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Friday, February 12, 2010

Columbus native and former Auburn star Frank Thomas officially calls it a career

Columbus native and former Auburn baseball player Frank Thomas officially called it a career today, announcing his retirement in Chicago. The White Sox said they will retire his No. 35 at a ceremony later this year.

His numbers certainly warrant it: 521 home runs, 1,704 RBIs, a .301 batting average, MVPs in 1993 and '94. In fact, he's one of four players to have a .300 batting average, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs and 1,500 walks in his career. The others? Mel Ott, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

Since Thomas didn't play last year, he's eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2014, the same year as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Not a bad group there.

I talked with former Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird this morning. Naturally, he had some great things to say about Thomas:

(Pretty remarkable career, huh?)
"It really was. Without question, relative to players I've coached and really relative to players at Auburn, he has had by far the most outstanding major league career for a hitter than anybody who has ever played here or anybody I have ever coached."
(Have you coached a player quite like him?)
"No. In a conference that has produced scores of major league players over the 15 years that I coached, I mean the Will Clarks and Raphael Palemeiros and the list goes on and on, Frank in my opinion was clearly the most feared and best hitter of that entire era. And maybe the best that's ever played in this conference. And that's saying a lot, with the Todd Heltons and some of the other guys that we've talked about. But he was just feared. He was such a polished hitter by the time he got here, and I think that was due to his extraordinary skill, but also well-prepared by Bobby Howard at Columbus High School, I mean, all of his players are well-prepared, but Frank was polished. I mean, we didn't get Frank until January of his freshman year because he was playing football, and I thought he would be way behind. My gosh, he walked onto that field in January more polished than guys who had been here two or three years. He just had extraordinary gifts. He had tremendous knowledge of the strike zone. He could hit the ball to all fields. Obvious power, that goes without saying. The thing that set Frank apart was he had the great, great power, but he never struck out. He hit for high average, he took his walks, he knew the strike zone so well. He really was a once-in-a-lifetime hitter. And he carried it to the next level. It really wasn't just a college thing. Sometimes guys can do that in college and then they get to the higher level and struggle, but Frank was great from the day he walked on a major league field."
(Did he hit some of the more impressive home runs you've seen?)
"Oh, he really did. And it was at a time to compare those, because Bo Jackson had just left here. And of course Bo hit some tape-measure jobs, but Frank hit some ... I remember a lot, but he hit one in Starkville one day and it [laughs] ... I don't know if you've been over there or not, but they have this thing they do in left field where people park vehicles and things behind the fence. They have a name for it. I think they call it the Left Field Lounge or something like that. But these people park trucks and stuff back there. He hit one that just went over all of that stuff. There were pictures of people looking up as the ball just went over all the trucks and anything else. I don't know how far it went. There's no telling. There were lots of them."
(How professional of a hitter was he?)
"It was really and amazing thing to watch him every day, because he was really a student of the game. He really studied pitchers even in college. We used to have this running thing where he used to tell me he could watch a guy throw or could hit against a guy and could tell how hard he was throwing, and he was never wrong. He just really had a wonderful visual ability at home plate. And I've never had anybody even close to knowing the strike zone as well as Frank did. If Frank took a pitch, you could pretty much count on it being a ball. And it's very rare in college for umpires to be influenced by a hitter. In the major leagues, a guy gets a reputation for knowing the strike zone and things like that, and sometimes he'll get the benefit of the call. I really believe that by Frank's junior year, that was happening here. I don't know that, but it seemed that way, because people obviously pitched to him very carefully, because no college team could really protect him. In other words, you put your best hitter behind him hoping that teams would pitch to him, but the guy behind him wasn't going to be as good as him, so he still had to take lots and lots of walks. But really remarkable statistics here, All-American. Just did it all. And by the time he was a sophomore, people just weren't pitching to him that much. But rather than just being frustrated and expanding the strike zone, he took his walks and people were just going to be very careful, because he was so physically imposing."
(Was he the best player you've coached?)
"He is without doubt the best hitter. And we've had a bunch of good ones. And he was no question the best hitter. And underrated as an athlete. He's such a big guy, but I remember coach (Pat) Dye telling me when Frank was here that at that point in time, we had had five consecutive tight ends that were in the NFL, and Frank signed a football scholarship at that time, and I remember coach Dye telling me one time that if Frank had stuck with football he thought he would have been better than any of those tight ends. And I remember a catch he made here against Georgia Tech in football one day that wideouts would have been proud of. His hands were good, he ran tremendously well for a big guy. He's a good athlete. But just hit hitting skills were so great, it sort of overshadowed everything else. But he was without question the best hitter that I've ever coached. I think he's the best college hitter I've ever seen."
(Is he a first-ballot Hall of Famer?)
"I think so. I thought at one time it was a cinch. You know, back-to-back MVPs, I don't really know how many times that's been done in the American League. But two-time MVP. Some of his batting average numbers have fallen off, which happens to a lot of guys toward the end, but man oh man, those numbers. 500 plus home runs? And the last time I looked, which was a while back, he was a .300 lifetime hitter. I just don't see how he couldn't get in. And I'm almost positive with that being the case that he would be Auburn's first (Hall of Famer)."
(He's avoided the steroid rap, too)
"Frank is such a huge man. I've got pictures of Frank when he was a freshman here, and he was a big, big guy even then. He didn't need to. He was so naturally big and so naturally strong, like I said, his power and hitting ability was great. He has been outspoken. Frank always had a sense of baseball history. I haven't talked to him about this, but my guess is he's probably resentful of some of the numbers of those guys who were on that stuff. Probably."
(Are you glad his career average stayed above .300?)
"It's kind of like Mickey Mantle. When Mickey Mantle retired, he played a couple years maybe beyond the time he should have and ended up with a lifetime batting average of .299 or .298. Just selfishly I was hoping Frank would have over a .300 average, because it was a lot more reflective of what he was his whole career."

1 comment:

ExKnightMike said...

If I'm not mistaken 521 home runs is the same number the great Ted Williams retired with. That's some high company!

I had the privilege of watching Frank Thomas play both football and baseball at Auburn. He was a great one.