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The Big Heart
Rick Reilly
August 08, 1994
Frank Thomas honors the memory of his sister by striving for unprecedented heights with his bat
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August 08, 1994

The Big Heart

Frank Thomas honors the memory of his sister by striving for unprecedented heights with his bat

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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."

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