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Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina await word on Hall

Saturday - 1/4/2014, 12:02am  ET

JAY COHEN
AP Sports

CHICAGO (AP) -- They faced off 96 times in a span of 17 years. Frank Thomas at the plate and Mike Mussina on the mound, one of baseball's most feared sluggers taking on one of the sport's smartest players.

There were warm summer days and brisk spring nights. Big games and small ones, everywhere from the Bronx to Chicago's South Side to Oakland on the West Coast.

It's a string that runs through the careers of two decorated players, who find out Wednesday if they are headed for one more honor, a spot in baseball's Hall of Fame.

"The quality of pitcher that Mike is, whoever it was on the other team, they always were aware of where Frank was," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who played with Thomas and Mussina. "It was good that we got to enjoy kind of those battles with those pitchers, because Frank was very good at it."

Thomas was one of the toughest outs in the majors during his heyday, hitting 524 homers and driving in 1,704 runs during a sparkling 19-year career spent mostly with the White Sox. Aptly nicknamed The Big Hurt, the 6-foot-5 Thomas also had a .301 batting average, .419 on-base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage for his career, numbers that stack up favorably when compared to some of the biggest names in Cooperstown.

"I think I've done enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer," he said a year ago at the White Sox fan convention.

Mussina, a native of Williamsport, Pa., was one of baseball's most consistent pitchers during his 18-year career with the Orioles and Yankees, recording at least 18 victories in six seasons and winning at least 11 games in each of his last 17 years in the majors. A seven-time Gold Glove winner, he finished with a 270-153 record and a 3.68 ERA while pitching in the challenging AL East.

"Looking back at the whole thing for 18 years, when it was my turn to pitch, I went out and pitched, most of the time," said Mussina, who has an economics degree from Stanford. "I never had surgery. I never had major stints on the disabled list.

"I'm proud of being able to do that."

The thread that unites the hulking slugger and pitcher's pitcher is 82 official at-bats from Aug. 4, 1991 to April 2, 2008. It's the highest total for Thomas against a single pitcher, and he had a .366 career average and nine homers versus the durable right-hander. But Mussina won his share of the battles, too.

So while Thomas stays quiet ahead of the announcement of the writers' Hall ballot -- he declined an interview request made through the team -- a look at five days over the years provides a glimpse into what made the Columbus, Ga., native and Mussina strong candidates for baseball's highest honor.

AUGUST 4, 1991

Ask Hal Baird about Thomas, and the retired Auburn baseball coach can recite story after story about one of his favorite former players.

Thomas got a late start to his baseball career at the school because he also played tight end on the football team. Baird wasn't exactly sure what to expect when he finally joined the team, but Thomas quickly answered any questions he had.

"He came out the first day. It was a little bit cold and we were standing behind the cage getting ready to take some batting practice," Baird said. "I watched his swing about three times and I told my assistant coach who worked with the hitters, I said 'Leave this kid alone. He needs no help whatsoever. Let's just make sure he gets to the ballpark on time.'"

Mussina learned all about Thomas' potent swing when the pitcher made his major league debut for Baltimore. Thomas' one-out drive to left on a 2-1 pitch in the sixth was the only run allowed by Mussina over 7 2-3 innings in a 1-0 loss to the White Sox.

MAY 15, 1992

Mussina is on his way to establishing himself as one of baseball's best pitchers when he runs into Thomas again. Thomas reaches on a leadoff single in the second, but he grounds out to third twice before Mussina leaves after throwing 8 2-3 innings of four-hit ball in Baltimore's 2-0 win.

Mussina improved to 5-0, and went on to an 18-5 record with a 2.54 ERA. It was business as usual for Thomas, who finished the year with a .323 batting average, 24 homers and 115 RBIs.

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