Baseball 81: Frank Thomas (Part 2)

Well, look, the idea here is to give you work to enjoy. I would hope that there will never be any pandering here -- that wouldn't serve anybody -- but at the same time, I don't want people to ever be disappointed by the tone. Yes, we have opinions. Yes, we will point out when something isn't right. Yes, we will write some stuff that makes you mad, because we won't always see eye-to-eye.

But, most of all, at JoeBlogs, we are celebrating life.

For the Frank Thomas entry in the Baseball 100, I wanted to focus on why I think Thomas breezed into the Hall of Fame when other sluggers of his era struggled so much ... and I do believe it came down to the controversial and, yes, brave way in which he stood up against steroid users in his time.

I honestly believe that if he had not done that, he would have been caught up in the steroid whispers just like everybody else and would probably have had to wait a couple of years before getting elected.

And, yes, I also believe that it's strange that someone who was so prominently anti-PEDs in his playing days would be out hawking an over-the-counter drug of questionable worth with potential side effects. I don't think you can say the first without at least mentioning the second.

But, based on your comments, that entry was disappointing to many readers, particularly those who love Frank. And I don't want that to be the takeaway, because Frank Thomas was an amazing player and, best I can tell, a nice guy.

So let me add a personal Frank Thomas story:

I'm pretty sure this was at the 1994 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh -- though I could be getting the year wrong. Another writer and I were riding on the bus to the hotel ... and Frank Thomas was sitting a couple of seats behind us. He was something to behold. That year, I wrote this paragraph about him in the old Cincinnati Post.

"The game hasn't seen anyone like him. He's a strange concoction of muscles and a baby face, he's a slugger who enjoys getting walked, he's a powerful man who plays the game with patience and without anger. He's the best hitter in baseball, and as good as you think he is, he's actually better."

[caption id="attachment_24286" align="aligncenter" width="516"] The guy was, as they say, larger than life.[/caption]

Up close, you couldn't help but be awed by the many different vibes he sent at you. He was huge and intimidating ... and at exactly the same time, he was friendly and strangely approachable. It's like he was multiple superheroes. At the plate, he looked half asleep, and he swung the bat with one hand, and he never even seemed to be tempted by bad pitches.

"Frank, you look relaxed today," Julio Franco said to him before one big game.

"Always am," Thomas replied.

Anyway, we were on that bus, and it pulled up to the hotel, and there had to be a thousand people waiting outside for autographs -- and there was no security around at all. It was like a red carpet event without the velvet ropes. We watched through the window as Ken Griffey Jr. and Will Clark and Joe Carter and others were swarmed. It was a pretty wild scene.

I said as much, and my writer friend said something about how he didn't think it was a big deal. This was a once-a-year event, and the players shouldn't complain about being mobbed by the fans once a year. And from two seats behind us, we heard a quiet voice say: "You don't get it at all."

That was Frank Thomas. He was in the middle of his season for the ages. You can look up what he did in 113 games in that strike-shortened 1994 season, but it's more fun to see how it might have looked stretched out over 162 games (he played every game that year):

.353/.487/.729, 152 runs, 52 doubles, 54 homers, 144 RBIs, 156 walks, 416 total bases.

That's like Babe Ruth.

And then, Thomas said something that I've never forgotten. He was not complaining, not at all, but he wanted us to understand that the line we were seeing out the window, that was his entire life. "People recognize me everywhere," he said. "It doesn't matter what I'm wearing. It doesn't matter what I'm doing. They know who I am."

It was touching because it was a raw moment, the sort of thing that he would never have felt comfortable saying to us as reporters because people would naturally misunderstand, misinterpret, they would think he was lashing out at this dream life he had. The guy was making millions. He was adored, he heard the cheers of the crowd every night.

And he acknowledged all of that.

But -- and he buried this deep -- there was a price. His life wasn't always his own.

"Well," he said, as he walked off the bus, "here goes."

And he walked out into the huge crowd. And the strangest thing happened. A path opened up for him. People did not rush him the way they had rushed the others. They called out to him, but they also parted, and Thomas smiled and waved to them and he walked right through.

When I saw it I wrote this: "If you were a stranger from a foreign land, you would not think the big man walking toward the hotel door in Pittsburgh was a baseball player. You would think he was a king."