The confrontation cleared the air and left both men looking relieved and at peace with each other. That same day Thomas called a meeting in the clubhouse to address his teammates. He apologized for not having done the shuttle, explaining that his foot was not completely healed, and told them why he could not pinch-hit in Texas. "I didn't quit on you guys," he said. "It was a medical thing. Jerry didn't know how bad it was." Thomas said all those media reports about him being "an individual player"—read, selfish—were not true. "I just want you to know I'm with you," he said. "I'm one of the guys. I'm O.K. I'm not an island. You can b.s. and joke with me. I'm an older guy, but I have a young-guy mentality."
In the spring of 2000, after nine full years in the major leagues and two seasons as the American League MVP, and with a locker full of glowing stats, Frank Edward Thomas finds himself confronting more than questions of desire. For nearly all his adult life, since he was roping fastballs for coach Hal Baird at Auburn, Thomas has been a hitting prodigy—a Mozart with a bat for a wand and an eye for a pitch that is eerie for its keenness in foreseeing location and measuring velocity. His eye gave him confidence and patience at the plate. It shaped his strike zone. It disciplined his swing. It was his surpassing gift.
"The thing about Frank that I'd never seen in anyone before or since was his awareness of the strike zone," says Baird. "For a hitter that young, he had a remarkable ability to stay away from pitches he couldn't handle. We had this competition, even when he was a freshman, in which we'd wager a Coke on whether he could guess—within one mile an hour—how fast a pitcher was throwing. We had a radar gun. He'd call out the velocity. He was always on. Almost never fooled."
He brought those eyes, like two precious stones, to the major leagues full time in 1991, and over the next eight years—until that surgery-shortened '99 season—he never had fewer than 109 walks. In '91 he had a league-leading 138 walks. Only once, that first full year, did he have more than 100 strikeouts. That he has established himself among the greatest hitters of his generation (chart, page 67), there is no doubt. In 1997, the year he won the American League batting title with that .347 average, he became the only player in history to hit over .300 with at least 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100 runs scored through seven straight seasons. In fact, in '95 he had become the only player to do it five years in succession. Only Gehrig (1929-32 and 1934-37) and Williams (1946-49) had strung together four such seasons. Further, through the 1998 season, before Thomas's serious travails began, he was the only active player among the alltime top 10 hitters in on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Thomas's 1.027 OPS percentage ranked him fifth, behind only Babe Ruth (1.164), Williams (1.116), Gehrig (1.079) and Jimmie Foxx (1.037).
Walt Hriniak, the chief apostle of the late hitting guru Charlie Lau, says Wade Boggs is the best batter he has ever seen for getting a base hit. "But Frank Thomas is the greatest hitter all-around" says Hriniak, who was Thomas's swing doctor with the White Sox for six seasons, through 1995, and who still works with him privately. "For batting average, for taking a walk, for not striking out, for hitting a three-run homer or a single to rightfield, or getting a hit in the first inning or the ninth inning, for getting a hit with the game on the line—oh, yeah, he's the best hitter I've ever seen. And the greatest front-runner, too. If he's got three hits, he'll go to the plate for his fourth at bat and get another hit. Most guys have two or three hits and don't bear down like that. Pete Rose was as intense going for his third or fourth hit. That's Frank. Greedy bastards, they are."
For years that intensity and those numbers were propelling Thomas to the Hall of Fame, a goal that early on became his obsession. He was, in the words of former teammate Mike Cameron, "a stat rat," poring over digits and decimal points like a clubhouse idiot savant, like Rose chasing Ty Cobb, intent on where he was going and what he had to do to get there. Former teammate Robin Ventura used to look at him and think, This is going to be the best hitter I'll ever play with. So Thomas was. What really struck Ventura was the sharpness of Thomas's concentration, his capacity to almost will himself to fulfill his goals.
"He had an amazing ability to focus on things and get them done," says Ventura, now with the New York Mets. "He could look at the stat sheet and tell himself, I need five home runs this week. And he'd hit five home runs. If he was 10 RBIs behind, he'd drive in 10 runs in a week. He used to look at the sheet, the American League leaders, in front of the whole clubhouse, and tell himself, This is what I want to do. This is what I want to be. He wasn't really talking to us. He was just talking in front of us."
Thomas was a part of the team yet apart from the team, and all through his glory years there was no need for him to lead or cultivate an image of the man in command. When he came to the bigs, a year after Ventura, the White Sox had plenty of veterans to point the way, from catcher Carlton Fisk to shortstop Ozzie Guillen to pitcher Bobby Thigpen. Over the years Thomas got away with having no professional responsibility beyond pursuing his own agenda and chasing his own dreams. If he was widely perceived as selfish, that self-absorption served the common good. He helped Chicago win—leading them, for instance, to the American League Championship Series in 1993, his first MVP season.
"He knew what he wanted," says former White Sox pitcher Roberto Hernandez, who joined the team the year after Thomas, "even though he may have rubbed some people wrong because he was always looking at what he could do. But back then, when you had veterans, you could let a guy like that do his stuff. If he does what he wants to do, it helps the team anyway. He knew what it took to become an MVP, and he did it. You've got to give this guy his due. Maybe it was bad not to get on him more to be a leader."
Of course, for all of Thomas's years as the finest baseball player in Chicago, he never achieved anywhere near the celebrity of Michael Jordan, whose image loomed above the lakefront city like the Sears Tower, or even that of his counterpart on the North Side, Cubs first baseman Mark Grace—not to mention Sammy Sosa. This is largely Thomas's own fault, though he did set out in the right direction. In '93 he launched the Frank Thomas Charitable Foundation, which raised and gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to assorted causes, and through Big Hurt Enterprises he marketed himself, signing endorsement deals with Wendy's, Pepsi-Cola and Reebok, among other companies