs!"

This has snapped the clubhouse to attention and caused Venezuelan shortstop Ozzie Guillen to try to be helpful.

Guillen: "That's true! You cannot hit fastballs!"

Thomas (pacing the room): "A——.213 hitter! What guy in this league makes his living off high inside fastballs?"

Guillen: "He's right! You are only hitting .370! You cannot hit!"

Thomas (yelling from the trainer's room): "He showed me striking out against Ryan on high inside fastballs! Hell, I'm a different hitter now! I was a young kid then! A——.213 hitter! How many MVPs has he won?"

Guillen: "You're right to worry about some guy making $25 a week! You only make $5 million a year!"

Thomas: "Telling me I have a slow bat!"

Guillen: "You do!"

People who are close to your basic bruising Amana-sized athlete always say, 'Yeah, but underneath, he's a big, soft teddy bear." The thing is, big, soft teddy bears rip the easiest. Thomas tears easily—but it's not his ego so much as his sense of his own destiny that is vulnerable.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1977, Thomas committed himself to becoming—in Pamela's honor and in his own—"a great pro baseball player," a man who would someday put up numbers you couldn't get to with a cherry picker. He wanted to do it as soon as possible, right now, because you never know when wonderful little people you love are going to wake up and stop walking. "I remember him saying to me not long after Pamela died, 'Dad, maybe one day I'll be able to do something about it,' " says Frank Sr.

He went on fat-free diets. He ran. He gave up his role as the star player on the high school basketball team to work out for baseball. He had a sense of purpose and commitment you might see in a Jesuit missionary but very rarely in a 13-year-old centerfielder. One time his dad was trying to get Frank's older brother, Michael, to practice his football harder, to work out more, lift some weights, when Frank interrupted: "Daddy, don't fuss with Mike. Mike's gonna be the hardworkin' man. I'm gonna be the athlete."

Mike went into the Army Reserve, and true to his word, Frank became the athlete. "I followed my dreams," Thomas says. "I worked hard enough to get it. A lot of people won't.... Hey, nothing's easy for me. I did this myself."

One day this season, White Sox manager Gene Lamont looked at Thomas's stats and said, "I'd call it a career year, except I don't know how big his career year is." That's just the point: Thomas does. To him, this isn't even the end of Act I. "I want to be one of those guys who make people say, 'Some of the things he did, I don't think can ever be done again.' "

In his great rush to get where he's going, Thomas reminds you of a man who has forgotten his anniversary and needs to get to the stores before they close. He answers questions in a great hurry, usually before the question is quite finished being asked. He speaks as though reared by auctioneers. He gets to the ballpark early, dresses fast, never gets cheated on his batting-practice swings, lifts a few weights and always takes extra ground balls. And because of this, he is low on patience for——.213 hitters or slow-talking reporters or people who are just too wrong or too stupid to get out of the way.

Of course, as ways go, Thomas believes his was blocked at every turn. Like a hanging curveball, a slight, any slight, does not get past him easily. And, oh, the slights he has seen. This is a teenager who was cut in his first try at making the high school team, linking him historically with the previous king of Chicago, Michael Jordan. The next year he took his vengeance, hitting .472 and taking Columbus to its first state title.

This was a high school senior who, even after a breathtaking schoolboy career, was not among the 1,423 players selected in baseball's 1986 amateur draft. He and his dad waited three days to find out where he would start his career—for Thomas would have signed with anyone for a plane ticket and a pack of chewing gum—but no phone call ever came. Scouts were scared off by the football scholarship waiting for him at Auburn. When the waiting ended, he went into his room and cried. He played only three games as tight end his freshman year under Pat Dye, all of them as backup, but he took his vengeance by becoming the greatest walk-on baseball player in SEC history.

This was a college sophomore who led the SEC in hitting with a .385 average but was not selected for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. This was a phenom who came to White Sox camp in 1990 after a promising 72-game stint in the minors, splintered spring pitching and got sent back down anyway. He took his vengeance later that year by coming to the big club for the last 60 games and hitting .330. "Those were the three most down days in my boy's life," says Frank Sr. "The day we lost my baby girl. The day nobody drafted him. And the day he didn't get to stay up."

Even now that he has made it, now that he was last year's American League MVP (and this season's front-runner), now that he was the No. 1 All-Star vote-getter among first basemen this year and had two of the biggest blasts in the All-Star Home Run Derby (both more than 500 feet), even now that he has become the first baseball player to get the full Jordan treatment—albeit from Reebok: shoes, T-shirts, hats, workout gear, the works—even now Thomas invents new hurts. Ed Farmer, the ex-pitcher and current White Sox radio man, was the Baltimore Oriole scout who advised the O's to spend their 1989 No. 1 draft pick on LSU pitcher Ben McDonald instead of Thomas, which they did, even though Thomas had hit .600 against McDonald. It still wriggles in Thomas's innards. "Ed," Thomas said, walking up to him one day, "you know, you liked Ben McDonald more than me. What do you think now?"

"Well," said Farmer, mentally flipping through Survival Techniques of Skinny Radio Guys, "I still like him. But no better than you."

False modesty is not one of the Big Hurt's qualities. He knows how good he is, though his ego is not really oversized for his talent. Raised by a houseful of loving women, Thomas has enough self-love and confidence for three men his size. And even in the face of the worst injustices, Thomas always could fall back to the loving arms of his dad, who would repeat what young Frank so often heard him say: "Don't let anybody ever tell you they're better than you. 'Cause they aren't."

Though his dad believes that wholly, he also believes a little horseshoe never hurts, either. So when his son steps to the plate, Frank Sr. closes his eyes slightly, sitting in his lounge chair, holds his right arm straight out toward the television set, opens his hand wide, and tries to be with him, be inside him, sending him all his strength. "I want my luck to go with his," Frank Sr. says. "My heart to be with his heart, I let him feel me. Why, if I don't do it, it just ain't gonna be right."

The Big Head

Anybody who tries to tell you baseball is a team game probably just struck out with two men on. Nobody sets a great pick for your jumper, nobody tortillas the inside linebacker for you, nobody hits your numbers with a perfect spiral. Baseball is best as a complicated collection of little two-man wars—Branca vs. Thomson, Bench vs. Brock—and the brightest players know it. It's an individual game, a stats game, little numbers piling up into big numbers. Thomas loves watching the numbers pile up, day by day.

"Money is not the thing that motivates me," he once told ESPN's Roy Firestone.

"What does?" Firestone asked.

"Stats," Thomas said with a grin.

Even his teammates call him the Stat King; indeed, Thomas can tell you rank and decimal point of nearly every player in baseball, plus those of some former players, as Campbell will attest. Thomas has an amazing head—and not just for numbers. One night outside Cleveland's Radisson Hotel, a scruffy young man was getting an autograph in the last-day-of-Saigon madness surrounding Thomas. "That's the last time I sign for you for a while," Thomas told him. "I've signed for you three times in the last two years. Am I right?" Busted, the man nodded.

Being a stat man is the kind of thing you aren't supposed to admit to in baseball, owing to the long-held notion that you can't think of both stats and wins at the same time. "He's a stats guy," Lamont has said. "I don't think he would deny that, but he has to keep an eye on the team."

This is where we must spend a minute talking about walks. America regards the walk sort of the way it regards the Quiche of the Day. The hotshot Little Leaguer hurls the bat away in disgust at ball four. The hotshot Little League dad hollers, "Swing at anything close, Jason!" when the count gets to 3 and 0. So no wonder there is grumbling in Chicago that King Kong is not swinging at all the airplanes. Who does he think he is, Eddie Gaedel? Screw batting average, Hurt, wail for the fence! After all, a three-run homer is a damn sight better than another walk to load the bases.

Even Thomas's teammates wonder. "I do," says one of his best friends on the team, Tim Raines. "I'd like him to swing more." And when Thomas let Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar off the hook on July 23, purposely avoiding a collision at home plate when he could have turned Alomar into a wet cleanup on aisle 7, his own teammates rode him mercilessly. "The Big Hurt?" a voice grumbled, half kidding. "More like the Big Puss."

Only one problem. All that Big Hurt stuff is not Thomas. He honestly hates to see guys hurt, especially himself, or else why would he have left football? As an athlete, he is far more subtle than you would ever know. This is a player who once said he thinks of himself as a "little picky, pesky hitter." He loves the little two-man war, and for students of the war, a walk is a win. "Hey, if they want to send me down there," he likes to say, "I'll go."

And that, say a lot of American League pitchers, is just the problem; they worry about an umpiring double standard for Thomas. The theory is that Thomas comes to the plate with a rep as the most discerning eye in the game; therefore, if he lets a pitch go, how could it be a strike? "A guy is hitting .380-something, and you kind of wonder why," says California Angel lefthander Mark Langston. "And then you see. They start giving him stuff, and that puts us in a big hole. To allow him to lock in on stuff right over the plate, that's unfair. Frank Thomas is a good enough hitter as it is. He doesn't need any help." Says Angel pitcher Chuck Finley, "I don't know if it's even possible to get him out on a called third strike."

Uh-oh. Serious slight. "They're going to change their strike zone just 'cause I walk up to the plate?" says Thomas, irked. "That's b.s." Hey, nothing's easy for me.

It is really the same old slugger's file they've always tried to cram Thomas into, but he just won't fit. It's not that umpires change the strike zone for Thomas, it's that Thomas is one of the few monsters who know the zone in the first place. "This guy has the eye of a leadoff man," says Philadelphia Phillie manager Jim Fregosi. To Thomas, it's same slop, different menu. "People are always saying I can't do this. I can't do that," he says. "People love knocking Frank Thomas."

But just for kicks, isn't it fun to contemplate what he can do—and what he might become? Says White Sox TV broadcaster Ken Harrelson, "Thirty years from now, if you take a poll of 100 hitters, they'll say, 'Frank Thomas is the best hitter who ever lived.' "

The Big Hope

Mickey Mantle charges about $40 for an autograph. Sandy Koufax, $35. Willie Mays, $25. Frank Thomas charges only $1, but he wants it in cash, right now.

"Who put these two balls in my locker?" Thomas bellows in the visitors' clubhouse in Cleveland. "Whoever it is owes me two dollars!"

A clubhouse man in polyester shorts and a red shirt hustles over from across the room, and as he jogs, the other White Sox begin chanting, "Frankie Fund! Frankie Fund!" The man hands the Big Hurt the $2 and gladly takes the balls, which are now worth $50 each whether Thomas ever swings another bat or not.

Frankie doesn't care. He just wants his buck. That's the rule: $1 per autograph, all of which gets stacked up in the corner of his locker, gets matched by Thomas himself, and will eventually go to the memory of Pamela through the Leukemia Society of America. "Man, I think I've made five, six hundred dollars, and I've only been doing it three weeks," says Thomas, beaming. Take that, and the proceeds from his special Gold Leaf baseball card, which will go entirely to leukemia, and you're into six figures. Maybe one day I'll be able to do something about it.

He has to. He still sees his sister. "You never get over it," he says, straightening the stack of ones. "Right now, she'd be 18 or 19, and it's just not something you can deal with until you've been there." The leukemia people say they're hoping for a cure by 2000, and Thomas is committed to it too. And you know how Thomas is when he commits to something.

Back in Columbus, Frank Sr. rubs the head of his grandson, Geoffrey Hushie, daughter Mary's second child. Geoffrey is 2½, just as Pamela was, and already has been rushed three times to the hospital, once to Egleston—the same hospital Pamela went to. In fact, when the doctors told Mary there were problems with the pregnancy, she thought, "God, don't let him have what Pamela had."

No, Geoffrey has sickle-cell anemia, and nobody knows how he will do. He has gone eight straight months without a crisis, and he may never have another one, although he is still frail, and it's hard for him to gain weight. Tiny as he is, though, when the Big Hurt comes to bat, Geoffrey closes his eyes slightly, holds his right arm straight out toward the television set, opens his hand wide and sends his uncle all his strength.

Frank and his wife, Elise, have their own kids now. Sterling is two and has his father's baby face, and now their daughter, Sloan, is coming up on six months. Sterling is allowed to roam through the clubhouse at will, and when he comes through those doors after a game and runs to his father's locker, his dad gets down low, opens up those huge arms and lets Sterling dive into them, and they wrestle around on the ground awhile. Ever the plaything. Then the Big Hurt sets him up on his massive lap and makes Sterling tell him all about his day, while reporters happily stand and wait.

Maybe the strike will take away one of the finest seasons a hitter has ever had. Maybe Thomas won't win the Triple Crown. Maybe he won't even win a single leg of it. But he will definitely lead the majors in walks. There is no question about that, and that will somehow be just fine. For if there is one thing baseball and two-year-olds have taught him, it's that little things mean a lot. And you never take an easy walk for granted.

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEMartinez on Thomas: "Pitchers shouldn't be left out there alone with him" PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLERowe draws a blank when asked to recall his favorite Thomas at bat. "I usually cover my eyes," he says. PHOTOBILLSMITHThomas has been so hot at the plate that he's putting up numbers to rival Ruth's and Williams's.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)