DUNEDIN — Shannon Stewart continued his conversation with Frank Thomas as he backed away from the veteran's locker stall, pulling on his Blue Jays batting-practice jersey. Stewart was barely a few steps away, however, when the loquacious designated hitter turned and began gabbing with young pitcher Jesse Litsch.
"Hurt. Hurt?" Stewart called back, shortening Thomas' nickname, "The Big Hurt."
"Oh, I see," he said, after finally getting Thomas' attention again, feigning a slight. "You only talk to me on road trips."
"No, Stew, I thought you were talking to somebody else," Thomas smiled as Stewart huffed off. "Stew!"
These are happier times for Thomas, who enters his 19th big-league season focused and for the first time in five years, he said, healthy. Seemingly fit enough to play football again, fitting into a locker room better than his last days with the White Sox in 2005, his surgically repaired ankle no longer an impediment. His equally fit sense of confidence has him setting the same goals as in the mid 1990s when he won the American League MVP in 1993 and 1994: 40 home runs, 120 RBIs.
"People look at you like you're crazy, but I feel great," said Thomas, who had 39 home runs and 114 RBIs with Oakland two seasons ago. He said he never questioned whether his rare ability to hit powerfully and selectively would erode as heel problems surfaced even before he broke a bone in his ankle in July 2004 and required surgery.
"I've always been able to do some amazing things on a baseball field," he said. "I keep that in my mind. I store it. You didn't get there just by it happening. It was a lot of hard work, and I had a gift from God to swing the bat."
Thomas therefore doesn't think his career needs much garnishment. He considers himself a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.
"I mean honestly, if you look at what I've achieved over an 18-year period, it speaks volumes," he said, pointing to six top fives in MVP voting. "That's saying a guy, year in and year out, was on it."
Thomas is back because he still, literally, he says, lies in bed at night critiquing at-bats, proving: "I'm not trying to be here to be here. I love to play this game."
That made recovery from the ankle injury so critical. Though his self-demand for perfection remains, he's used to making little compromises these days. Pulling on an odd pair of cleats — with an inner slipper that sits inside the body of the shoe — for ankle support, he self-mocks, "these take away the breakaway speed, but they keep you alive."
"A couple years ago I thought the ankle was going to dictate my retirement," he said. "I never say never, but thank God I was able to get it back together. When I walk away I want to be able to walk away on my own terms."
Thomas, who turns 40 on May 27, is in the top-five active leaders in home runs (513), walks (1,628), RBIs (1,674), total bases (4,458) and on-base percentage (.421) and led the Blue Jays in home runs (26) and RBIs (95) while batting .277 last season, his best mark since hitting .328 in 2000.
"Frank is going to be one of those guys who never has to sit there and second-guess himself," general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "He's left everything on the field."
Thomas labored into Thursday batting just .067 but said an offseason "refresher" with batting guru Walt Hriniak is beginning to show benefits. His unofficial role is as clubhouse chemist, odd considering the churlish reputation he developed in Chicago. The Jays clubhouse seems to run through his locker stall, and not just because it's near the showers. He and Litsch, a Dixie Hollins High graduate, discuss whether there is really a no-fly zone over China, and Stewart is back for more.
"If I want to laugh, I just go talk to Frank," said Stewart, 33, who is Thomas' teammate for the first time. "He's a real nice dude. They should call him The Big Soft. Really. But when he's on the field he's The Big Hurt. He's one of the greatest ever."