Early in his career, Frank Thomas saw the eye-popping statistics Michael Jordan produced and how they jumped off the sports page every day.
He longed to be baseball’s version of that.
While playing with an eye always geared toward generating big numbers drew some criticism for Thomas -- who Sunday will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- his former teammates and friends don’t think it’s such a bad way to go about playing baseball.
Players often talk about the grind of the regular season and searching for ways to deal with the rigors of a 162-game schedule. So while some deemed Thomas’ approach as selfish, those who spent time around him see it as the way Thomas found his motivation.
“People used to ask me about his numbers, ‘Well, he's selfish,’ ” White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson said. “I said, ‘He’s not selfish.’ Guys do that. They have to find ways to motivate themselves. You know, 162 games, that’s tough. It's really tough, and guys find ways to motivate themselves.”
Thomas made it look easy.
From 1991-98, Thomas was baseball’s equivalent of “His Airness.”
Over that span, Thomas averaged 35 home runs, 117 RBIs and 118 walks. He carried a .321/.443/.587 slash line over 5,262 plate appearances and won two MVP awards. He also had seven top-8 MVP vote finishes, including six in the top-5 and only struck out once per an absurd 8.47 plate appearances.
[POSNANSKI: Thomas' greatness built off patience]
While he’s one of the top right-handed hitters to ever play the game, White Sox manager Robin Ventura said Thomas wanted to be the best player in the game. That’s why Thomas always scoured box scores and the league leaders to know just what everyone else was doing.
“He was driven by that,” Ventura said. “He wanted his numbers to always be at the top and I think he had the unique ability to look at a piece of paper and have a plan, that that's what he was going to do.
“That’s the stuff that drove him, was the statistical stuff. If he needed more homers, it just seemed like somehow he’d hit more homers. That’s when you kind of knew what he was shooting for.”
The way Thomas drove himself isn’t how Ventura did it. But Ventura doesn’t have a problem with it, either.
By putting up gaudy numbers, Thomas was helping the team. And it should come as no surprise that in his two best seasons, 1993 and 1994, the White Sox were at their best.
In 1993, the White Sox lost to Toronto in the American League championship. A year later, the White Sox were primed to make another run at the pennant before the players’ strike ended the season abruptly.
“It’s not bad,” said Ventura, who played alongside Thomas from 1990-97. “Baseball, it's a hard game because it's daily. And he came to the park every day statistically wanting to be at the top of anybody in the league, and that's a strong point.”
Paul Konerko, Thomas’ teammate for six seasons, appreciates the approach because it kept the slugger working. It also helped him produce “insanely good numbers,” Konerko said. So while he was focused on numbers, Konerko thinks that emphasis significantly contributed to Thomas’ Hall of Fame production.
“It was a byproduct of his work and his routines that he, whoever got him early, when it was when he first got to pro ball or the big leagues, I think gave him kind of a framework and a structure on how to work,” Konerko said. “He stuck to it, and that produced all the numbers.”
Thomas remembers how good Jordan was and how he wanted to be like Mike -- the major league version.
“Every day I felt I was supposed to do something special out in the field,” Thomas said in January. “Some people thought I was arrogant, but it wasn't arrogance. It was me wanting to accomplish something every day. I put that upon myself, I was supposed to go 3-for-4 every night, 4-for-4 every night, hit a home run every night. I mean that was just me. It wasn’t like I just wanted to be a player that comes in and not have that type of impact.
“When I got here I was a huge Michael Jordan fan, watching Michael Jordan every night making big shots and I said, ‘Why can’t I do that in baseball?'"
Harrelson was there from the start of Thomas’ time with the White Sox to the very end. He’s the one who gave him his nickname, “The Big Hurt.” The two also always talked shop and Harrelson knows how intelligent of a player Thomas was. He knows Thomas was just like everyone else, looking for a way to be ready to play every day through good times and rough ones.
It just so happened his drive led Thomas to be one of the best to ever play the game.
“He was not selfish at all,” Harrelson said. “The one thing I will always remember, besides being the greatest right-handed hitter I ever saw for eight years, was he played hurt. He never bitched about it, he never moaned about it, he never made any excuses.”