Frank Thomas is sitting, I'm standing, and the words that escape my lips are probably a bit too honest. “You’ve always intimidated me,” I tell him. He is, after all, a 6'5", 275-pound behemoth. A man whose nickname—the Big Hurt—is more warning than alias. And beyond the imposing physical presence, there’s his reputation: Grumpy. Dismissive. A dickhead.
“Really?” says Thomas, the Oakland A’s designated hitter, now in his 19th season. “You were actually scared of me?”
I’m beginning to feel foolish. Up close the person in front of me is about as threatening as a pimple. He smiles easily, laughs softly. There’s a real warmth about him. “Maybe the media misunderstands Frank because he’s so large,” says Sal Fasano, Thomas’ former teammate with Toronto. “But I’ve gotta tell you—he’s good people.”
Not long ago the idea of a teammate standing up for Thomas was laughable. For years he was universally panned as a surly, selfish, me-first player. But now, in the twilight of his career, Frank Thomas is finally starting to be seen for what he is: one of the greatest hitters in baseball history (he is one of only four players ever to have at least a .300 average, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBI, 1,000 runs and 1,500 walks) and one of the few players of the modern era to do it all cleanly and with his honor intact.
Last November, when Senator George Mitchell was preparing his landmark report on steroids in baseball, he requested interviews with five players who had spoken out publicly about performance-enhancing drugs, and who had never been suspected of using them. Four declined. Frank Thomas accepted—and became the only active major-league player to willingly cooperate with the investigation. The reasoning was simple. “I’m completely innocent,” says Thomas. “I haven’t cheated, I haven’t considered cheating. I’m all natural and always have been. So why should I hide and protect the players who cheated? I’m thrilled to say to the world—‘I’m clean! Believe in me!’¿” In the shattered universe of Major League Baseball, where numbers do lie, and bulging muscles are regarded with increasing suspicion, a disappointed public and a humbled league might be ready to do just that.
Pomp and Circumstance
During Thomas’ early years with the Chicago White Sox, many believed he was the embodiment of the brooding, petulant modern ballplayer. He would pore over the individual statistical sheets after every game; whine about teammates who failed to score from second on his singles; sulk after 0-4 performances, even if the Sox triumphed. Within the Chicago locker
room, the five-time All-Star was scornfully tabbed “Stat Man.” “All baseball players are interested in their numbers as a gauge,” he says. “Somehow that made me evil.”
Thomas put up gaudy numbers, even won back-to-back American League MVP awards in 1993 and 1994; but he was gradually overshadowed by players with sunnier dispositions. Why couldn’t he be more like Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Jason Giambi—equally prolific sluggers who showed outward joy and a desire to win above all else? Why couldn’t Frank Thomas be a good guy?