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