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updated: 1/8/2014 9:29 PM

What a great ride the Big Hurt has taken us on

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  • Frank Thomas holds up a baseball he signed "Frank Thomas HOF" during a news conference Wednesday to discuss the announcement of his selection as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

      Frank Thomas holds up a baseball he signed "Frank Thomas HOF" during a news conference Wednesday to discuss the announcement of his selection as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
    Associated Press

 
 

Wednesday afternoon seemed like a lifetime away from a Friday morning 24 years ago.

Maybe that's because it was a lifetime when measured by the time and space of a baseball career.

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Back then during the first week of spring training at Sarasota, I stood at one end of the White Sox' dugout. At the other end was this gigantic human being preparing for the day's drills.

"My goodness," I said to Sox manager Jeff Torborg, "is that guy going to get too heavy for baseball?"

Skepticism already hovered over whether the Sox should have risked a first-round draft choice on a player with the potential to grow bigger than a ballpark.

"No," Torborg said. "There's no way that man is ever going to let himself get out of shape."

Torborg knew what he was talking about. Frank Thomas -- Big Frank then, the Big Hurt later -- had too much pride to eat himself out of being a great major-leaguer.

The memories of that beginning of a journey are what flashed through my mind on the day that it culminated in the Hall of Fame announcing that Thomas, the former Sox first baseman/designated hitter, will be inducted at Cooperstown this summer.

Another memory is of something proclaimed by Larry Himes, the Sox' general manager who made Thomas a No. 7 overall draft pick in 1989.

"He already is better than Pete Incaviglia," Himes said, referring to the Rangers' slugger.

That evaluation didn't stop Himes from assigning Thomas to the minor leagues for more seasoning. Thomas didn't object. It hinted something about him that he wanted to be absolutely ready before stepping into a big-league batter's box that August.

Frank Thomas wanted conditions to be perfect. He didn't like anything that took him out of his routine. Fortunately for the Sox, the conditions and his routine were good enough often enough for him to become the franchise's greatest offensive player ever.

Thomas was the rare power hitter with an impeccable sense of the strike zone. He didn't strike out like a slugger. He drew walks like a leadoff man.

This made Thomas popular with Sox fans, but as popular as he was, he could be equally frustrating. Just when you wanted to unconditionally embrace him he created a condition that made it difficult.

Thomas could be moody. He often looked like he wasn't having fun playing this fun game. He walked out of spring camp over money once and bickered with management over other issues. Off the field he seemed to be trying too hard to become something he couldn't be.

"It wasn't arrogance," Thomas said Wednesday of his demeanor as a player. "I wanted to make it something special for everyone who came through the turnstiles every night."

Thomas was a better person than many perceived him to be. It's just that he was so consumed with performing and producing -- that pride thing and perfection thing -- that he let too many little things bother him.

Yet Thomas had so much talent that if he retired halfway through his career he already would have been worthy of the Hall of Fame. If the Big Hurt hadn't suffered big hurts in his knee, ankle and other body parts that drove him to being a designated hitter, his career numbers might have been Ruthian.

Still, Frank Thomas was overall good enough that all these years and miles from that day back in Sarasota, he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility.

What an interesting and complicated journey this interesting and complicated man took us on from then and there to here and now.

Odds are Frank Thomas won't be much over his playing weight on induction day in Cooperstown this summer.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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