'Big Hurt' honored for doing it his way

CHICAGO -- Frank Thomas did it his way, using a swing that wasn't necessarily the prettiest, but was more than good enough to bestow upon him the beautiful honor of becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer on Wednesday.

The Chicago White Sox first baseman/DH was the epitome of a front-foot hitter, able to compensate for a sometimes early weight transfer by lifting his back leg off the ground during his swing.

He's far from the only front-foot hitter to achieve supreme success, but his extreme nature was his signature, literally standing on one leg to defy off-speed pitches.

Yet it worked for Thomas, first because of his athletic ability and second because of his brute strength that allowed him to muscle balls deep into the outfield.

Still, there seems to be another key to Thomas' first-ballot recognition. While playing at the height of the steroid era, Thomas largely avoided speculation, although there were some who had their doubts.

Key for Thomas in convincing everybody that he did it the right way was his sheer size when he burst upon the scene in 1990. The former Auburn tight end was a big guy when he arrived to the major leagues, and while he continued to grow into his body, at no point did Thomas ever come out of an offseason with drastic physique changes.

The symbol of his raw natural strength came in the piece of heavy construction rebar he used to swing in the on-deck circle from time to time.

“I was always the biggest and strongest guy out there when I first came into the league so I never thought about any of that nonsense,” Thomas said about PEDs. “I never felt any pressure. I could put up numbers from Day 1 as I did throughout my whole career.”

Much like Jim Thome, Thomas was known for that natural strength, combining it with some of the best hand-eye coordination tools in the business.

For all of his qualities on offense, Thomas also knew the strike zone with the best of them. He led the American League in walks in three of his first four seasons, helping him to also lead the league in OPS during those same years.

“I’m a hitter; I like to hit,” Thomas said. “I’ll beat you with a single, I’ll beat you with a double. I’ll beat you with a walk. That was my goal. The more I felt I got on base, the more this chance had a chance of scoring runs and winning ball games. Walks to me felt like we were going to score runs. That’s where I prided myself, just getting on base or getting the big hit.”

In 1993 and 1994, his prowess was good enough to earn him MVP Awards. During his first seven full seasons, Thomas finished no lower than eighth in the MVP voting in all of them.

Then came his second-place MVP finish in 2000, with winner Jason Giambi essentially admitting later that his performance that season may have been enhanced.

Thomas even won a World Series ring with the White Sox in 2005, although he played just 34 games that season because of a fracture in his left foot.

While MVP awards and World Series titles can help solidify a Hall of Fame cause, Thomas seems to have firmly made his case with a few more years of high-level production after he left the White Sox.

His ability to deliver both on-base and slugging percentage made him an ideal fit for the 2006 Oakland Athletics, and he found his new club's approach to his liking. After hitting 30 home runs in the previous two seasons combined, Thomas went on to hit 39 with the A's in 2006 with 114 RBIs. His .926 OPS was better than all but one of his previous five seasons.

His fourth-place finish in that year's MVP voting was also his first top-10 finish since 2000. And it came for a mere $500,000 salary, the lowest he was paid since his first full season when he made $120,000.

With that productive year, though, Thomas ended up pricing himself out of Oakland and took a $5 million pay raise to join the Toronto Blue Jays, where he once again produced with 26 home runs, 95 RBIs and an .857 OPS.

During that 2007 season in Toronto, Thomas crossed the magical 500-homer mark, finishing his career with 521. That home run total put him in good company, tying him with both Willie McCovey and Ted Williams for 18th place all-time.

Thomas' final season in 2008 consisted of just 71 games with the Blue Jays and A's, but he was able to push past the 1,700-RBI mark, finishing with 1,704, the 22nd-highest total in major league history.

Thomas also finished his career with a .301 batting average, and while his OPS slipped a bit after leaving the White Sox, he still finished with an impressive .974 mark, 14th best in baseball history. That OPS is just a tick behind Stan Musial's .976 mark.

Thomas was, in fact, so productive that he might have helped to inspire the steroid era, with players looking for an extra boost to match the high bar being set by the slugger on the South Side.

Through it all, Thomas managed to show that he was on the up and up. He did it his way, and Wednesday he was honored for it.

“Just to get to the Hall of Fame means a lot; to see going in the first time, it's overwhelming, it really is,” Thomas said. “ You play baseball for so many years, you tend to forget what you did early in your career. But I started to reminisce a little bit this week and started thinking about how long I played here and what the city was like in my heyday.

“You kind of forget about those things. As a player you start thinking about your last four or five years and not really what you did earlier in our career when you were a young buck. So I had an impact and I'm proud of that impact and today as a first ballot Hall of Famer, what a day.”