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."