STORMIN' GORMAN : Playing in Seattle Has Its Moments, but Milwaukee Is His Kind of Town, Thomas Believes

Times Staff Writer

Gorman is stormin' again. A Ken Forsch pitch has just missed rendering Mariner designated-hitter Gorman Thomas a soprano. Thomas steps out of the batter's box and tells Angel catcher Bob Boone that this is not good, that he does not appreciate Forsch's sense of direction, that it would be better for all concerned if Forsch aim the ball at the plate.

But not quite in those words.

Earlier, Thomas had homered, something he does with regularity. The home run helped the Mariners begin a comeback that eventually would see them tie the Angels in the bottom of the ninth.

Thomas also had struck out. Three times. He does this, too, with regularity. "Bigger than Dallas," Thomas says of such things.

Now it is the bottom of the 10th, one out, men on first and third, and Thomas is trying to find something, anything close enough to swing at.

It doesn't happen. Forsch has been told to keep the ball away from Thomas' 35-ounce, 35-inch bat. So he walks him. This is a compliment.

One hitter later, Forsch throws a high-inside fastball to Jim Presley that disappears into the night. So much for playing the percentages.

Thomas rounds the bases and then joins the Opening Day celebration as Presley arrives home. Cannon fire. Applause.

This is fun. This is like old times at Milwaukee when Thomas played center field for the Brewers and all was right in the world. Bambi's Bombers, Harvey's Wallbangers, Rockin' Robin Yount, Ted Simba Simmons, Benji Oglivie, Rollie Fingers, even Bob Uecker.

Milwaukee--The City That Made Gorman Thomas Famous. His kind of town.

Of course, Thomas did his part. He hit 32 home runs in 1978, his first full season as the Brewers' center fielder. The next year, he won the league home run title with 45. Then, after seasons of 38 and 21 (strike year) homers, Thomas hit 39 home runs in 1982, good enough to tie him with Reggie Jackson for the league lead.

Back then, before a rotator-cuff injury disabled Thomas and turned him into a reluctant designated hitter, you got more than a bat and a swing. You got Thomas running into outfield walls or diving head-first for a sinking line drive. Thomas says he didn't feel right if his uniform was clean at game's end. There had to be dirt and sweat and grass stains. He worked hard, why shouldn't a washing machine do the same?

Those were the days Thomas was nicknamed "Spike." One look and you could tell why.

Thomas has thick black hair that looks as if it has been combed with a rake. His mustache droops, adding menace to the scowl. Razor blades crash and burn on his stubble. This is a face that adheres to the W.C. Fields philosophy that you should start every day off with a smile and get it over with.

How silly his Brewer cap, with its cute little glove-and-ball emblem, sometimes looked atop his head. Another emblem, perhaps a beer bottle, might have been more appropriate.

Still, it is a good face, full of character, dignity and pride. It laughed and took on boyish proportions the day the Brewers won the American League pennant in 1982. There, in the middle of the Milwaukee clubhouse, Thomas searched frantically for a bottle of champagne to spray at anything that moved. But there was none left. So he grabbed a plastic bottle of mustard and happily sprayed French's into the air.

The face has cried, too. Nine months after the Brewers had won the pennant, after Thomas had driven in 112 runs, he returned home one day to find a message from Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton.

"Hell, I probably just got traded to Cleveland," he kidded as his wife gave him Dalton's phone number.

Bigger than Dallas, he had.

The conversation will forever remain in his memory.

"(Dalton) said, 'We've decided to make a player move and you've just been traded to Cleveland.' "

Thomas didn't know what to do. This was not happening, he thought. This could not be true.

"I guess I went into a state of shock," he says. "I was just crushed. Completely devastated. Almost despondent. Not that I went to Cleveland, but that I went anywhere . It really hurt me. It took me a looooong time before I could get over it. I don't mean hours, days, weeks and months. And to be perfectly honest with you, I don't think I ever have, or ever will get over it.

"I didn't think I was over and above ever being traded, I just thought that I never would."

Milwaukee, too, shed a tear when it heard the news.

Local radio stations reported the trade shortly after noon. By closing time, the Brewer switchboard had received 1,620 calls. About 80% of the callers, operators said, were against the deal.

Thomas had been traded, all right, along with Jamie Easterly and Ernie Camacho, for Cleveland outfielder Rick Manning and pitcher Rick Waits. At the time, Thomas had a dismal .183 batting average, 5 home runs and 18 RBIs. As a full-time player, Thomas had never finished a major league season with an average higher than .259. What was bothering the Brewer management was Thomas' age (he's 35 now) and prolonged power-hitting slump.

"We simply felt that Gorman wasn't in our long-range plans," Dalton says.

Anyway, Manning was younger, healthier, considered a better defensive player and had a .263 lifetime batting average.

Last year, Manning hit .218 and had 47 hits. Meanwhile, Thomas, who was acquired by the Mariners from the Indians in 1982, had 32 home runs and won Comeback Player of the Year after a remarkable recovery from the torn rotator cuff. His home run total was the second most by a designated hitter since the DH was adopted in 1973. In July alone, Thomas had 11 home runs.

So these should be happy times for Thomas. He earns $650,000 plus incentives on a team that prides itself on hard bargains. His right shoulder is healthy and strong. He is the starting DH on a club expected to contend in the American League West Division. Soon his family will join him, which means he no longer will have to call the Seattle Westin Hotel home.

Thomas isn't complaining. He says he likes Seattle. He liked Cleveland, too. The problem is that Seattle is a about 1,940 miles away from Milwaukee, which is about 25 miles from his five-bedroom, five-bath house in the woods of Waukesha, Wis.

That's where Thomas would prefer to be, back home and playing for the Brewers, the team that signed his paychecks for 10 seasons. "I'll always think of myself as a Milwaukee Brewer," he says.

The last time he said something like this, Seattle fans reacted appropriately. "I got booed like you never heard," he says.

Thomas says his remarks were misunderstood, if not mistaken. Seattle has been good to him. The Mariners provided Thomas with a third chance when it became apparent his rotator cuff injury could and would most likely end his career. They paid him a good wage, the highest on the team, and then watched happily as Thomas returned the investment last season.

The problem is, it doesn't seem to be good enough. This spring, Thomas became the focal point of Mariner roster stories. Should he stay or should he go?

The arguments were such:

For--Entering the 1986 season, he had 252 major league homers, playoff and World Series experience, 45 game-winning RBIs, 726 RBIs (87 last year) and a fierce competitive spirit.

Against--To begin with, the Mariners wanted to use him only as a DH or pinch-hitter. He hit just .215 last year and .168 with runners in scoring position. Entering this season, he had 1,234 strikeouts, including 126 last year in 484 at-bats. That's about one out of four times. His salary is a consideration, as is his free-agent status after this season.

"This past winter I keep reading where I might be traded, released whatever," he says. "I go to spring training and the air around camp was somewhat strained, I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know what my future was going to be. I didn't know where or if I was going to be playing. If I was, where? If I wasn't, why?"

It probably didn't help that when Thomas attended last Monday's Mariner 10th Anniversary party, he was curiously omitted from the team's 1985 season highlight video.

Midway through the screening, Thomas turned to reliever Pete Ladd, also a former teammate in Milwaukee, and said, "Big Foot, something tells me by looking at this that I wasn't supposed to be here."

Ladd said: "That would be a fair assumption."

The Mariners say it was an honest mistake. Production constraints forced hasty editing decisions. Thomas and one of his 32 home run swings, unfortunately and quite by accident, they say, never were included.

Dick Balderson, general manager of the Mariners, says that, yes, he considered trading or releasing Thomas. The Mariners were interested in adding to their pitching staff and Thomas might make useful trade bait. A trade also would mean the Mariners would receive something before Thomas became a free agent.

And though discussions never reached a stage where player names were mentioned, Balderson says he and, you guessed it, Harry Dalton, have talked several times about a trade involving Thomas and the Brewers.

The possible deal fell through and Thomas remained a Mariner.

"There was really very little interest from other organizations in the league," Balderson says.

According to Balderson, Thomas' worth is limited to the American League, where the designated hitter is used. Then there are questions about his age, health, salary and ability to produce runs.

The spring experience made Thomas "uncomfortable." One of the American League's finest practical jokers, Thomas didn't even purchase a Whoopee Cushion during training camp. He didn't organize his annual basketball and horse pools. Sullen isn't the right word to describe Thomas this spring, but it's close.

"I felt somewhat alienated," he says.

Thomas wanted to play first base. Or at least try. The Mariners told him it wasn't worth risking another shoulder injury. Balderson, in a conversation with Thomas' agent, suggested that Thomas "burn his glove." The Mariners appreciated Thomas' intentions, but it wasn't necessary.

You still can find Thomas on the field during Mariner batting practice. He stands behind a fence that guards the first-base area, takes throws from infielders and then gently tosses the balls back to coaches with fungo bats.

At least this way, his cleats get dirty.

"I loved watching him play," says Pete Vuckovich, a former Brewer teammate. "It tears him apart inside, I imagine, him not being able to play. But I don't think he should risk throwing a baseball. That's what I tell him."

Says Thomas: "I've proven to myself that given time, I'll be able to throw again."

Thomas has been booed in Seattle, and not just because of his comments concerning Milwaukee. Fans dislike his strikeouts and wonder why a designated hitter can't manage better than a .215 batting average.

What fun to be seated next to Thomas in the dugout when he returns from a strikeout. Thomas has nowhere to go, really, no outlet to vent his frustration. Center field is out of the question. First base has been placed off limits.

"Our fans have only seen him as a hitter," Balderson says.

Their loss, for there was a time when Thomas provided almost nightly entertainment in the field.

He was originally drafted as a shortstop by the Seattle Pilots in 1969. Then-Pilot scout Bobby Mattick watched Thomas in an American Legion game and offered $5,000 for his signature on a contract. Thomas refused and went 0-for-3 with 3 strikeouts. Mattick returned the next evening and offered $10,000. Again Thomas refused and again he had another awful night, striking out three more times.

On the third night, Thomas asked Mattick to please leave him alone. He was pitching and wanted no distractions.

"I struck out 19 that night, hit two doubles, I think two home runs," Thomas says. "They asked me how much I wanted, so I told them and that's how I signed."

Off he went to Billings, Mont., where he lived at the General Custer Hotel and ate nightly at the local Sambo's. On the road, players slept seven to the room. On bus rides, you could look up and see players sleeping in the overhead luggage racks. Yeah, this was the big time.

Clinton, Iowa, was next. One bright coach noticed that Thomas had gained weight and size, so they put him at third base.

"Bobby Mattick . . . hit me a ground ball," Thomas says. "It hit me in the nose and busted my nose. So they said, 'Get out in the outfield, we're going to make you an outfielder."

Every day, Thomas would catch fly balls. Five hundred in the morning. Five hundred at night. Surely this was having some effect.

On his first official spring training fielding try, Thomas had the misfortune of trying to retrieve a fly ball hit by Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants. As the ball flew upward, Thomas positioned himself for the easy catch.

"I'm camped under it saying, 'I've got it. I've got it.'

"It landed 65 feet behind me. That began my career as an outfielder."

In 1970, he played in Danville, Iowa, hit 31 homers and only occasionally made a fool of himself in right field. San Antonio followed, as did 26 home runs.

"At that time, I actually could see the light at the end of the tunnel," he says. "I wasn't a star, but I felt more comfortable."

Milwaukee asked him to stay in 1973. "My first fly ball hit to me in the big leagues, I dropped," he says. "I got a standing ovation in Baltimore. (Boog) Powell hit it. Two innings later, Powell hit me another ball, almost identical, and I caught it after bobbling the thing. They gave me another standing ovation in Baltimore.

"Then I got my first at-bat and got a triple--Dave McNally, a curveball," he says.

Thomas was gone 59 games later, to Evansville, Ill., and then to Sacramento in 1974. Before he was sent to Sacramento, then-Brewer Manager Del Crandall wished Thomas good luck.

"Look, you better keep your luck, because the people you kept aren't going to do what you expect them to do and I can play just as well," Thomas said.

Sure enough, after hitting 51 homers in the friendly confines of Sacramento, Thomas was back with the Brewers.

In 1975, he stayed all season, but not before hyperextending his shoulder and finishing the year with a .179 batting average and 84 strikeouts in 240 at-bats. The next season Thomas says he played infrequently, "except when we were playing Nolan Ryan or Mickey Lolich or some Hall of Famer in his prime. Someone would have a headache that day or someone would stub their toe the night before. Then they'd say, 'Here Gorman, go get 'em.' "

Things finally went well in 1977, when Thomas hit .322, 36 homers and 114 RBIs in Spokane. John Felske, now the manager for the Philadelphia Phillies, managed the Spokane team. He simply asked Thomas to show up in time for the game.

"Go fishing if you want," Felske would say.

"So I'd show up at 7:15, get dressed for the game and I had the greatest year of my career," Thomas says.

Thomas was traded to Texas during the off-season. He was married and wondering what to do. So he got a real estate license and a real job. His first-day conversation with his boss:

Boss: "Do you gamble?"

Thomas: "Yes, sir."

Boss: "Do you play golf?"

Thomas: "Yes, sir."

Boss: "Do you gamble and play golf?"

Thomas: "Yes, sir."

Boss: "Well, let's go. You now work for me on the golf course."

That lasted the entire winter of 1977. Then one day Thomas came home and found a cake on the dinner table. Balloons were tacked to the wall.

A dozen thoughts rushed through his mind. Forgotten anniversary? Birthday? What could it be?

"Make a wish," said Thomas' wife, Debbie.

"Well, I wish I was back in Milwaukee," Thomas said.

"Congratulations, welcome back, you've been traded back to Milwaukee," she said.

Manager George Bamberger, who had been hired for the 1978 season, had noticed Thomas a year earlier. Bamberger wanted Thomas for his defense.

"I went to spring training and I had long hair, big mustache," Thomas says. "The first day I walk in there with my bags, this little guy walks up to me and says, 'Who the hell are you?' I said, 'Look, pal, you tell me who the hell you are.'

"He said, 'I'm George Bamberger, the manager.'

"I said, 'Hi, Mr. Bamberger, I'm Gorman Thomas.'

"He said, 'Oh, you're my center fielder.'

"I said, "Pardon me?'

"He said, "You're my center fielder. The job's yours. Don't lose it, kid.' "

On Opening Day of 1978, Thomas struck out four times. The next day he hit a grand slam to beat the Orioles. He finished the year with 32.

Four seasons later, "in the year I'll never forget," Thomas says, the Brewers advanced to the World Series. They had beaten the Angels for the pennant, but then lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series.

"Robin Yount and I were on a 747 and the damn plane was almost full," he says. "We were in the dead middle of it and as far back as we could possibly sit. We were just drinking a beer. Take a sip and cry . . . take a sip and cry . . . take a sip and cry.

"Up until the other things happened, that was most depressing moment I've felt."

By then, Thomas had established himself as a local hero. He did endorsements in the Milwaukee area and had his own fan club in the outfield bleachers. He was like them; loyal, of questionable pedigree, a bit unpolished.

Thomas stuck frogs in teammates' athletic supporters. He nailed their shoes to the clubhouse floor. Once, he tied a flagpole rope to the bullpen restroom door. Inside was a relief pitcher trying to free himself and enter the game. Another time, second baseman Jim Gantner and Yount wore the same numbers during a game. Guess who?

Players retaliated, but Thomas didn't mind. It was part of the game.

And about those strikeouts.

At bat once, New York Yankee pitcher Dave LaRoche struck out Thomas with a blooper pitch. Thomas was so angry Thomas that he tossed his batting helmet in the air and hit it with his bat. The next time he faced LaRoche, Thomas singled. When he got to first base, Thomas placed his hands at his ears and stuck his tongue out at LaRoche.

In Boston in 1975, he says he received a standing ovation for tying the consecutive strikeout record (8), another one for hitting into a double play after Bamberger pleaded with him to bunt rather risk a record-breaking strikeout. His reply to Bamberger after the double play?

"What the hell, George."

And the next day, a dog got loose in the field and relieved himself on Thomas. Another standing O.

Even after the 1983 trade to Cleveland, Thomas remained a popular attraction. The night he returned to County Stadium in an Indian uniform, he instinctively walked toward the Milwaukee clubhouse before realizing his mistake. When he took the field, Brewer fans greeted him with a standing ovation. And again when he batted. Even Dalton says he never has seen anything quite like that night.

"Gorman was a big part of what we put together," Dalton says. "They still cheer for him when he comes to town."

Does he ever second-guess the trade?

"No, not at all," Dalton says.

His first time up against the Brewers, Thomas went 0-2 against Don Sutton. "I just didn't want to strike out," Thomas says. "Hit me, I don't care."

Thomas got on base. On the first pitch to the next batter, he stole second base. The crowd went wild.

"In my mind, (Milwaukee) is the greatest place to play baseball," he says. "I've been all around the world . . . Puerto Rico . . . the Dominican Republic, but there will never, ever be another place like that. And I'm not saying anything bad about Seattle or Cleveland.

"Maybe Milwaukee isn't the cultural center of the world, but they've got everything you want," he says.

Says Vuckovich: "That's Gorman. He loved Milwaukee. And Milwaukee loved him back."

On occasion, Thomas will walk from his hotel to the Kingdome. It's about a 20-minute hike through downtown Seattle, past skyscrapers and concrete, past quaint shops and rundown buildings. He's not fond of big cities. Included in his contract is a clause that says he can't be traded to teams in New York, Montreal, Texas (too hot) and Los Angeles.

Asked to fill in the back of his own baseball card, Thomas says he would do better with a tombstone.

"That way I could put an epitaph on it, something like, 'Here's a guy who had limited ability, who gave it his all each and every day. He might not have done it everyday, but he tried like hell.' "

Accurate enough. Order the chisel and stone. And make it bigger than Dallas.

'I guess I went into a state of shock. I was just crushed. Completely devastated. Almost despondent. Not that I went to Cleveland, but that I went anywhere . It really hurt me. It took me a looooong time before I could get over it. I don't mean hours, days, weeks and months. And to be perfectly honest with you, I don't think I ever have, or ever will get over it. . . .I didn't think I was over and above ever being traded, I just thought that I never would.'--GORMAN THOMAS

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