LOS ANGELES – On a nondescript night in his 18th season, Frank Thomas swung through the top of a fastball.
It would not be his 496th home run, he knew immediately.
The ball bounded wearily toward the left side of the infield, the artificial turf in Toronto carrying it to the space between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' third baseman and shortstop.
Thirty-nine for a couple weeks but feeling spry all things considered, Thomas got his legs moving.
He really didn't have much hope for that ball, that at-bat, this play. But, when you're hitting 80-some points under your career average, you're down four runs, seems like half the team's on the disabled list and you're getting buried in the American League East, well, you run. It's what you've got left.
So, big ol' Frank Thomas thundered down the line at Rogers Centre while third baseman Ty Wigginton went nearly into left field after that ball. Wigginton's long, rushed throw was true, but Thomas was there first, by the breadth of his choice to run hard just in case.
Two nights later, benched at Dodger Stadium by interleague rules and defensive skills dormant for three years, Thomas sat in the visitors' clubhouse and laughed in spite of himself.
An infield single.
"Can't remember the last one," he said.
Admittedly swinging for a place where only 20 men have gone, for 500 home runs and further validation of a career restarted a year ago in Oakland after 16 years in Chicago, two of them as an MVP, Thomas happened upon a place where any little thing will work. "That was a huge highlight for me," he said. "That brought a tear to my eye."
Well, maybe a twinkle.
Thomas is stuck at .230 and eight home runs after nearly 2½ months and 200 at-bats in Toronto, so he is admittedly part of the offensive problem and therefore the 11-game separation between the Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox. He came off the bench in the eighth inning Friday night and lined a single to center field, covered those 90 feet, then – despite the recently acquired infield hit – came out for a pinch-runner.
He has a two-year contract with the Blue Jays and an option for a third. After leaving ankle injuries and hurt feelings behind in Chicago ("They felt I was done," he said, his expression mixing pride and scorn), Thomas had 39 home runs and 114 RBI for the A's and was fourth in MVP voting behind Justin Morneau, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz.
"Just normal Frank," he called it.
The season earned him the $18.1 million guaranteed by Toronto. The option, worth another $10 million, vests with 1,000 plate appearances in the first two seasons or 525 in 2008.
So, he'll play at least until he is 40, long enough to recover the time he spent in a boot and rehabilitating, maybe long enough to chase down a few more names – Eddie Murray, Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle, others – on the all-time home-run roster.
In the meantime, 500 – five more home runs, five more of those Walt Hriniak-trained swings – has proven to be a trying pursuit. Despite periodic land-line tutorials from Hriniak, the fanatical hitting guru, Thomas is moving at a pace of four a month, both irritating to Thomas and counterproductive to the Blue Jays. Perhaps 500 is not as dramatic – or controversial – as being nine home runs from Hank Aaron, as Barry Bonds is, nor as extraordinary as being two (Sammy Sosa) or 23 (Ken Griffey Jr.) from 600.
But, it means something to Thomas. Those big numbers can define a career. The Hall of Fame certainly does.
He is secure enough to declare his desire for both. He wants to stand with those power hitters. He wants to rest with the best ever.
"I'm not afraid to say so," he said. "I'm working damn hard to try to get there."
It does not escape him that all this work, all this desire, might also be working against him. He's not had his usual patient at-bats lately. He's in another new clubhouse, meaning 24 more players and a coaching staff and a fan base to impress. The offense has sagged – Vernon Wells is slumping, too – so the pangs of responsibility have grown.
He'd hoped to have 500 come in the rhythm of the season, a few more long balls along the way serving to lengthen his baseball renewal.
"Things are to the point now I gotta stop thinking about it," he said. "I was taking some crazy at-bats anyways. But, I really want to get there. It means a lot. It's been a long grind. Five-hundred home runs is a long time. The body, the injuries. I've lost 2½ seasons to injuries, otherwise maybe I'd be closing in on 600. But, it's going to happen. I truly believe that."
He sighed. It's not going that well.
"That's all right," he said. "Builds character."
It's something, leaving only one person he can be.
"Normal Frank," he said, grinning. "Ready to come out and finish what I started."
- Frank Thomas