'Blessed' Big Hurt awaits big day at HOF

A White Sox slugger will be at the Home Run derby Monday night, but it's the wrong one.

Frank Thomas, the Big Hurt, the five-time All-Star and new Hall of Famer, will be sitting in centerfield during the home run derby at Target Field, as part of a promotional deal with Gillette. While Thomas is peddling a "Flexball" razor, Jose Abreu, an All-Star with 29 home runs at the break, will be watching, but not participating.

It was Abreu's choice, he felt like it would mess up his swing, but most feel like it's an opportunity lost for the Cuban slugger.

"I'm disappointed," Thomas said in a phone conversation from Minneapolis on Sunday. "He's a breakout star. He needs to let the world know who Jose Abreu is."

Abreu will have to wait for Tuesday's All-Star game for a few swings into the national consciousness. He doesn't speak much English, and he's not the flashy athlete like his countryman Yasiel Puig, but the rookie Abreu should be one of baseball's greatest stories.

I got to thinking about how one becomes a baseball star nowadays and if we'll ever see a baseball player achieve the kind of national recognition afforded basketball and football players.

Baseball is a regional game, and even with national cable TV deals and the connectivity of the Internet and social media, it's hard for a baseball player to get a national foothold. So much noise. To many, Abreu is just a name you see on Twitter, often accompanied by "home run."

When Thomas came up as a giant wunderkind in 1990, there was no way for a player to reach the world like there is now. But yet, Thomas was a national star at an early age. One main reason, it was the beginning of the trading card boom.

Thomas' popularity, in card form, made him my favorite player as a young kid.

As a kid in eastern Ohio, my older brother was a Mark McGwire fan. My younger brother was a Ken Griffey Jr. fan. So I picked the Big Hurt as my out-of-town favorite. Maybe I just liked the black White Sox hat. Maybe I just liked the idea of Frank Thomas. The only times I really remembered watching him play was during the All-Star Game.

But my brothers and I collected cards and put them in big binders. Topps, Upper Deck, Sportflics, Leaf, you name it.

As a Hall of Famer, Thomas' autograph is his greatest currency, but in his heyday, he signed cards as a professional courtesy.

"To be honest, I probably signed 50,000," Thomas said. "Kids would send mail to your house. It helped build a fan base nationwide. Early in my career, I tried to send back as many as I could."

Thomas is in the midst of recapturing his legacy this month as he prepares for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27. He said he's "95 percent" done with his speech, which he's writing himself, a fairly vanilla thank you to all the people who helped him along the way.

"I'm blessed and proud to be a first ballot Hall of Famer," he said. "I've been blessed."

Thomas is busy these days, traveling from his northern suburban home to Los Angeles to work for Fox Sports 1, while still doing television at Comcast SportsNet Chicago. He's got his Big Hurt Beer and his exclusive memorabilia deal with MAB Celebrity Services.

While his career ended playing for Oakland and Toronto, Thomas will always be identified with the White Sox. To prepare for his speech, he said he went through every season, trying to spark memories.

It was quite a career, 20 years in the majors. There was the 1993 and '94 MVP seasons, the 2000 out-of-nowhere playoff team.

Thomas hit .301, with 521 home runs and 1,704 RBIs in his career. He's proud of his contributions to the 2005 World Series team, hitting 13 home runs on one leg for a team that had to hold on to make the playoffs.

But like many competitors, he said he thinks about what he didn't do.

"There were a couple MVP awards I missed out on, that's historical," he said. "Those are things you look back on. I look back at the teams that didn't win it all. We had four teams that could've won the championship. But we didn't get it done with those four teams."

Thomas looks now at Abreu, 27 and in the prime of his career.

"That's when you're at your best," he said. "He's showing you what he's got going."

One Sox slugger is arriving while another looks forward to the next phase of his career. It's a great time for baseball.