Nova Lanktree, a sports marketer in Chicago for 15 years, says Thomas was a natural for any firm seeking an athlete to endorse its product or for any dinner needing a celebrity jock to make an appearance. "He was a big guy with a beautiful face, a fun nickname and a small-town [ Columbus, Ga.] background," says Lanktree. "All he had to do was smile and hit. He did that for a while, but he did not take advantage of the early impression that he made. Someone would call him to make an appearance and say that it paid $10,000. His response was always, 'Can you get a little more?' "
Moreover, says Lanktree, Thomas failed to show up at events scheduled by Reebok, which paid him a bonus that entitled the company to a number of appearances from Thomas. "It was a huge deal for Reebok and for him," Lanktree says, "and then he wouldn't show up. There was never an acceptable excuse. He just did not appear."
Thomas denies this. "I've always showed up for my appearances," he says. "You can ask any person I've done endorsements with. I've been one of the nicest, kindest people they've worked with in their lives."
Jerry Meyer feels no rancor toward Thomas, not even after Thomas failed to fulfill his contact with Meyer's company, Pinnacle Brands—a three-year, $1.8 million deal that required him to make appearances for the firm and to sign 2,000 to 3,500 Donruss baseball cards a year. "Frank was a very genial guy when he wanted to be," Meyer says. "I never found him confrontational. I found him ...uninterested."
Thomas signed the cards every year—but, Meyer says, "it was always a struggle to get them done on time," and "we couldn't get him to make appearances. He always found an excuse not to do them." The company went bankrupt in 1997, but it had already decided not to pay Thomas for the last year of his contract.
Asked about Meyer's allegations, Thomas is contrite. "I'm sorry," he says. "I signed all that stuff, but all those appearances, along with Reebok appearances, there was just no way. Too much other stuff going on."
In fact, Thomas appeared to be sailing through his expanding world with the wind at his considerable back. In 1997 he stroked his way through another magnificent season, in which he cracked 35 homers and drove in 125 runs to go along with his batting title. By then he had clearly demarcated his own strike zone. His vaunted eye was so well-known around the league that umpires seemed to defer to it, calling balls on pitches that hit the inside corner, especially when Thomas made a show of hopping back in the box. "He used to jump out of the way of those pitches, and they wouldn't call the strike," says Cleveland Indians lefthander Chuck Finley. "You wouldn't even bother trying to throw there."
Thomas was at the zenith of his career. He was making $7.15 million a year, and he was about to sign a six-year, $85 million contract extension that would pay him through 2006. In December '96 he had moved his wife, Elise, and their three children—son Sterling, then 4, and daughters Sloan, 2, and Sydney, five months—into their new $8.1 million, 24,000-square-foot gated house inside a gated community in Oak Brook, Ill., the only Chicago suburb with polo fields. The white palace sits on three acres and has eight bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, six fireplaces, two four-car garages, an 83-by-23-foot indoor batting cage, two turtle doves and this vulture in its pear tree: annual property taxes of $93,24701. "A dream house," Thomas says.
By December '97, just three months after signing that new contract and one year after moving into the Oak Brook house, the apparently idyllic world Thomas had fashioned began to come apart. He separated from his wife (though he insists, contrary to court records, that he did not move out of the mansion). "It was tough," says Thomas, who declines to discuss the separation. (In November 1999 Elise would sue for divorce, saying Frank had been "guilty of...grounds for dissolution of marriage" that she preferred not to disclose.)
Things would only get worse for Thomas. Early in the '98 season, still suffering the dislocation of a broken marriage, he seemed to lose his unspoken privileges at the plate all at once, in one game in April. "There were some very questionable pitches on the inside that could have been called either way," recalls Schueler of that day. "Frank, naturally, jumped back and took them in his own style. The umpire called strikes on two consecutive pitches. Frank didn't handle it right."