"The name I often bring up in talking about Frank," says White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak, "is Joey Cora." Say what? Cora is the 5'7" Chicago second baseman, who has two career homers—both of them this year. "When I tell people that," continues Hriniak, "I'm trying to make the point that Frank approaches each at bat, each pitch, with a purpose. Nobody on this ball club has a bigger heart than Joey, but Frank comes close. I have never seen him give up an at bat, no matter if we're 10 runs ahead or he's already gotten his four hits or two homers. He has an intense hatred of failure."
Says White Sox leftfielder Tim Raines, one of Thomas's closest friends, "Nobody will ever demand more of Frank than Frank does. He's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Off the field he's sweet and nice. On the field, well, you should hear some of the things he says about himself after a strikeout."
Thomas has a rather simple explanation for his psyche: "I guess you could say a lot of little hurts went into making The Big Hurt." He grew up in Columbus, Ga., the youngest of Frank and Charlie Mae Thomas's five kids. "I hung out with my older brother and his friends, and I got pushed around a lot until I started pushing back." He starred in the three big sports at Columbus High, but for some reason no baseball team drafted him, so he went to Auburn on a football scholarship. "I would've signed to play baseball, but nobody wanted me. Turned out, though, that Auburn made me a man," Thomas says. After catching three passes as a freshman tight end, he devoted his full athletic attention to baseball. In 1988 he was on the U.S. National Team, but—get this—he was cut before the team went to the Olympics in Seoul. "I couldn't believe it either," says Thomas.
Even after the White Sox made him the seventh pick in the 1989 draft, he had trouble convincing people of how good he was. He made juice out of the Grapefruit League in 1990, but he started the regular season in Double A. The following year, his first full one in the majors, he hit .318 with 32 homers, 109 RBIs and 138 walks, but the Sox still gave him a hard time over his contract.
Last year Thomas batted .323 with 115 RBIs, but he finished eighth in the MVP voting, and some Chicago fans professed disappointment in his 24 home runs. Perhaps they did not realize that he had shared the league lead in doubles, with 46, and that sometimes a Big Hurt double is just a homer that hits the fence while it's still climbing. Says Thomas, "I also got a little tired of hearing 'Yeah, but he can't field.' " So in the off-season Thomas worked on his defense and made himself even stronger through weight training.
The results of that regimen have been readily apparent. While he's not going to remind any Chicagoans of Cap Anson around the bag, he is a damn sight better than Zeke Bonura, the lumbering legend whose club RBI record (138, in 1936) Thomas is chasing. "My favorite moment this year was a play I made at first," Thomas says. "I dove to my right, then threw home to get the runner. I don't think I could have made that play before this year."
There is no question that The Big Hurt has an ego to match. "I just think I should get a hit every time up," he says. He is very much aware of how his home run and RBI competition is doing, and he is quick to point out that "I have had three homers pulled back from over the fence." So when you ask him whom he thinks the American League MVP should be, he is not about to say Olerud. "John's having a great year, an MVP year," says Thomas. "But look at that lineup he's hitting in." So if Thomas ends up the loser in the Baseball Writers Association's Ballot of Frankie and Johnnie, pitchers will be in for a Bigger Hurt next season.
Even if Thomas doesn't win the MVP award, this has been a breakthrough year for him. He is currently negotiating a long-term contract with Chicago because, as he says, "I see myself with the Sox my whole career." He has a new $8 million deal with Reebok, and his handsome, smiling face is becoming increasingly familiar to the American public. He is a big favorite with kids—his rookie baseball card is much valued—because he signs autographs so readily.
Last week Thomas hit a first-inning, two-run homer off Yankee Sterling Hitchcock, which struck him as kind of funny because his one-year-old son is also named Sterling. "What's even funnier," he says, "is that my wife's maiden name is Silver." Frank met Elise Silver two springs ago at the Columbia restaurant in Sarasota, Fla., where the White Sox train. "Melido Perez was hungry, so he made me drive him to the restaurant," says Thomas. "We looked like a couple of bums."
Elise was there with her cousin, in the midst of a visit to spring training sites. The Silvers of Rochester, N.Y., have long been involved with the city's Triple A Red Wings. In fact Silver Stadium in Rochester is named after her great uncle Maury. "I guess you could say we met cute," says Elise. "He bumped into me."