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With Thomas at Bat, You Can Believe Hype

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Thomas has affixed three strips of white tape to the inside of his locker in the Chicago White Sox clubhouse at Comiskey Park.

On each, he has written words to live and play by.

--"Relax, Have Some Fun, Relax.”

--"Stay Within Yourself.”

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--"D.B.T.H.”

“Don’t believe the hype,” translated Thomas, who, at 23 and in his first full major league season as the first baseman and designated hitter of the White Sox, has emerged as a most-valuable-player candidate and the most disciplined young power hitter since. . . .

“I don’t like comparisons because they’re not fair to the people you’re comparing,” said Walt Hriniak, Chicago batting instructor.

“All I’ll say is that Thomas shows the same selectivity as Ted Williams, and Williams may have been the greatest hitter ever.”

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At 6 feet 5 and 240 pounds, a former tight end at Auburn, Thomas is imposing in size and eye.

Last year, in 109 games at double-A Birmingham and 60 more with the White Sox, he drew 156 walks, the most in baseball.

He leads the majors with 105. He also leads in on-base percentage at .453 and is ranked among the leaders in slugging percentage at .573, a rare combination.

But there is another rare combination. Thomas is among American League leaders in batting at .323; home runs, with 26; runs batted in, with 96; and runs scored, with 85.

Who needs hype when the figures don’t lie?

“I was with the (Boston) Red Sox when Jim Rice and Fred Lynn broke in, but neither had the patience that Frank does,” said Carlton Fisk, Chicago’s very veteran catcher.

“He can hit for average, he can hit for power and he can take a walk. You don’t find those elements in too many hitters, no matter how long you play.

“The other day he hit a home run of about 430 feet against Baltimore, but instead of coming back to the bench all smiles and saying, ‘I really hit that ball,’ he said he had swung at Ball 4 and actually seemed angry about it.”

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At his current pace, Thomas could join Babe Ruth, Williams and Mickey Mantle as the only players to draw 140 or more walks and hit 30 or more homers while batting .300.

As opposed to Cecil Fielder, the Detroit Tiger slugger who is hitting about 50 points lower and has been described as a base clogger, Thomas has run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, narrowly lost to Tim Raines in a sprint in spring training and said of his maneuverability, “find me a man my weight and I can beat him.”

Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson believes it, or at least believes in Thomas and his teammate at third base, Robin Ventura.

“The White Sox are set at the corners,” Anderson said. “Those kids are both capable of 30 homers and 120 RBIs. They’re the best young infield combination I’ve seen in 20 years.

“If they stay around long enough, they’ll make enough money to buy the Taj Mahal.”

The first goal is to help propel the White Sox to a division title. Thomas is a big man, literally and figuratively, on a team that scratches and claws for runs, but he seems as composed in the face of the pressure as he is selective in determining the pitches at which he swings.

Intense in the batter’s box, he seems unfazed and unassuming out of it. His low-key demeanor is reflected by his unhappiness with a new poster depicting him as “the Hammer,” a nickname belonging to Henry Aaron.

“The only nickname I have is ‘Big Frank,’ ” he said, gently. “It’s the only one I want.”

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Said Jeff Torborg, the White Sox manager: “I don’t think there’s any more pressure on him now than when he came up with all the expectations. The first thought with a young player is that once around the league, the pitchers will figure him out, but it’s a year later and he’s still putting the same numbers up.”

Counting his 60 games with the White Sox last season, Thomas completed the equivalent of a 162-game season on Aug. 2. He batted .318 with 27 homers, 106 RBIs and 133 walks in that span. If he has flaws, the pitchers haven’t found them. In his last 27 games before Wednesday night, he batted .402.

“I’m not overwhelmed,” he said of what he has encountered at the major league level. “I played football in a college program that turned boys into men. I was part of two (Southeastern Conference) championship baseball teams. I know what it takes in the way of hard work and concentration. I’m not caught up in the media attention. None of this really fazes me.”

The .330 average Thomas produced after his recall last year was the highest by a White Sox player with at least 200 plate appearances since Taffy Wright hit .333 in 1942.

The 60 games were not enough to net Thomas a rookie-of-the-year award but were too many to qualify him as a rookie again in 1991.

“I thought I deserved to open the 1990 season here and was bitter when I didn’t, but I didn’t go to Birmingham and sulk,” he said.

“There were people who told me I couldn’t expect to do the same things in the majors that I did there (he batted .323 and drove in 71 runs in 109 games), but I knew I could and I’ve proved I could.”

Thomas credits confidence, concentration and that selective approach. Bobby Howard, his baseball coach at Columbus (Ga.) High, saw it all even then.

“Frank would never swing at a garbage pitch, even when he was behind 0 and 2,” Howard said. “He was a disciplined hitter from the start, never a Jack Clark-type home run-or-nothing hitter.

“He was also a real leader, not a know-it-all superstar. I recall that it was Frank who usually chalked the lines on the football and baseball fields.”

Thomas was the youngest of four children. His father worked for the city, he said, and his mother worked in a textile factory.

Poor but not deprived, Thomas said he recognized that athletics offered him the broadest avenue to success, and that he benefited from the strict supervision of his parents and the competitive lessons he learned playing with an older brother and his friends.

Thomas went to Auburn on a football scholarship after having been passed over in the 1986 baseball draft.

“Maybe it was because I signed early to play football, but I’ve asked why a thousand times and still don’t have an answer,” he said, refering to the scouts who watched him in high school. “I told them, ‘OK, you didn’t get me now, but you’ll get me later, when I’ll be a lot more expensive.’ ”

Said Hal Baird, baseball coach at Auburn: “Frank was a baseball player who played football. He would have signed if he had been drafted that year. I think it was evidence of very poor scouting.

“I mean, the fact he was coming to Auburn on a football scholarship just gave (the scouts) an easy excuse for citing his alleged weaknesses.”

As a freshman tight end, Thomas was a teammate of a senior named Bo Jackson, who will report to Sarasota, Fla., Saturday on rehabilitation assignment for the White Sox. Thomas was also a baseball teammate of Gregg Olson, now the Baltimore Orioles’ relief ace.

“Frank was the most polished and refined young hitter I’ve ever had,” Baird said. “His selectivity was unbelievable. The only time I saw him lose his patience was as a sophomore, when he had to expand the strike zone or he wouldn’t have gotten to swing the bat at all.”

Thomas set an Auburn record by drawing 79 walks that year as opposing pitchers worked around him after he had set a school record with 21 homers as a freshman. He finished with a school-record 79 homers for his three-year career.

He was selected to the Pan American team after his freshman year but decided to attend fall football practice rather than the Pan Am Games.

It proved to be a pivotal decision, because Thomas first injured a knee in practice, then needed surgery for a bone spur in his foot, losing six weeks. During that span, he decided to give up football and the tempting possibility of following Jackson into two pro sports.

“I think I could have made it in football, but I had the chance to excel in baseball,” Thomas said. “I may have created some unhappiness at Auburn, but I think they understood that I was making a career move and not a selfish one.”

Thomas was the seventh player selected in the first round of the 1989 June baseball draft, one of four first-round selections currently with the White Sox.

The three others are Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez and Ventura, a tribute in large measure to former general manager Larry Himes, who rebuilt the current contender before he was fired by owner Jerry Reinsdorf, ostensibly in a dispute over the authority and methods of batting coach Hriniak.

Hriniak, a disciple of Charlie Lau, says that by taking the top hand off the bat while making a full extension after contact, the hitter is forced to keep his head on the ball.

Some say that style deprives a hitter of power, and they fear that Hriniak is likely to do too much tinkering with a run producer of Thomas’ size and strength.

Thomas, however, says he has blended his and Hriniak’s styles, and he credits Hriniak’s work ethic for helping him maintain his approach and concentration.

“He won’t let you free-lance,” Thomas said of Hriniak. “He won’t let you slip.”

Said Hriniak: “Frank already adhered to a lot of the things we believe in. He uses the whole field. He takes his top hand off the bat. We’ve worked with him on shortening his swing and keeping his head on the ball.

“It’s only a matter of refinements. The strength and swing are there, and he’s not afraid to be great, to put in the work. He has a chance to do exceptional things.”

Much of it revolves around Thomas’ patience and selectivity, the hardest things to teach, Hriniak said.

“Frank is like Wade Boggs,” Hriniak added. “He wants to see as many pitches as he can. It’s fantastic. He’s like Williams. He knows his zones, what he can handle, and has the confidence to do it deep in the count.

“That’s his style, but you wouldn’t want to see everyone that way. There are bad-ball hitters who would lose their aggressiveness being that selective.”

Thomas is on a pace to hit more than 30 homers and drive in more than 120 runs. What is he sacrificing by being selective? The object is to reach base and score. A walk is part of the process and certainly better than a strikeout or double-play grounder.

“My focus is on average and RBIs,” he said. “I’d be happy with 20 homers and 100 RBIs. I’d be happy with a game-winning bloop over shortstop.”

The Thomas approach has been endorsed by Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis and others. Thomas has spent part of the last two Januarys in Los Angeles at the invitation of Rodney McCray, a former (West Los Angeles) University High player who is a member of the White Sox farm system and became a close friend while he and Thomas were minor league teammates.

The group works out daily in January--Strawberry, Davis, McCray, Thomas and Shane Mack, among them. They compare thoughts and styles, often talking baseball five hours a day, Thomas said.

“It’s a time to relax and feed off each other, but we’re not wasting time,” he said. “We’re working hard.

“The one thing both Darryl and Eric have told me is that pitchers are going to work around me a lot, but if I stay as patient as I have been, I can be even more productive than they’ve been.”

Said Davis: “The guy is awesome. I mean, you don’t find hitters of his size with that bat speed, agility and coordination. The only thing that can prevent him from being successful is losing patience and changing his approach. The only thing he has to worry about is himself.”

No problem, said McCray, who described Thomas as too disciplined and levelheaded to lose his focus, on or off the field. Those trips to Los Angeles, McCray said, have given his pal a head start on knowing what to expect from the pressure, the game, the organization.

Take the MVP. Only two years out of college, Thomas ranks with Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays, Dave Henderson of the Oakland Athletics and Fielder as the leading candidates in the American League. D.B.T.H?

A shoulder strain that has forced Thomas into the designated hitter role for most of the summer could hurt his chances, but it’s not something he’s caught up in anyway.

“I’m excited about what I’m doing, but the MVP is won a day at a time and that’s how I’m approaching it,” he said. “I mean, everyone loves to be successful and to read about themselves, but I’m just trying to stay consistent.”

For Frank Thomas, the tale is in those tape strips. Relax, stay consistent, don’t believe the hype.

If you can’t run, walk.


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