The White Sox made him the seventh pick in the '89 June draft, and in 1990 Thomas joined the White Sox spring roster in Sarasota, Fla., where Larry Himes, Chicago's general manager at the time, told him he would start the season with Double A Birmingham, no matter how he performed in camp. "The game plan was to send him to the minors for some seasoning," says White Sox manager Jeff Torborg, who privately thought that Thomas had been seasoned enough during his unseasonably warm spring.
How warm was it? "I dominated that spring," says Thomas with a shrug. "I just dominated. I think they didn't know how to handle that. They thought it was just a flash, or that I was in a little groove. I don't know. But that was me. I just didn't have a chance to prove it last year."
Thomas drove from Sarasota to Birmingham. That, as his father might say, was a driiive. Frank Jr. split the trip in half by stopping in Columbus to talk with Frank Sr., alternately taking words of consolation and offering some in return. "He was hurt," says Frank Sr. "Really hurt. But he was going up there dedicated to working hard and being ready."
He was going not just to Birmingham. He was going for a cycle of sorts: Geographically he was going north, psychologically he was going south ("I was going crazy," he says), and physically he was going in another dimension entirely. "I was going night after night hitting home run after home run," is how Thomas puts his minor league player-of-the-year performance of last summer. "I thought, Why can't the big league team use this? It had no one who could produce at first base, and I thought, What the hell is going on? I didn't understand that. I was stepping on the gas as much as possible."
He finally pulled into the big time on Aug. 2 of last year, ludicrously late as far as fans on Chicago's South Side were concerned. "They had a serious watch for me," says Thomas, laughing.
"We immediately pushed him into the heat of a pennant race," says Torborg, who has memorized Thomas's stats for the final two months of last season. "He responded right away—.330, seven home runs, 31 RBIs. I said this spring that he couldn't continue to have that kind of monthly development. But he has."
Like the White Sox's new uniforms—"I love the look," says Thomas—their lineup appears to have been tailored around Thomas. He bats in the three hole, behind third baseman Robin Ventura, who has realized his own considerable potential this season while exercising the franking privilege that goes with fronting for Thomas. "With Frank behind me and Tim Raines in front of me," says Ventura, "I'm getting good pitches to hit."
Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson—praise-babbling film blurber Joel Siegel has nothing on Anderson—says of Ventura and Thomas, "They're the two best players I've seen in 22 years." Down, Sparky. Heel. And yet....
Toronto Blue Jay pitcher Bob MacDonald, who in fairness is a rookie, walked Ventura to get to Thomas in the seventh inning of a 6-6 tie at the SkyDome on July 30. Thomas hit a two-run homer to the Northwest Territories to win the game. What MacDonald didn't know is that when Thomas steps to the plate and stands there like statuary, save for the smoke rings floating from the barrel of his bat, he is actually bringing two people to the box. "When Frank is at bat," says Frank Sr., "I feel like I'm at the plate."
A hitch in the Navy, hopping from base to base like overnight air cargo, soured Frank Sr. on flying. He has never seen his son play a big league game in person. "But I got a satellite dish," he says. "I get every game on SportsChannel or WGN. I sit back in my recliner, the game comes on, and I got a better seat than any seat at Comiskey Park."