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Thomas in some elite company

Thomas in some elite company

TORONTO -- It takes a moment, but Frank Thomas can still remember the details of his first big-league homer. Sitting on a small stool inside Toronto's dugout at Rogers Centre, the 39-year-old slugger lets out a slight laugh as he tries to reach back 17 years into his memory bank.

"That was a long, long time ago," said Thomas, mentally cycling through the names of the many pitchers he's victimized over the better part of the past two decades.

Reminded that first blast came in Minnesota, Thomas nods his head and continues to smile.

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"It was against a left-hander," he said with a pause. "Wayne. Gary Wayne gave up my first home run. I remember that. I remember it was a great, great feeling to finally get on the board in the big leagues."

With that first moon shot at the Metrodome, Thomas set in motion a career that seems destined to be honored with an induction into baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. From the beginning, that was Thomas' goal: To one day see his name alongside those of the game's immortals.

Thomas waited a long time to join the 500 home run club -- an elite class of sluggers that now has 21 members after the Big Hurt joined up Thursday. Thomas doesn't want to stop, though. He knows all too well that there are critics who believe amassing 500 home runs doesn't mean as much as in the past, when the feat was once considered a one-way ticket to Cooperstown.

"I try not to put any emphasis on it," Thomas said. "That's why I keep saying I want to get to 600. With 500 now, people are like, 'I don't know anymore.' But that 600 benchmark, there's only a couple guys there. So, if I can just shoot my goals higher, mentally, hopefully everything else will take care of itself."

Thomas has set the bar high for himself since childhood, when he grew up the youngest of five children in Columbus, Ga. Given his impressive size as a youngster -- Thomas was even bigger than his older brother throughout his youth -- football and basketball were more frequent activities for him than baseball.

Before attending Columbus High School, Thomas spent a lot of time playing sports at the local youth centers, but baseball wasn't much of a priority. That was until people started awing over the powerful swings he took during the occasional whiffle-ball game inside an area gymnasium.

"I really could crush that whiffle ball and people were like, 'Wow, what a swing. Look how hard you hit the ball,'" Thomas said with a laugh. "It never translated that I'd end up being a Major Leaguer, because I cared so much about football and basketball. But as soon as I got to high school, my freshman year, it was a sight to see out there, the balls I hit."

By his junior year in 1984, when Thomas helped lead Columbus high to a state baseball championship, he decided that professional baseball was something he wanted to seriously pursue. The following year, though, Auburn University came calling with a football scholarship, which Thomas promptly accepted.

Thomas played tight end for the Tigers for just one season before dedicating the rest of his collegiate career to baseball. He walked on to the Auburn baseball team in '87 and went on to become one of the university's most prolific sluggers. Thomas still owns the career record for home runs (49), and he set the school's single-season marks with 21 home runs in 1987 and 73 walks in 1989.

The Chicago White Sox selected Thomas with the seventh overall pick in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft and it didn't take long for him to ascend to the big leagues. In August 1990, when the Sox were in the midst of a division race, Thomas took over as the club's first baseman and hit .330 in his first 60 games with Chicago.

That's where he remained until his exit in 2006. In the years between, he became known as the Big Hurt, won two American League Most Valuable Player Awards, and established White Sox club records for home runs (448), doubles (447), runs (1,327), RBIs (1,465), walks (1,466), total bases (3,949), on-base percentage (.427) and slugging percentage (.568).

"He's done a lot of positive things, not only for the organization, but for the city of Chicago," said Toronto shortstop Royce Clayton, who was teammates with Thomas with the Sox in 2001-02. "He was the Michael Jordan of baseball over there for a long time before Sammy [Sosa] and some other things happened."

Thomas credits a lot of his early success to Walt Hriniak, who served as Chicago's hitting coach during his first five years with the White Sox. Hriniak emphasized weight shift, teaching a style where the hitter drives forward toward a pitch, releasing the top hand on the follow through and finishing with the back foot lifting off the ground.

It's a technique that helped utilize the large frame of the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Thomas. Using the style, the Big Hurt has maintained a career average higher than .300, and he captured the AL batting crown by hitting .347 in 1997 -- all without sacrificing any power.

"I tell people that he had me brainwashed," Thomas said of Hriniak. "He made you believe that there was one way to stay focused, one way to stay positive, and one way to get you to get a hit three out of 10 at-bats. We stuck with that program, and I made it happen for years."

A severe ankle injury limited Thomas to just 108 games over his final two seasons in Chicago, which won the World Series without him in 2005. The Sox bought out his contract following that season, and Thomas had a bitter falling out with the club, including an angry public exchange of words with Chicago general manager Kenny Williams.

Thomas was upset with how his departure was handled, and Williams ripped the slugger's character, which led to questions about his impact in a clubhouse. So, Thomas brought his unique style to Oakland last season and answered his critics; his peers awarded Thomas with the AL Comeback Player of the Year honor after he tallied 39 homers and 114 RBIs to help the A's clinch a playoff berth.

"I consider myself so lucky to have spent a season with big Frank," Oakland's Nick Swisher said. "I learned more from that guy than I've probably learned from anyone but my Dad. Whether it was talking to him or watching him, you just tried to soak up whatever you could, because you knew you were in the presence of true greatness."

Thomas' success with Oakland convinced Toronto to award him with a two-year contract worth $18 million in November. With the Blue Jays, the Big Hurt has been able to continue his march toward home run No. 500. It's an accomplishment that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who was teammates with Thomas in Chicago from 1990-97, believes will warrant a plaque in the hallowed halls in Cooperstown.

"One guy who's earned that is Frank Thomas," Guillen said. "I think about 500 home runs, wow, I feel proud because he was my teammate and he was my player. I have no doubt he'll be in the Hall of Fame, and when Frank is in the Hall of Fame, I'm pretty sure he'll be wearing a White Sox hat. That's something we should feel proud of."

And to think, Thomas' journey began with that one swing against Gary Wayne.

"Once I hit that first home run," said Thomas, flashing his characteristic smile, "my confidence in swinging for home runs just came instantly."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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