Trivia answer Gorman Thomas cooks up life after retirement

August 03, 1991|By Mel Derrick | Mel Derrick,Knight-Ridder News Service

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- The question before the house today is:

Who played baseball with Henry Aaron, led the American League in home runs twice, collects limited-edition prints that he frames himself, carves wooden duck decoys, is commuting 320 miles daily from Kiawah Island to play in the South Carolina Amateur golf tournament, has written a recipe book and cooks up a mess of chili that will fry your taste buds?

The answer, of course, is Stormin' Gorman Thomas, a hail-fellow-well-met Charlestonian you'd enjoying sipping a lemonade with after a round of golf.

Thomas, 40, enjoys life, including the first swallow of, yes, it really is lemonade. What he doesn't cotton to is a round of golf like the one he played in Thursday's opening round of the Amateur at Tidewater.

"I shot my age," he said, walking off the course. "Eighty-five. And that's how old I feel."

Golf is Thomas' game now. He plays daily and has been known to threaten par on occasion. But Thursday wasn't his day. His troubles included "a tidal wave that roared out of the swamp" and caught his well-hit wedge shot on the first hole.

Thus, much of our lemonade talk was about baseball. Thomas played 13 seasons in the majors, mostly with the Milwaukee Brewers. He finished with 268 career homers, leading the American League with 45 in 1979 and 35 in 1982, when the Brewers won their only pennant.

"We had a great team in 1982," Thomas said. "Robin Yount was MVP; Pete Vuckovich won the Cy Young; Rollie Fingers had 29 saves; I led in homers. But I tore up my knee in the league championship, and we lost the World Series after leading the Cardinals three games to two."

Looking back on his career, Thomas blends the good memories with the bad. Among the highlights:

* Hitting a triple on his first at-bat in the majors.

* Dropping the first ball ever hit to him as a major league outfielder.

* Hitting three homers in one game against Oakland in 1985.

* Striking out six times in a row -- and then hitting into a double play on his seventh trip to the plate.

* Being named the American League comeback player of the year in 1985, when he came off a shoulder operation to hit 32

homers for Seattle.

* Retiring too early for personal reasons after the '86 season, when he could have continued as a designated hitter and gotten the really big bucks players are making today.

"My best salary was $660,000, which sounds like a lot and is," Thomas said. "But you can make that today hitting two homers and driving in five runs. I don't begrudge the players that kind of money. That's just the going hourly wage in baseball today."

The best player he ever saw? "Robin Yount, without a doubt. He went full out all the time. He was a team man. He didn't have any 'I' pronouns in his vocabulary. He might not have been the best hitter or the best shortstop or the best whatever. But he was the best player."

The toughest pitcher? "Ron Davis. He ate my lunch."

Ron Davis? Who he? What about Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Mickey Lolich? What about Nolan Ryan, for goodness' sake?

'They were better pitchers, but I could hit them," Thomas said. "I think I got more homers off Palmer than any other pitcher. I even got a couple off Ryan.

"Ron Davis was a true journeyman pitcher [a 47-53 record in 11 seasons]. When he pitched, I didn't know where the ball was going. He didn't know where it was going. It'd spin like a slider, then break like a left-handed curve."

Thomas didn't get around to naming the best hitter he ever saw. But he spent two seasons riding the bench in Milwaukee (1975 and '76), watching home run king Hank Aaron close out his 755-HR career.

"He was a great individual," Thomas said. "He had a hidden side -- a warmth and intelligence -- most people didn't have the privilege to see. And most people forget that he started out as a second baseman and swung the bat cross-handed. He had the strongest wrists I ever saw. They're as wide as my feet are long."

Thomas' golfing partners Thursday included fellow former major leaguers Ty Cline and Neil Chrisley. Cline spent 11 years in the bigs, mostly as a utility man, mostly with the Braves in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Chrisley had five seasons, including two on the old Washington Senators.

Cline now owns three Baskin-Robbins franchises in the Charleston area. Chrisley has been with All-State insurance in Greenwood since he left baseball in 1961.

Thomas? He speculates in stocks, plays golf, fishes, carves decoys and hunts deer in season. He has a fine collection of limited-edition prints, is considering opening an art gallery and has compiled 300 to 400 recipes for a cookbook he hopes to publish soon.

He can bake a pecan pie, and he recently made his first jam, blueberry. But his specialty is the hot stuff. "Cayenne pepper," he said. "And jalapeno, too. I eat jalapeno like candy. My chili can make you sweat from 20 feet away."

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