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July 27, 2014

Into the Hall


AUBURN | Frank Thomas had it.

The former Auburn standout on Sunday will become the first player with Southeastern Conference experience to be enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was perhaps the most devastating right-handed hitter of his generation -- a man who batted .301 for his career, posted an on-base percentage of .419 and slugged 521 home runs.

He made five All-Star teams, won a pair of MVPs and remained relevant though his 39-year-old season. Thomas was a confluence of talent, drive, durability and tenacity, which helps explain why Hall of Fame voters elected him at their first opportunity.

He was that good.

Yet his journey to the Chicago White Sox, where Thomas spent the first 16 years of his professional career, wasn't easy. The 1986 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft came and went because scouts figured Thomas was a football player masquerading as a baseball prospect.

Thomas spent one year at tight end on the Plains, which forced him to comply with coach Pat Dye's rigorous training regimen. That made a difference.

"Coach Dye was special. He really made this possible," Thomas said Saturday. "He signed me as a football player, but he told me you've got to earn your way to walk on to the baseball team. I made sure that I busted my butt as a freshman and got to play that freshman year in football -- and earned my way to walk on to the baseball team."

Thomas walked away from football after the 1987 season, an ankle injury wrecked his sophomore year, and blossomed into a star on the diamond. He was named conference MVP in 1989 after winning the triple crown.

Still, he wasn't exactly coveted universally as a prospect.

Thomas was a big man -- 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds -- and that didn't sit well with many scouts and executives. The White Sox also weren't enamored with his body, but they were floored by his ability to drive baseballs to and beyond the fence with surprising regularity.

"Frank wasn't a real high-profile guy," former White Sox area scout Mike Rizzo (and current Washington Nationals general manager) told the Chicago Tribune. "Actually, the scouting bureau didn't have him all that high as a player. He'd been cut from the USA team the previous summer. We fought for him and got him, and (management) allowed me to sign him for $175,000."

Thomas needed only 593 minor-league at-bats before being called up to the White Sox on Aug. 2, 1990. He'd just turned 22. He led baseball in walks, on-base percentage and OPS during his first full season in the majors. Oh, and he finished third in the American League MVP vote that year as well.

That kicked off a run of excellence that few players ever have matched. He either won or was among the top 10 in MVP voting during each of the next six seasons. And while many hitters begin to lose effectiveness after their 27-year-old season, Thomas retained his relevance throughout the next decade.

Though his batting average never rose above .300 after his 32-year-old season, his batting eye and power remained fully in tact. He finished with 39 homers and 114 RBIs as Oakland's designated hitter in 2006.

He was 38 years old.

Thomas said Saturday that his time at Auburn, specifically guidance received from Dye and baseball coach Hal Baird, played a central role in the spectacle he became.

"That meant a lot to my life and career, going to Auburn," Thomas told reporters Saturday. "Without them getting me into shape -- I had never been in before in my life -- it paid dividends when I got to baseball, big time."

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