'Big Hurt' brings big resume to Hall of Fame ballot
Two-time AL MVP Thomas posted .301 average, 521 HRs over 19-season career
Frank Thomas is a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. The Class of 2014 will be announced exclusively on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com live on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET as part of a three-hour live show beginning at noon. On Thursday, MLB.com and MLB Network will air the news conferences featuring the electees live from New York at 11 a.m. ET.
CHICAGO -- Frank Thomas should be a clear-cut first-ballot Hall of Famer when the Baseball Writers' Association of America's voting results are revealed Wednesday afternoon.
The man appropriately dubbed "Big Hurt" passes both the statistical and eye tests over the course of his 19-year career in Chicago, Oakland and Toronto, with 16 seasons coming for the White Sox. But Thomas doesn't really want to talk about the whole process until it's done.
"Yeah, I'm very superstitious about this Hall of Fame thing," Thomas told MLB.com in late November at the Chicago Holiday Fest he emceed in South Suburban Tinley Park.
"Of course I want to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer," a confident Thomas said. "I deserve to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, I think. The resume speaks for itself, but when it comes to voting, I don't control that."
Thomas finished his illustrious career with a .301 average, 521 homers, 1,704 RBIs and 1,494 runs scored. He posted a .419 on-base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage, winning American League Most Valuable Player Awards in 1993 and '94, Louisville Silver Slugger honors in '91, '93, '94 and 2000 and taking home the '97 batting title with a .347 average.
The 6-foot-5 slugger topped the .300 mark in 10 seasons and went .330 or higher four times. Thomas produced seven straight seasons of hitting .300 with at least 20 homers, 100 walks, 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored, a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage from 1991-97.
Though he was only selected to five All-Star teams, the first baseman/designated hitter is considered the best hitter in White Sox history and one of the best in the history of the game. Thomas' accomplishments certainly weren't lost on those who played with him.
"You could look back and try to figure out exactly what made him, but this is what he wanted," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who played alongside Thomas from 1990-98. "He wanted to be known as the best hitter in the game. He was driven to be that. Everyone wished they had a guy in the middle of their lineup like him."
"He was just so physically big and still able to swing a baseball bat," said Greg Walker, who was one of the team's first basemen immediately before Thomas arrived and actually was one of Thomas' hitting coaches later in his career. "There have never been that many great big men like him to have the flexibility to swing a bat. [He] looked like an NFL tight end."
Walker recounted the tale of happening upon an SEC baseball game on television when he was a White Sox player and seeing "a physical beast" playing for Auburn. Walker went in the next day and told hitting coach Walt Hriniak about this specimen he had watched, a player who became the White Sox top selection in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft.
In the educated and respected opinion of Walker, Thomas would have become a great hitter on his own merits. Working with Hriniak took the Big Hurt to another level, selling him on going the other way and staying on the ball.
"Him and Walt, that's the story. They had such a special relationship," Walker said. "Walt was good for Frank. It was a great mix. They found an approach. They found a way to have this hugely talented guy hit for both average and power. Frank bought into Walt, and he would run through a brick wall for him."
"Most guys don't want to sit there and take your walks and do things like that," said Thomas of Hriniak's tutelage. "He taught me discipline at the plate. He said 'Do you want to be good or do you want to be great? Do you want to be a guy who hits .260 or .270 and hit home runs all the time? You can do that. You have the ability.' But he said, 'I see you hitting in the high 3s. Be a true professional and do it all.' That was my game plan."
That game plan with Hriniak, according to Thomas, included a separate focus if he wanted to go to right, hit to center or pull the ball more. Ventura added Thomas was so talented in his prime that he could actually focus on trying to hit home runs for a certain period of time or just focus on getting base hits and follow through.
Some criticized Thomas for being too stats driven. In Thomas' mind, those individual numbers were crucial for team success.
"I felt like I had to be my best every day to give the team a very good shot at winning," Thomas said. "I was a special-enough player that I took that upon me. At times people thought that looked selfish and I was worried about my stats. It was about me doing well every day and giving this team a chance to win every day. I took that pressure on from the city, from the fans and everybody else. I had to be 3-for-4 every night. That's the way I looked at things."
"Every day he stepped out on the field, he wanted to be the best," said Aaron Rowand, who was Thomas' teammate with the White Sox from 2001-05. "He's one of those guys that when he was not performing at that level, he felt embarrassed about it. He threw a lot of weight on those big shoulders, carried a lot of guys on his back for a long time."
Rowand depicted Thomas as a Hall of Fame teammate and person as much as a Hall of Fame talent, but Thomas hasn't been ready to talk about inductions. He'll wait for Wednesday's official word that could place him as part of a spectacular class including Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Craig Biggio, joining retired managers Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, who were already selected from the Expansion Era ballot as voted on at the Winter Meetings.
"I've just been very hush-hush about it," Thomas said. "After playing 20 years of pro baseball, this is the final ending. I'm hoping for a great one."