The Sports Section 

Coach Walt Hriniak urged Frank Thomas to homer on the last of a series of pitches during batting practice last Saturday. "Wherever it's pitched," he said, meaning to right if outside and to left if inside. The ball came in low and over the plate and Thomas pounced on it. There was not only the solid crack of bat meeting ball but a hissing quality to the sound, as if whatever moisture remained in the grain of the wood were being pressed out the pores of the bat. The ball went up in a high arc and just kept carrying. The wind was blowing in over the left field bleachers but the ball was oblivious to it--oblivious to gravity, it seemed. It landed with a flat, dull, delayed smack on the aisle at the back of the bleachers.

"That bat's corked," said Ken Griffey Jr., who like everyone else around the batting cage had followed the trajectory of the ball. "Let me see that bitch."

Thomas and Griffey have become friendly competitors over the few years of their careers. They are both known for their large and easy smiles, and right now they probably are the two biggest stars in baseball. Yet Thomas showed no tolerance for this playful remark. "I don't go for that cork shit," he said, and held the bat out to be examined.

Griffey and the Seattle Mariners came to Comiskey Park last weekend, putting the two best young players in baseball on the same field. As recently as last winter's SoxFest, Thomas said Griffey was the player he most liked to watch. Yet he added that he found it somewhat disappointing that Griffey didn't devote the same work ethic to the sport that he did.

That seems to have changed. Both are having career years. Thomas, in fact, is having one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Through the weekend, he was competing for the triple crown (last achieved by Carl Yastrzemski in 1967), leading the league in hitting, at .366, tied for the league lead in homers, 36, and tied for third in runs batted in, 95, behind leader Albert Belle's 98. (Belle, however, has since begun to serve his seven-game suspension for being caught using a corked bat against the White Sox.) What's more, Thomas was in pursuit of Babe Ruth's record 170 walks in a season, while trying to become only the fifth player to finish a year with an on-base average of .500 (joining Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle), and only the third to hit 20 homers, drive in 100 runs, score 100 times, and bat .300 in four straight seasons (joining Williams and Lou Gehrig). His 36 homers were tied for the league lead with Griffey, and put both in pursuit of Roger Maris's record 61, one of the most hallowed marks in baseball. Matt Williams, of the San Francisco Giants, has answered the challenge with 40 home runs in the National League.

Thomas's dedication has never been questioned, but Griffey's finally seems comparable, while his fondness for playing--for making the work of baseball seem like play--seems undiminished. He still wears his cap backward during batting practice and all nongame situations, and goes by the nickname "Junior." (His dad was a star with Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 70s and carried on long enough to play with his son for a couple of seasons in Seattle, which is when the nickname really stuck.)

Awaiting the pitch, Griffey waves the bat across the plate in a glib and easy manner. His apparent lack of concern is part of what makes him dangerous. Thomas is focused from the moment he steps into the batter's box. He discards his smile the way most hitters discard the weighted donut they practice swinging with. He scowls, digs in, and then moves the bat past his face, toward the pitcher, with a noticeable tension in his arms and shoulders; he seems flexed and ready for the pitch.

Griffey has a long, sweeping swing, much like Darryl Strawberry's only with a shorter, more efficient arc, Strawberry being 6 feet 6 inches tall and Griffey 6 foot 3. Griffey stands at the plate very erect but also very relaxed; he holds his hands high but not unusually so, about shoulder height. His swing uncoils rapidly and almost effortlessly; he seems to generate all his power in his midsection, his belt buckle pointing in the direction the ball he hits will take.

During batting practice last Saturday, he sent ball after ball soaring into the stands, bouncing one off the blue roof at the rear of the right field bull pen. Before his final swing, he said, "All right, opposite field. I'm goin'. And it doesn't have to go out. Just the best-looking one." No one answered this challenge, and rightly so. Griffey lined one beautifully down the left field line. "Double!" he said, and stepped from the cage.

Thomas pays little attention to aesthetic concerns. His swing is much less pretty but also much more efficient than even Griffey's. He holds his hands high and close to his head, then swings the bat sharply down across the plate. That swing is the foundation of Hriniak's coaching method: to bring the bat as rapidly as possible into contact with the baseball, generating maximum bat speed and letting the bat carry into the distinctive follow-through. However, the style has never been practiced with the talent Thomas brings to it.

Thomas's swing has one noticeable bit of flair: a tendency to transfer his weight so rapidly and with so much energy from right foot to left that it lifts his right foot off the ground at contact. Older fans will remember that Roberto Clemente also used to do this, but Clemente was a much smaller, slighter man. He was not six feet tall, and he weighed 175 pounds. Thomas is listed in the White Sox media guide at 6 feet 5 inches tall and 257 pounds. When he hurtles the bat in the direction of the baseball, with as much energy as Clemente but significantly more force, he fully earns his nickname, the Big Hurt.

Thomas's first few swings last Saturday were almost delicate. He was concentrating on the swing and not the results. There was a coy, balletic feel to the way he'd lift his right foot off the ground as he swung. Yet with those few practice swings out of the way, he began to concentrate on coordinating weight transfer and bat speed. By the time Griffey ambled over, the ball was flying off his bat.

Thomas had been in something of a slump since the all-star break, and he was clearly trying to work his way out of it during batting practice. He hit some tremendous shots with deceptive ease, then--as he began to try to really hit them--he began to swing off the ball, to raise his head and left shoulder. He hit a dribbling grounder, then a pop-up that slapped off the tarpaulin flap at the top of the cage. He got mad at himself, regained his composure, and drove the next ball off the right field fence on a line.

When the game began Thomas did the same thing first time up, only better. The Mariners' starter was former Cub Shawn Boskie. He got leadoff man Norberto Martin, the Sox' second baseman for the day, to ground out. Then Tim Raines lined a single to right. That brought up Thomas. He took the first pitch for a ball. Then he looked for a fastball. Boskie delivered it, right over the plate, a weak, batting-practice-speed, first-inning fastball. Thomas probably could have driven it 450 to center, but he took no chances: he hit it hard to right field, where he had clearly been thinking of going, and it went up and up and carried into the right field seats for a two-run homer, his eighth first-inning homer of the season.

That staked Jack McDowell to a lead, and he was more than up to protecting it. He seems to have slightly altered his stance and streamlined his motion of late. He now holds his pitching arm in close to his body as he awaits the catcher's sign, in the manner of someone who has been injured. And in a way he had been. The Toronto Blue Jays roughed him up in the playoffs last year, when there were reports McDowell was tipping his pitches (a possible cause for the new stance), and those troubles carried through the early part of this season. He was 2-7 through May. Since then, however, he has been his usual self--no, better than his usual self. Where he used to perform a high-wire act even when he was pitching well--walking guys, allowing plenty of hits, going deep into the count with every batter, and routinely pitching out of jams--he now has all the directness of an ascetic monk on the mound.

McDowell allowed a run in the third, but the Sox got it right back in the bottom of the inning, with Thomas earning the RBI. He allowed an unearned run in the eighth, but again the Sox staked him to a two-run lead in the bottom of the inning. And in the ninth it was three up, three down--not so much as a quickened heartbeat in the stands.

Best of all was the way he pitched Griffey. He got him to ground to second in the first inning and hit a soft liner to short in the third. Then he struck Griffey out on a split-finger fastball in the sixth. Ozzie Guillen booted Griffey's eighth-inning grounder, allowing the last Seattle run to score, but that still made Griffey zero for four on the night.

After the game, Thomas declined to trumpet his catching Griffey in homers. "Sure, we're friends, but we're just doing our jobs," he said. "This is serious business. No one's really concerned about records or stuff like that right now.

"There's no pressure. I'm going out every day to have fun. I'm not in uncharted waters or anything. I've been pretty consistent my whole career. I just go out and focus on my job very seriously and I can't control the business end of it. We knew this was going to happen. There are no surprises here. We're going to play hard until the break and that's it.

"We're preparing for the 12th and that's it," he added. "Time is running out."

The 12th, of course, refers to the players' decision to strike next Friday if the owners persist in their demands for a salary cap and an end to arbitration. It was a specter--sometimes acknowledged, sometimes ignored--hanging over all the events of that day and every day, before and after, since the date was set.

Thomas ended batting practice by signing a ball for the honorary batboy with a "Here ya go, buddy." Griffey took his swings and then sauntered over to lean against the dugout railing, where he held court in front of dozens of young fans, talking back and forth with them, asking them questions, his bat across his shoulder. With those images held in our minds, we'll bring this column--if not the season--to a close.

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