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The pitcher stares in. Frank Thomas stares a comebacker to the mound. The barrel end of his bat draws tight ovals that seem to hang in the air like smoke rings. His right foot resides outside the batter's box, but then chalk outlines aren't for home run hitters; they're for homicide victims, and Frank Thomas on a playing field has never been the victim. He has always been the perp.
He was snuffing out runners at first base as a 10-year-old centerfielder. He is now a 23-year-old MVP candidate who stands 6'5", weighs an eighth of a ton and wears the street gang colors of the Chicago White Sox. But even as a 10-year-old, he was no less imposing in the batter's box. "Kids would throw the ball behind him, over the backstop, all over the place," says his father, Frank Sr. "They'd do anything to avoid pitching to him."
Frank Sr. speaks the truth, as a man named Frank should. The truth will set you free, and so will Frank Sr., in any number of ways. He is at once a Baptist deacon and a bail bondsman in Columbus, Ga., where he watched Frank Jr. grow up, his son and his dream both being pitched around.
They're still pitching around Frank Jr. Through Sunday, Thomas, a first baseman and designated hitter who's completing his first full big league season, was somehow hitting .326 and had driven in 103 runs while leading the majors with 117 walks. His on-base percentage was a major league best .458. He had reached base in a ridiculous 126 of his 135 games, hitting to all fields and exhibiting a patience at the plate that Sox coach Walt Hriniak likens to that of Ted Williams.
It's a wonder that anyone has pitched to him. Thomas would have had 118 walks, but on Aug. 3 against the Baltimore Orioles he swung at a pitch high and outside. "That was ball four," he said to White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in the dugout after belting it for a 430-foot homer to left.
At week's end Thomas had 30 home runs, each one of them a seat-seeking missile launched from that menacing ready position at the plate. "I'm not trying to be a bad boy when I go up there," he says. "I'm not taking a home run cut every time. I don't have a home run trot. This is my physical appearance. I worked very hard for it. But I don't play it up."
This jumbo Frank is not a hot dog. When he was at Auburn he was embarrassed by the players from visiting teams who would tour the Tigers' Plainsman Park, pointing to spots beyond the 385-foot signs in the gaps and on the 45-foot-high scoreboard, telling their younger teammates where Thomas's bombs had landed the previous season. He was uncomfortable when the University of Houston stopped the team's stretching exercises to watch him take batting practice. And Thomas circled the bases with his head down, rather than with one flap down, after hitting a ball over the leftfield wall at Mississippi State, and over the pickups and flatbed trucks parked behind it, and over the Weber grills and the students stretching out behind those.
The jumbo Frank is not a hot dog. It's just that the jumbo Frank comes with everything on it. He wears size 14 black hightops that resemble the ones he tied on as a tight end at Auburn. And he wears pants so long that when Will Perdue, the 7-foot backup center for the Chicago Bulls, worked out with the White Sox before a June game at Comiskey Park, Perdue fit comfortably into Thomas's trou.
Like the other White Sox, he wears those two icons of badness that go with the team's silver-and-black gangster road suits: a black belt and a black hat. But he also wears black wristbands. And he wears black batting gloves. And he wears a bold brush stroke of eye black on either cheekbone. "The eye black is my war paint," he says. "When I put it on, it's time to go to war."
Yet before he goes to war, he's likely to go shopping. If Frank Thomas is as bad as he looks, how come he's so fussy about his wardrobe? If Frank Thomas is as bad as pitchers think he is, would he apologize for anything, much less tardiness? "Sorry, big guy," he says, arriving late for a game-day interview. "I overslept." If Frank Thomas is so bad, why is it that he calls you "big guy" when the Sox carry fungo bats that aren't as trim as you are?