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20 Frank Thomas

AS ONE might expect of a man with two first names, Frank Thomas
has only just begun. To be sure, the 26-year-old already has a
black-hatful of accomplishments. He has won two consecutive American
League Most Valuable Player trophies. Last year alone he was
responsible for more show-stopping numbers than Bob Fosse: a .353
batting average, 38 home runs and 101 RBIs in a strike-shortened
season. Is it any wonder that the Chicago White Sox are paying him
$45.5 million to play first base through the end of this millennium?
When your name is Frank Thomas, there is no end in sight.
But forget his future for a moment. How good is Frank Thomas
today? ''Thirty years from now, if you take a poll, they'll say,
'Frank Thomas is the best hitter who ever lived,' '' says White Sox
broadcaster Ken Harrelson. Thomas's former teammate Julio Franco
says, ''Playing with Frank is like being a part of history.'' Last
season, Thomas became but the third major leaguer ever to < hit .300
or better with at least 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100
runs scored in four straight seasons. (And Thomas has played only
four full seasons.) His dinner companions at this exclusive table:
Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams.
In fact, Thomas has frequently been compared to Williams. But
though both men are known for their Ginsu-sharp hitting eyes, Thomas
is no Splinter. He stands 6 ft. 5 in. and weighs 257 pounds, and he
generates preposterous bat speed with a mere 32-ounce model, the
exact same size as a Big Gulp. Which brings us to his nickname: the
Big Hurt.
As most Frankophiles know, it was Harrelson who gave Thomas that
tag after the Columbus, Ga., native made it to the big leagues in
1990. But the sobriquet could have resonated through Thomas's earlier
baseball life as well.
A standout football player in his youth -- as an end and
placekicker at Columbus High, he made good on 15 of 15 point-after
attempts -- Thomas was hardly recruited for baseball, his true sports
love. With that snub, the Big Hurt hurt big. ''I was only set on
playing football because I didn't get drafted to play baseball,''
Thomas said.
So Thomas signed to play tight end at Auburn, where his teammates
included Lawyer Tillman, Brent Fullwood and Aundray Bruce, all bound
for the NFL. Like Bo Jackson, who preceded him on the football and
baseball teams at Auburn, Thomas was excused from spring football
practice to go out for the baseball team. That's when his true
calling quickly became clear.
''Frank was really a baseball player who played football,'' Auburn
baseball coach Hal Baird recalls. ''He was a baseball fan. He
followed the game and knew all the league leaders. When Bo was here,
I don't think he knew who George Brett was.''
On the first day of full-contact football drills in 1987, before
his sophomore season, Thomas strained ligaments in his right knee
when a running back crashed into him from behind. Through that happy
accident, Thomas took up baseball exclusively the next spring, just
in time to be cut from the Olympic baseball team. Here was another
big hurt.
''It was a constant battle to prove myself in baseball,'' Thomas
says. ''My junior year ((1989)), I had to prove to the Olympic team
that I could play. That was my best year. I hit .403, and my stock
really rose.''
Finally validated as a baseball player, Thomas was the seventh
pick in the draft that June, and the next summer the Sox promoted
him to the big leagues. His stock -- and the White Stockings' --
has continued to rise ever since. His goal is now to bring a World
Series championship to Comiskey Park.
''I've been in pennant races all my life,'' says Thomas. ''I was
on two state-championship baseball teams in high school and a
football team that was SEC champion. I'm used to winning. I love to