MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Big Hurt never took anything for granted

Big Hurt never took anything for granted

CHICAGO -- When Frank Thomas was 9 years old, he committed himself to becoming "a great pro baseball player." He didn't do it because of pure ambition; he found the drive for greatness out of loss.

This was Thanksgiving Day 1977, when his 2-year-old sister Pamela died from leukemia.

As young as he was, Thomas already knew he'd been blessed with abilities that the other kids didn't have. He made it his mission to make the most of the DNA he was given from his parents, because he knew it would have made his baby sister happy to see him as a baseball star. Thomas had learned the hard way, at a tender age, not to take anything for granted.

"She was the love of my life," Thomas told me after a news conference at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday. "It was so hard because I was [with] her every day ... We got so close. I used to run her around the house and play so much, and one day she didn't respond. I said, 'Get up,' and she couldn't get up.

"I went and told my parents that something was wrong, and they started checking. A week or so later, we found out she had leukemia. She was already in a dark phase, and she died a short time later."

Her memory lives on through Thomas' legacy.

"It inspired me, it definitely inspired me," Thomas said. "From that point on, I thought something was wrong with me [too]. I thought I had to get everything I can out of life, and I did. From that point forward, she has stuck with me every day of my life."

The holder of a .301 lifetime batting average and 521 home runs, Thomas was elected into the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, receiving 83.7 percent of the vote. He joins pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to become one of 47 players elected to the Hall in his first year on the ballot.

Hall of Famers are created when talent meets inspiration.

Thomas' signature is that he was a slugger who, in the words of Jim Fregosi, had the "eye of a leadoff man." At the peak of his instantly adjective-defying career with the Chicago White Sox, from 1990-97, he took walk after walk rather than expanding his strike zone to swing at a pitcher's pitch.

Thomas and former White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak had a working relationship that was almost spooky. One knew what the other was thinking before he said anything, and their eyes were always on the next game, not the last one.

"From Day 1, I was focused and had a great instructor," Thomas said. "Every day we worked on the same thing. It didn't matter if you were doing well or weren't doing well; every day we worked on the same thing. God blessed me with Walt Hriniak."

But as for his stubborn discipline in not giving away at-bats, Thomas says he learned patience at the hands of Bobby Howard, who was his baseball coach at Columbus (Ga.) High School.

"Bobby Howard was one of the best coaches in the state, won a lot of championships there," Thomas said. "He saw me as 'that big football player,' and people didn't want to pitch to me. They'd throw me a lot of bad balls, and at one point, I was swinging at everything, just trying to make something happen with the bat. So Bobby made me run sprints.

"After the game, he'd count how many bad pitches I swung at and I'd have to run that many sprints. Discipline came really quick, because I didn't like running sprints like that. They weren't easy sprints. Some days it was like puking out there."

A career .330 hitter after he won the American League batting crown at age 29, Thomas' totals dropped steadily over his last 11 seasons, when he battled injuries and difficulties away from the ballpark, becoming a full-time DH. He was unhappy, in large part because he wasn't fulfilling the standards he had set for himself.

"Every day I felt I was supposed to do something special out on the field," Thomas said. "Some people thought it was arrogant, but it wasn't arrogance. It was me wanting to accomplish something every day for this organization, to win, and I put that upon myself. I thought I was supposed to go 3-for-4 every night, 4-for-4 every night, hit a home run every night. That was just me."

Despite the inconsistent production in the second half of his career, Thomas stands as having the sixth-most home runs of a career .300 hitter, behind Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Manny Ramirez.

Ramirez, for what it's worth, saw his career ended early because of positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs. Thomas was among the most visible player spokesmen for testing, speaking up as early as 1995 -- three years before the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race -- when he told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to "get rid of the suspicions" that dogged hitters, especially power hitters.

Thomas tired of the PED questions he was asked on Wednesday, especially during a conference call with members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But the man never lacked confidence, and his most telling moments of the day may have come toward the end of that 30-minute interview with the BBWAA.

Thomas' eight-year run of greatness at the start of his career -- including back-to-back AL MVP Award seasons in 1993 and '94 and the batting title in '97 -- led directly into the McGwire-Sosa home run race in '98 and a period of widespread use of steroids in baseball.

"I'll be honest," Thomas said. "I think I was one of those guys that made a few guys go in that direction, because of the size and the strength of a football player playing baseball. For a seven-year run there, nobody [could stop me]. Only one or two guys put up numbers that could compare."

Thomas went through enough football practices during his freshman year at Auburn that he says he understands why guys in shoulder pads look for chemical help. It's a brutal sport. But he says he was never tempted while in a baseball uniform.

"I can tell you what what I did was real," Thomas said. "That's why I have a smile on my face. I know the writers got it right."

Pamela would be so proud of her big brother.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.