7/27/2014 12:00 A.M. ET
Maddux, Thomas worthy of Hall's inner circle
Career-long dominance helps pair of incoming honorees stand above peers
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Even among the top 1 percent, there are different levels of greatness.
Hall of Famers know who got in on the first ballot and who had to agonize over a long selection process. And within the former group, there's a subset that is truly iconic.
In the historic six-man Class of 2014 -- the Hall's most anticipated since Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount went in together in 1999 -- that's where Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas come in.
Today's Hall of Fame coverage begins at noon ET with MLB Tonight live from Cooperstown on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com and the At Bat app, with the induction ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m.
Maddux and Thomas couldn't be less alike in terms of their visible gifts, but the average-looking Maddux and the towering Thomas were the best pitcher and hitter in the game for a long period of time, and their lofty career numbers -- totals that argue that Maddux is one of the top five pitchers of all time and that, in his prime (1991 through 2000), Thomas combined power with batting skills as well as anyone since Ted Williams -- were posted in the era of performance enhancement.
Like fellow inductee Tom Glavine, Maddux and Thomas not only escaped with reputations intact, but only the truest cynic would question their body chemistry. Thomas was an early proponent of testing for performance-enhancing drugs, and those who know him say he had more than enough natural strength to excel without assistance.
"I don't know who did steroids," said Bo Jackson, the two-sport star who joined Thomas in playing football and baseball at Auburn. "I know who has been accused, but I wasn't their teammate; I wasn't in their locker room. I don't know. But I know one thing: If Frank had done steroids, and was stronger than what he is, Frank would probably have 800 home runs, 900 home runs. I know he did it clean."
Maddux, a four-time National League Cy Young Award winner, won 355 games. That ranks eighth all time and is the most since Warren Spahn, who retired in 1965.
Historian/analyst Rob Neyer ranks Maddux in his top 10 for pitchers, and he says the right-hander is worth consideration for the top five. That's very impressive for a guy who looks like he could be your mailman.
Maddux, a second-round Draft pick from Las Vegas' Valley High School in 1984, characteristically undersold himself when he was promoted to the big leagues after going 13-1 with a 2.65 ERA in 22 starts for Triple-A Iowa.
"I'm a lucky pitcher," Maddux told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "I throw it down the middle and hope they hit it at somebody. I try not to walk people. ... I just throw a fastball, changeup and curve. They are all pretty much average. My fastball is not overpowering, and my curveball is just average. Same with my changeup."
Nothing about Maddux was average, of course. His command was legendary. Ditto his knowledge of how to attack hitters and change speeds on all of his pitches. He took the lessons he was taught by Las Vegas-area coach Ralph Meder -- who had also worked with Maddux's older brother, Mike, and Mike Morgan -- and perfected them.
"He's the reason I pitch like I do," Maddux said of Meder on Saturday. "He laid the foundation down for me at a young age. What he was teaching me at 16, I was still trying to do when I was 42 and with the Padres and Dodgers. No different. To have a coach be that right about how to get hitters out, to hear that at 16 and preach it [yourself] and still try to follow his instructions at 42 is pretty cool."
Maddux said there was no one time that he realized he could spot his pitches where he wanted them.
"You're always working on it," Maddux said. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, yeah, I can do it.' You're always constantly working on it, trying to improve. Just if you look at your delivery from the time you started and when you left the game, it's obviously better when you left. It's a continuous thing where you're just trying to get better."
During his big league career, Maddux threw about 100,000 pitches. He admits there were a few that stood out, not so much because of the situation in which he threw them but because they were exactly right for the situation.
"When you're in the moment, you're always looking for the confidence to throw a certain pitch," Maddux said. "If you can look back to last year -- five years, whenever -- and just [say to yourself], 'Remember that pitch you threw him?' That happens sometimes. There are certain pitches that stand out, that you'll try to repeat as games go on."
"I had a cutter to Delino DeShields," Maddux said. "I had a changeup to Dave Martinez. I had a fastball away to Mike Piazza. I had a pretty good heater in to Dale Murphy one time. You only have a couple of pitches, anyway. But, you know, sometimes you throw them perfect time, perfect hitter, perfect situation and they appear better than they actually are."
During his 5,008 1/3 innings on the mound, Maddux was charged with only 53 errors. He's as proud of his 18 Gold Glove Awards as he is anything else in his career.
"I tried to be a baseball player," Maddux said. "I know I pitched, but I tried to be a baseball player."
Maddux never missed a trick on the mound, quick-pitching hitters when he could. He would always watch opposing batting practice from a seat at the end of his dugout, looking to spot hitters who were favoring injuries or had just changed something in their approach. With the Cubs, Maddux's preparation actually started when he drove down Lake Shore Drive. He would glance at Lake Michigan to see whether the wind was blowing in or out.
"Smooth is bad," Maddux said about the water's surface. "Rough is good."
Thomas, then, was like smooth lake conditions for pitchers in the AL, especially in his first eight seasons, from 1990-97.
When Bill James wrote his historical abstract that was published in 2001, he said that Thomas had a chance to be ranked alongside Babe Ruth and Ted Williams as "one of the three greatest hitters who ever played the game" before enduring a downturn toward mortality in 1998. Many of his averages tailed off after he ruptured his biceps tendon in 2001, as that injury was followed by chronic problems with his feet and ankles.
Thomas, who played for the A's and Blue Jays after leaving Chicago, finished his 19-year career as a .301 hitter with 521 home runs and 1,704 RBIs. He had a .419 career on-base percentage to go with a .555 slugging percentage. White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf knew Thomas was different when he first saw him play for Sarasota in the Florida State League.
Listed at 6-foot-5, Thomas weighed more than 270 pounds when he became the biggest man in history win a batting title, hitting .347 with the Sox in 1997.
"The enormity of the man jumped out at me," Reinsdorf said. "You don't expect to see baseball players that size. Even at A ball, he had tremendous plate discipline. You rarely saw him swing at a pitch that wasn't a strike."
Reinsdorf, who was hospitalized overnight on Friday in Cooperstown after feeling lightheaded, says Thomas' legacy is simple.
"He may very well have been the greatest player that ever played for the White Sox," Reinsdorf said. "I didn't see Shoeless Joe Jackson or Eddie Collins. I can't tell you for sure. Certainly in the time I've been following baseball, I don't remember any White Sox player even close to Frank in terms of his overall ability. His greatness is his legacy."
Bo Jackson, who played his last Major League seasons alongside Thomas with the White Sox in 1993, remembers seeing Thomas when he arrived at Auburn as a big tight end. Jackson says that they were cut from the same cloth, developing strength without spending much time in the gym.
"People said I was some type of freak of nature because I was so strong," Jackson said. "I hated lifting weights, but I could go into the gym and I could bench press 450 without working out. Frank Thomas was the same way. We're big, strong, and I can attest that we were blessed to get good genes from our parents, our grandparents."
Jackson said he could barely believe Thomas' package of gifts when Thomas arrived in Chicago after being taken with the seventh overall pick in the 1989 Draft.
"This guy was the size of Dave Parker but almost twice as strong," Jackson said. "I always saw him in that light. He was the Little Cobra. We used to call Dave Parker 'Cobra,' and Frank Thomas was like a mini-cobra, but he was more. Ungodly strength. Frank never swung hard. Frank was a guy, once he learned his hitting zone, pitchers were terrified to face him."
Both Thomas and Jackson say they were warned against using performance-enhancing drugs while at Auburn. Jackson says there was a zero-tolerance policy and remembers athletes being kicked out of school because they were tied to PED use.
"Before my time at Auburn, there were all kinds of guys trying to use PEDs and anabolic steroids to play football in college," Thomas said. "A lot of guys were caught, and by the time my class got there, they had video available, showing what anabolic steroids would do to your body, to your organs, what is going to be tolerated and what is not going to be tolerated. We were well aware.
"Back then, all I had was my scholarship. They basically told everyone, in their face, 'If you're caught doing any of this, you will lose your scholarship; you will be kicked out of the university.' That was all I needed to hear."
In 1991, Thomas' first full season with the White Sox, he hit .318 with 32 home runs and 109 RBIs while leading the American League with 138 walks and a .453 on-base percentage. He built on that with AL MVP Award seasons in 1993 and '94 and finished runner-up to Jason Giambi for a third AL MVP Award in 2000.
Thomas said on Saturday that he was hurt in a variety of ways by being compared to hitters who were using banned substances before the Major League Baseball Players Association had agreed to allow testing. In addition to awards, he said, it hurt him in his contracts, just as the dimensions of the new Comiskey Park reduced his home run totals before 2000, when the fences were brought in.
"I wouldn't have changed a thing," Thomas said. "I'm going into the Hall of Fame. How can it get any better than that?"
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.