By Pat Borzi
Nine years ago last March, Frank Thomas testified via video conference at the same House Government Reform Committee hearing about steroid use in baseball where Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger, Mark McGwire evaded questions and Sammy Sosa suddenly lost command of the English language. It was a shameful day, televised nationally, and Thomas was one of the few players who came out of it with his reputation and dignity intact.
Sunday, Thomas will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Long before his election, Thomas -- one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters of his era -- decried the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. More recently, he criticized contemporaries like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for turning to PEDs and jeopardizing their own enshrinements. Thomas was the only player who agreed to speak to George Mitchell before the release of the Mitchell Report in 2007. Long before most players, Thomas dug in firmly on the correct side of history.
So when Thomas steps to the podium in Cooperstown, N.Y., honored along with fellow first-ballot choices Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, will he use his platform to bash PED users some more?
It's tempting to preach, especially when you know you're right, and dozens of Hall of Famers on that stage agree with you. But it would be, for lack of a better word, ungracious. Thomas's internal GPS doesn't always take him down the right road, but it should Sunday. Leave it alone. Let your accomplishments speak for themselves.
And what accomplishments. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds (probably closer to 275 as he got older), Thomas cut an imposing figure simply walking through a clubhouse. He never hit more than 43 homers in a single season at a time when 50 seemed the benchmark, but he finished his career with 521 -- as many as Ted Williams and Willie McCovey.
He posted eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons (and 11 in all), batted over .300 ten times, and won back-to-back American League MVP awards in 1993-94. He led the AL in OPS four times before most people knew what it meant, and opponents intentionally walked him 90 times between 1993 and 1996.
A longtime American League catcher once told me there were two players in the 1990's so respected for their batting eyes that umpires -- in those days before QuesTec -- rarely called them out on borderline two-strike pitches. Wade Boggs was one. The other was Frank Thomas. They had to swing the bat. And with Thomas, The Big Hurt, that often meant trouble.
"He had a good idea of the zone," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, Thomas's teammate in Chicago from 1990-98. "You're probably talking a contact-type guy in the body of a home run hitter. He didn't swing and miss a lot. He would take his walks. A lot of home run guys… if you threw a pitch and it was anywhere close, he would swing at it. He just understood who he was and where he was in the lineup."
Current Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire coached the bases while Thomas was in his prime.
"I don't know if he ever got enough credit for how great a hitter he was," Gardenhire said. "He had such a plane to his swing, and he was so strong he could muscle balls to the outfield. You could get in on him, tie him up and he'd fight it off the other way. He just had great eyes, and was just a natural hitter."
When the White Sox released an aging Thomas after the 2005 season, Gardenhire urged the Twins to sign him. Gardenhire wanted Thomas so badly that Twins officials kicked him out of their hotel suite when they met with Thomas and his agent, Arn Tellem, at the winter meetings in Dallas. "I was really biased," Gardenhire said with a chuckle.
Ultimately the Twins passed, fearful Thomas's surgically-repaired left ankle would not hold up on the Metrodome's artificial surface. Thomas insisted they were no hard feelings, but he sure took it out on the Twins over the next two seasons.
Signing with Oakland, Thomas hit 39 homers with 114 RBIs, then homered twice in a 3-2 victory over the Twins in Game 1 of their AL Division Series. At 38, Thomas became the oldest player with a multi-homer game in postseason. The A's swept the series. The following year with Toronto, Thomas hit his 500th homer in the Metrodome, one of his 52 career homers against the Twins -- more than any other team.
"He was big and strong," Gardenhire said. "He didn't leg out hits. He had to earn them. He had to put them where they aren't, and he did that as well as anybody."
In Chicago, Thomas never received the adulation he thought he deserved. He could be a difficult teammate. "Frank?" Ventura said, with a sly smile. "On occasion."
In 1996, Thomas charged at Ventura in the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium, upset that Ventura told him to stop arguing with the umpires. Thomas had been ejected the day before, and Ventura was simply trying to prevent a repeat.
Thomas got into a shouting match with manager Jerry Manuel at spring training in 2000, after bringing a doctor's note to get out of a shuttle run. The next year teammate David Wells, on his radio show, accused Thomas of faking an injury. Not only was the injury legitimate -- a torn triceps -- but the criticism came the same day that Thomas's father died.
When Thomas complained after the White Sox cut him loose in 2005, General Manager Ken Williams called him selfish and an idiot. "We don't miss his attitude. We don't miss the whining. We don't miss it. Good riddance. See you later," Williams said. In 2007, Thomas was ejected from the very game where he hit his 500th homer, for arguing balls and strikes.
Given all that, Thomas could justify standing before his fellow Hall of Famers and a national television audience Sunday with unbridled hubris, ripping all the people who ripped him, while painting himself as a paragon of PED-free purity.
But that would be a phenomenal mistake. The best road for the Big Hurt to take is the high one. His presence alone says more than enough.
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Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.