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Back With Brewers, Thomas Is in His Element

July 22, 1986|TOM FARREY | Times Staff Writer

A beer in his hand and sporting a T-shirt that read, "I'm not who you think," Gorman Thomas was passing out the brew Monday night after the Brewers beat the Angels, 5-3.

Understand, though. Anyone with a second-day beard and a cooler of beer in his locker certainly is who you think. Especially in a Brewer clubhouse.

Acquired last Wednesday as a free agent, Thomas is a Brewer again. He's 35, doesn't have the deep-center gun that he once had, and is with a club emphasizing youth because, lately, there has been no emphasis on winning.

But if there is such a thing as fate, it would only be right that Gorman Thomas finish his career as a Brewer. That doesn't mean that he's calling for the curtain, but remember this: Until the Brewers contacted him last Sunday, Thomas was content with retirement.

Since his release from the Seattle Mariners June 25, Thomas had listened to offers from the White Sox and Tigers.

But who's he kidding? Gorman Thomas is not Chicago or Detroit, just like he says he never felt comfortable in a Mariner or Indian uniform.

"When I was with Seattle and Cleveland, wherever I went people still always looked at me as a Brewer," Thomas said. "I've got a good following I guess, and that's pretty nice."

The Brewers offered Thomas, who didn't play Monday, basically the same role as Seattle had, pinch and designated hitting and maybe some first base. But how could Thomas refuse George Bamberger and Harry Dalton? Traded to Texas during the off-season in 1978, Dalton, the new Brewer General Manager, retrieved Thomas before the next season. Over the next five seasons, Thomas averaged 35 home runs and 98 runs batted in.

He is as popular as any active Brewer, and when he was traded to Cleveland early in the 1983 season, he was also as record-setting. When he rejoined the Brewers, he was still the club's all-time leader in home runs (202) and in the top 10 in games (1,058), at-bats (3,399), runs (503), hits (789), doubles (168), RBIs (595), extra base hits (381), total bases (1,585), slugging percentage (.466) and walks (470).

Perhaps Thomas is the consummate Milwaukee citizen, a never-say-die athlete with an expandable stomach. But Bamberger said that even with a lumberjack paunch, Thomas is still the athlete he once was.

"He's 35, but he's still in good shape," Bamberger said. "He's hitting as good as ever, but he's just not throwing like he once did because of that rotator cuff."

Two years ago, Thomas had surgery to correct his shoulder. As a minor league player in the mid-1970s, Thomas was once called up by Bamberger because he was so adept in the field. But after the rotator cuff injury, Thomas was limited to a designated hitter role.

When his batting average dipped below .200 this season, he became expendable. Thomas thought he batted well, but had only 10 home runs and 26 RBIs in 170 at-bats.

"I was hitting the ball pretty good, but I didn't have a whole lot to show for it," said Thomas, who never did adjust well to the designated and pinch-hitter roles. "It was just a tough set of circumstances. In that role there was no consistency or regimentation."

A lifetime .226 hitter, Thomas had dropped off to .194 this season at Seattle, but average was never what kept him in the majors anyway. In three of his first four seasons with the Brewers, Thomas failed to break .200, and only twice since then has he exceeded .246.

Cheap hits were something nobody bothered to hope for in Thomas. When he returned last year after surgery and had 32 home runs and 84 runs batted in, he was named The Sporting News and United Press International Comeback Player of the Year. His average--.215.

Before he was traded to Cleveland early in the 1983 season, Thomas led the American League in home runs in 1979 with 45 and tied for the lead in 1982 with 39. Such figures tend to eclipse batting averages, and make heroes for the fans.

After the trade last week, much of Milwaukee embraced Thomas, batting average, bum shoulder and all. In fact, Bamberger said that since his return, Thomas seems to be even more popular. But to Thomas, "It's just another page in the book."

As to why a last-place team would want a graying 35-year-old free agent down a meaningless stretch, don't apply logic. The answer is obvious to sentimental Brewer fans: Everyone comes home sometime.

"It's nice to be back," Thomas said. "This is where I started and this is where I enjoy playing best."

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