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Maturity Helps Thomas Balance His Goals, Obligations : Baseball: Despite having an outstanding season on offense, the Chicago star will walk with his teammates if no contract settlement is reached.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Big Hurt has spoken. The question is whether you want to continue pointing out the potential damage of a protracted strike to Frank Thomas’ incredible season.

You would think the only strike Thomas wants to see is a belt-high fastball.

You also would think Thomas would want to keep hearing the roar of the fans, including a youngster who called out to him before Saturday’s game, “Mr. Hurt, Mr. Hurt.”

But Thomas isn’t about to go on the record as saying he would rather break ranks and keep playing.

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“Some things are more important,” said Thomas, who hit his American League-leading 38th home run Saturday against the Angels. “I’ve had a good season so far. I might do it again next season. That’s the challenge.”

Solidarity. Power to the players.

Thomas holds firm to the union line, no matter the consequences. And rest assured they are considerable. Just look at his statistics.

Thomas, who plays first for the Chicago White Sox, began Saturday’s game, tied or leading the league in batting average, home runs, runs, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He was fourth in runs batted in.

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A strike of any significant length will stamp an asterisk on Thomas’ stats in his run for the Triple Crown. The possibility of a strike hangs like a dark cloud, growing uglier as Friday’s strike date approaches.

“It’s really too bad,” Chicago Manager Gene Lamont said. “It would be one thing if they were cheap numbers. But he’s got decent numbers (even if the season ends Friday). The games are important, but individual accomplishments are important, too. The fans are always interested in that.”

Thomas knows the Triple Crown, Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs, the playoffs and World Series could be in jeopardy. It’s not a pleasant thought, but neither is the prospect of a salary cap.

“I achieved the MVP last year, and that was a big personal goal,” said Thomas, batting .359 with 37 homers, 97 RBIs, 104 runs scored and 106 walks before Saturday. “So what if I’m having a career year. No one or two players are bigger than this game. The union is strong and we (the players) have to stay together.”

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Yes, but the Triple Crown, Frank?

“Stats are very important,” he said. “The Triple Crown is something very unusual. But you don’t want to think about that too much. It affects your play.”

Even after only 108 games, Thomas’ stats aren’t all that far off those of Carl Yastrzemski, the last player to win the Triple Crown when he batted .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBIs in 1967.

Perhaps that’s what pains Lamont most when he thinks about the possibility of a strike. Statistics this season are so amazing, who knows if Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Tony Gwynn and Matt Williams will ever accomplish what they have so far again in the same year.

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“I don’t know why the numbers are so big, but you’re talking about 150 RBIs to win the thing this year,” Lamont said. “The home runs have kind of slowed down. They were talking about 60 home runs, but I don’t know now. It’s too bad. What if the numbers went down next year and nobody challenged (those records) again. Will that happen? I don’t know. I don’t know why the numbers jumped up so much this year.”

In Thomas’ case, it might have something to do with patience and maturity. He said those factors have allowed him to become a more selective hitter.

It also doesn’t hurt the Big Hurt that Julio Franco, hitting .316 with 14 homers and 92 RBIs, bats behind him. There’s no sense pitching around Thomas to get to Franco, although New York Yankee Manager Buck Showalter has said he might consider walking Thomas with the bases loaded.

“Walks set up hits,” Thomas explained. “Average is important to me. It’s something I’d like to lead the league in. It’s something I shouldn’t be leading the league in. Guys my size (6 feet 5, 257 pounds) should be hitting more home runs than anybody else.

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“Every at-bat is important now. We’re all hoping the strike gets settled. You don’t want it to take away from a great season.”

Indeed.


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