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A series of early career setbacks fueled Thomas' drive to excel. Incredibly, he went unpicked through the over 60 rounds of the 1986 amateur draft despite posting big numbers for his high school team in Columbus, Georgia. "I'd have signed for $5,000, that's how bad I wanted to play," Thomas later said of his frustration at not being taken. Helping soothe his disappointment was a two-sport scholarship to Auburn. Thomas gave up the pigskin to concentrate on baseball after his freshman year and won the Southeastern Conference MVP in 1989. His 49 career homers set a new school record.
Even though Thomas felt snubbed again when he was left off the 1988 US Olympic team, the White Sox showed him due respect the following year by selecting him with the seventh overall pick of the 1989 free agent draft. He shot through Chicago's minor-league system, and after an August 1990 recall from Double-A Birmingham (where he had batted .323 with 71 RBIs in 109 games to win Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award) he never spent another day in the bushes.
Without so much as a single Triple-A at-bat to his resume, Thomas collected hits in 45 of the 60 games he played for the White Sox that year, finishing his first tour of duty in the major leagues with a .330 batting average, seven home runs and 31 RBIs. He also displayed amazing plate discipline for a young hitter, as his combined total of 156 walks between Birmingham and Chicago led all of baseball.
The Big Hurt didn't miss a beat the next year as the 6' 5", 270-pound gentle giant became a fixture in the lineup at first base and designated hitter. He inaugurated a record-setting string of seven straight seasons with a .300 batting average, 20 homers and 100 runs, walks and RBIs -- numbers no player had previously reached in more than four straight years (although Ted Williams had a run of six years interrupted by World War II). In his first full season with the White Sox, Thomas batted .318 with 32 home runs and 109 RBIs, finishing third in the MVP voting even though he was left off the AL All-Star team.
He wasn't picked for the All-Star team in 1992 despite another strong season (.323, 24 homers, 118 RBIs), but there was no keeping him out the following year. In addition to claiming his first All-Star spot in 1993, Thomas led the White Sox to their first division title in ten years. After the season, he was honored as the 10th unanimous MVP in baseball history on the strength of a .317 batting average, 41 home runs (a new White Sox record), 128 RBIs and 333 total bases. Perhaps most impressive, he drew 112 walks while fanning just 54 times. In the playoffs, Chicago fell in six games to the eventual World Champion Blue Jays. Toronto pitched around Thomas, walking him 10 times in the six games, though he still batted .353 with a solo homer that tied the score in the sixth inning of Game Four.
As impressive as his 1993 stats were, Thomas was headed towards even more epic numbers when the players strike ended his season in mid-August the following year. Through 113 games and 399 at-bats, he had posted a .353 batting average with 38 round-trippers and 101 RBIs. He led the league with 106 runs scored, 109 walks, a .729 slugging percentage (the highest mark in the AL since Williams' .731 clip in 1957) and a .487 on-base percentage. His season included a scalding May during which he hit .452 with 12 home runs. The ChiSox were leading the division again when the strike hit, and Thomas won his second straight AL MVP.
Over the previous two seasons, the White Sox had gone 54-20 in games in which Thomas had homered and 100-37 in games when he drove in a run. As his consecutive MVP awards and dazzling batting accomplishments inspired lofty comparison to the game's immortals, Thomas mused about his desire for baseball's highest honor. "I've never understood why people say they don't think of the Hall of Fame," he said. "I want it. I'm not embarrassed to say that. I want to be the best."
Thomas continued to inflict heavy damage on American League pitching staffs over the next three seasons as the White Sox were reduced to bridesmaids in the AL Central by the rise of the Cleveland Indians. The Big Hurt hammered 40 home runs in both 1995 and 1996 while collecting a total of 246 RBIs. A stress fracture in his left leg sent him to disabled list for the first time in his career in July 1996, ending a consecutive-games played streak at 346. In 1997, batting ahead of new addition Albert Belle, he won his first batting title with a .347 mark, adding 35 circuit blasts and 124 RBIs. During one stretch in mid-May he reached base in 15 consecutive plate appearances, falling one short of Ted Williams' major-league record.
1997 also marked a critical juncture of Thomas' career. The White Sox had drawn heavy criticism for a series of trade deadline deals that effectively hoisted a white flag while the club stood within striking distance of the division-leading Indians. Thomas knew his club faced several years of rebuilding, but decided to stick around to see the process through. Chicago management rewarded the loyalty of the franchise's career home run leader by signing him to a six-year contract extension in late September that promised to keep him in a White Sox uniform through 2006.
To that point, Thomas' career had been one of uninterrupted excellence. In addition to his on-field brilliance, his warm and ever-smiling persona off the field had made him one of baseball's best ambassadors, rich beyond his wildest dreams through marketing and endorsement tie-ins, and the most popular athlete in Chicago behind basketball legend Michael Jordan.
Both on the field and off, however, circumstances would turn against Thomas over the next two years. Indulging his interest in popular music, Thomas founded two record labels, but his business acumen would prove not as reliable as his batting eye and the enterprises ended up being a drain on his finances. He also drew criticism for the first time in his career when he showed up for the 1998 season noticeably overweight, and the criticism grew louder as his batting average sank to .265, more than 40 points below his previous career low. He still managed to knock 29 home runs and drive in 109 runs, but even those numbers seemed diminished by the offensive surge of his teammate, Belle, who in his second year with the White Sox set franchise records with 49 home runs and 152 RBIs.
Circumstances grew worse when the White Sox allowed both Belle and third baseman Robin Ventura to depart via free agency during the offseason, leaving the Big Hurt with no protection in the lineup. He repeatedly described himself as "bitter" over the club's failure to retain either player, but showed up in spring training in good shape and refocused on baseball. Still, while Thomas' batting average climbed back to .308, his power inexplicably deserted him. In 486 at-bats, he managed just 15 homers, inspiring talk that he was prematurely washed up. For the first time in his career he appeared sullen, and clashed with both teammates and management for his unwillingness to play through an ankle injury.
Thomas drew heavier fire for his preference to bat at DH instead of first base. Defense was hardly Thomas' strong suit, but the White Sox felt his presence on the field provided leadership to the young team and had long been willing to endure his shortcomings with a glove. Even though Thomas' offensive numbers showed that he hit markedly better while playing first base, he felt more comfortable as a designated hitter, believing that it helped him concentrate on hitting. After the season, there were whispers that after two straight unspectacular years his days as one of the baseball's top hitters were over.
In spring training 2000, a public shouting match between Thomas and manager Jerry Manuel brought matters close to a boiling point. But instead of exacerbating the problems, the confrontation seemed to clear the air. Thomas went on to enjoy a season that ranked with his best. Anchoring a talented but inexperienced White Sox lineup, he batted .328 while setting career highs with 43 home runs, 143 RBIs, 114 runs and 191 hits.
The Big Hurt, touted as an MVP candidate all season, led the White Sox to an unexpected AL Central title and a league-high 95 wins. In the Division Series, however, Thomas and his teammates suffered an ill-timed power outage as the Mariners swept them in three games while limiting the White Sox to seven runs and holding The Big Hurt hitless in nine at-bats. "I gave what I had and it just was not good enough," Thomas said afterwards. (SW/AGL)