On Saturday night, I joined Wayne Randazzo, play-by-play announcer for the Class-A Kane County Cougars, in the booth for an inning to talk about the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby. While I tried to gloss over my qualms with the All-Star Game itself, I did take a moment to romanticize the Home Run Derby. There's a lot of joy in watching real sluggers showcase their craft -- hitting for distance is a baseball skill, just like stealing a base or throwing a sharp slider.
One of the greatest sluggers of all time was Frank Thomas, not only winner of the Home Run Derby in 1995, but a dominating all-around hitter who is just under two weeks away from his Hall of Fame induction. I had the opportunity this weekend to speak with Thomas, who is in Minneapolis for the Home Run Derby through the auspices of Gillette as a way of drawing attention to the Boys & Girls Club of America and MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, both of which will be the recipient of charitable donations if players strike Gillette targets in the outfield during the contest. Thomas will also be getting a shave during the Derby.
Though his playing career ended in 2008, Thomas remains close to the game, and works with Comcast Sports Network in Chicago and Fox Sports as a studio analyst. Catching up with Thomas, it is clear that not much has changed since his playing days. He's still larger than life -- both in terms of his physical presence and his strong opinions. As I picked his brain on the Home Run Derby, being snubbed by All-Star voters, Southern food, his relationship with Kenny Williams, and whether or not he'd like to coach someday -- one thing was clear: Thomas doesn't hold anything back.
Cee Angi: You're back at the All Star Game, where you have plenty of memories since you were selected five times. As a player, what was it like?
Frank Thomas: It was always great. It was a time to be celebrated as a great player. It was a good time for your family and friends to acknowledge you as a great player. I think there is a lot a lot of good in making the All-Star Team. People look at your career a little bit differently.
CA: As your career went on, and you spent more time as a designated hitter, it seems like the All-Star Game forgot about you a little bit.
CA: For example, in 2000, you were hitting .333 with 26 home runs at the break, but were not given the nod that year. Is that something that bothers you?
FT: Of course. I got snubbed about eight times for the Mid-Summer Classic, and I know what type of career I had and I know that I'm a true All-Star. The selection process is not very accurate. The league, from about 1997 or 1998 on, they began to make it more of a marketing situation -- to make more dollars. The more guys they made All-Stars, the more lucrative the league became. So, there were a lot of snubs back in my time. I made 14 postseason All-Star teams. That's how crazy this is. I was selected 14 times to the postseason All-Star Team, yet only played in five Mid-Summer Classics.
CA: In the years that you did make it, you were involved in the Home Run Derby, and won it 1995. This will be the first year that they compete in the new bracket format. What do you think of that change?
FT: I like it. Bracketing the top guys makes it really more competitive, and you're not wearing anyone out in the first round. I also like the seven out situation instead of 10.
CA: Do you think there's something to the argument that some players make about not wanting to participate in the Home Run Derby because it messes with their swing?
FT: No. I don't buy into it because hitting is something that you work on everyday. You just have to get into that frame of mind of going 3-0 count or 2-0 count. You don't over-swing, you're just a little more aggressive in those counts. So that's what you work on.
CA: So, the reason you're in Minneapolis is because you've teamed up with Gillette as part of their Home Run Derby festivities. You're going to get a shave on the center field concourse during the event, and fans can come watch or even get their five-o'clock shadow removed as part of a partnership to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club of American and MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Program. Frank, why are these charities so important to you?
FT: I grew up in the Boys & Girls Club. That's where I really started playing all sports, and that's why I'm a big advocate for the work they do.
CA: You spent 19 seasons in the majors and you'll be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame this month-congratulations on that, by the way. Cooperstown aside, what would you say is the proudest moment or biggest accomplishment of your 2,322 game playing career?
FT: The 1995 All-Star Game. I felt like I had arrived. I won the Home Run Derby that year, and then the next night in the All-Star Game, in my second at bat I hit a home run [off of John Smiley]. It was a big, big accomplishment for me, and the world was watching, especially after watching the Home Run Derby the night before.
Thomas rounds the bases after homering in the 1995 All-Star Game (Getty Images)
CA: You were easily one of the best and most memorable hitters of your generation. How much of your success do you think was because of your raw talent and how much do you attribute to working with White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak?
FT: I think all players benefit from great coaching, and I was very lucky to have Walt Hriniak at the beginning of my career. He was a discipline guy. There was no freelancing and it was all about doing work every day and doing it properly every day. He didn't let anyone slide and that was very beneficial for me.
CA: I want to switch gears for just a second. While I will never be a Hall of Fame slugger, we have some things in common. We're both from the South -- I spent years in Georgia -- and we both made our way to Chicago in our early 20s. One of my favorite things to ask transplanted Southerners is, what was the hardest part of leaving home? I'll go first -- for me, it was the food.
FT: Yeah, in the south the food is outstanding. Down South, we eat to get full and the people up north they don't do that. The food was the biggest thing for me, and soon as you talk up north, people look at you and say, "Where are you from?"
CA: That happens a lot to me as well, though I've worked hard over the years to neutralize my accent.
CA: I still find myself saying "y'all" a lot. That's a hard habit to break. You're not playing anymore but you're still close to the game. What do you think of the shift, and how do you think the shift might have changed your approach if teams were using it back then like they do now?
FT: I think it's overrated. It has put the game upstairs with cyberheads and the computer guys. You lose focus every night of just how easy it is to hit the ball opposite field and get a cheap base hit to the other side of the field. Teams need to start working on that more. Yes, the shift is working sometimes, but it's time for teams to make adjustments in batting practice to work on hitting the ball the other way and working on hitting approaches.
CA: Let's talk about the opposite of hitting for a second: the art of taking a walk. What do you think of Joey Votto, first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, and his approach of putting patience first?
[Here Thomas just makes a whistling noise similar to what you'd hear when Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff in the Road Runner cartoons]
CA: I think some of the grief he gets is similar to criticism that you got as a player as well.
FT: That's an ... interesting question. The Reds may have trouble with that. They've committed $225 million to a player they were expecting to hit 35 home runs and [maintain a] .320 batting average. Votto may have a rough, rough career going forward.
CA: Frank, you've had a hell of a year. You have been working with CSN Chicago as a studio analyst for a few years, and now you're doing work with Fox Sports, as well. Later this month, you're going to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. How do you feel about this new era of your post-playing career?
FT: I've always been this type of person. I've always wanted to stay busy and do things. I still want to make something out of my life. I'm just 46 years old, you know? I've got a lot of living to do and a long time before I retire and I definitely wanted to stay involved in the game I love so much.
CA: At U.S. Cellular Field there is this great statue of you in left field now, along with other great players from White Sox history. It seems that a lot of the ill-will that was expressed back in 2005 has calmed. How has it felt to be back around the franchise with which you spent 16 seasons?
FT: Well, when you go through different regimes as a player -- I went through three different ones -- and my play never suffered, and that's something to think about. The one thing you have to understand about pro sports is that everyone isn't going to like you. That's the problem that I had with [then-General Manager, now Executive Vice President] Kenny Williams at the end. He came in as a new overzealous GM and starting telling a star player he needed to do this, this, and that instead of focusing on what I had already achieved. It was a bad situation, but we've gotten over it and have cleared the air many, many times. I've moved forward, and I always prefer to take the high road and stay positive.
CA: Frank, you're now with Fox Sports and building your career as an analyst. That keeps you close to the game, but is there a part of you that would someday like to be a manager or a coach at the professional level?
FT: Not at all.
CA: Not at all?
FT: No. Not at all. The only thing I would do at the major-league level is manage. I wouldn't want to be a coach, no. Coaching is like babysitting. They really are not taking care of coaches the way that they should. If anything, I would love to help start a Coach's Union because the major league coaches are overworked and way underpaid -- those guys are not being treated fairly. With the amount of money being spent on payroll these days, those guys should be making at least $1 million a year instead of $150,000. They do all of the work every day -- they are the first to arrive and the last to leave -- and they have all of the responsibilities.
CA: You're one of the few star players from your era that is still hanging around baseball -- a lot of your peers have moved on for personal reasons and a few wouldn't be welcomed back kindly. Do you feel fortunate that even though you're not playing you've found a way to remain close to the sport?
FT: I don't think that those guys aren't welcome anymore; some of them just live in different parts of the country and they aren't involved with the teams that made them famous anymore. As for being around the game? Yeah, I'm proud and I've been blessed to be able to do that. Chicago is still my stronghold and I'll be around doing things there forever. I do feel blessed that I'm still around the game.