Thomas gets starring role Reebok has big plans for Chicago's 'Big Hurt'

July 11, 1993|By Staff Writer

Andre Raines has the look of a 10-year-old boy who's got virtually all the things a 10-year-old boy could want, namely a Nintendo Game Boy and a comic book.

And, with the friendship of Frank Thomas, the Chicago White Sox's slugging first baseman, young Andre's wish list is complete, for in Thomas, he has the perfect Game Boy playmate and role model.

All of this would be a bit off-putting to Andre's father, Tim, a White Sox outfielder and Thomas' teammate, if he didn't have nerves of steel.

Still, it is Frank Thomas' face and not Tim Raines' on the cover of the comic book that Andre keeps in his father's locker.

"Frank Thomas? I don't want to talk about Frank Thomas. I'm tired of talking about Frank Thomas. That's all I hear," said Tim Raines in mock indignation the other night.

Raines will have to get used to it, though. If the folks at Reebok, the athletic shoe manufacturer, have their way, you'll be hearing about Thomas for a long time.

Thomas, who will join the rest of the American League All-Stars here in Tuesday's game, is the subject of a hot new Reebok advertising campaign.

In the 30-second commercial, the 6-foot-5, 257-pound Thomas rounds third and is barreling down on the catcher, saying, "When I slide into home, it's like two trains colliding. I'm the big train."

The campaign is a rarity among baseball players and is an attempt by Reebok, in its second season in baseball, to introduce a new model shoe, the Preseason, while introducing Thomas to a wider audience.

"This guy [Thomas] has got a great presence on and off the field," said Dave Fogelson, a Reebok spokesman. "He runs hard, he's a great looking guy and has a great sense of humor. Granted, he's not known on a national level yet, but he personifies what we want."

The ad is also the kind of thing that can make one a role model if he isn't careful.

"I'm not really a symbol. The way they market athletes nowadays, everyone's expected to be a role model," said Thomas. "I don't want kids to think they exactly have to be like Frank Thomas to be successful. No one's perfect."

That's a true enough statement, but Thomas, whose 18-game hitting streak last month was the second longest in the American League this year, has come as close to perfection as a power hitter can get.

In his first two full seasons (1991-1992) with the White Sox, Thomas was third in the majors in RBI with 224, trailing only the Detroit Tigers' Cecil Fielder and the Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Carter.

In addition, Thomas was second in both runs scored and total bases during that span and was fourth in doubles. He led the American League last year in extra-base hits (72) and on-base percentage (.439). and his career average of .322 going into this season is tied for third-best in franchise history among hitters with more than 1,000 career at-bats.

Thomas is only the eighth player in modern baseball history to bat .300, with 20 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs and 100 walks in consecutive seasons. Each of the previous seven is in the Hall of Fame.

Most impressively, particularly for a power hitter, Thomas has drawn more walks than any other player in the game, leading San Francisco's Barry Bonds (320 to 300, after yesterday's games.).

Part of that can be attributed to Thomas' reputation. After all, they don't call him "The Big Hurt" for nothing.

But the other explanation for Thomas' knack for drawing walks is his knowledge of the strike zone.

"I've been in the league 14 years and I've never seen a hitter with such a keen eye at the plate and he swings the bat as well as anyone," Raines said. "To be so selective and have the qualities of hitting for average and power, you just don't see that type of hitter anywhere."

Thomas has a basic philosophy when he comes to the plate: If the pitcher won't put it where he can hit it, he won't swing at it. That's a lesson not easily learned by players who swing for the fences.

"You can't learn that [patience]," said Thomas. "When I go up to hit, I'm all business. I'm looking for something where I can get the fat part of the bat on the ball. If the pitch is outside, you can't get a really good swing on that. If the pitch is way inside, you can't get a good swing on that. I've got a little zone and if the ball's not in there with less than two strikes, I won't attack it."

That kind of pickiness mixed with the ability to deposit a pitch into the seats can wreak havoc on a pitcher. Just ask Mike Mussina, against whom Thomas is hitting .588 (10-for-17) with three homers.

"He's disciplined enough to only swing at the strikes," said Mussina. "He'll take walks when you'll give him walks. And he's so strong that he can wait. He can let the ball travel, as we say, and get very deep into his stance until he's absolutely sure he wants to hit it or swing at it and then drive it. He can hit the ball 400 feet to right field.

"It's tough to get him off balance because he keeps his hands back so well. He's so strong that even if you fool him and get his weight on the front side, his hands stay back so well that he just explodes with his hands."

About the only flaw in Thomas' game is his defense, which, while not of the caliber of say Don Mattingly or David Segui, has improved.

"His defense has gotten a lot better since we played, but it had a lot of room for improvement back then," said Orioles reliever Gregg Olson, who played with Thomas at Auburn.

Still, Thomas has placed his defensive liabilities in a context that's hard to argue with.

"I feel I am kind of a one-dimensional ballplayer, but every team has to have that type of player," said Thomas. "Offense sells tickets. I'm one of the guys who likes to put runs on the board. That's what winning's all about. You've got to have guys who put runs on the board. It's good to be great defensively, but if you have no offensive power, you'll be in trouble."

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