Las Vegas may never mature into the big-league city that its former and current mayors insist it should be. But that doesn’t mean we lack for sports royalty of the highest order. We were reminded of just that on January 8, when pitcher Greg Maddux and slugger Frank Thomas—the former a near native Las Vegan, the latter a longtime Valley resident—were voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility.
Maddux for years has been jockeying for position at the top of the list of all-time greatest Southern Nevada athletes—it’s him and Andre Agassi; you debate the order—and his slam-dunk induction reinforced just how historically special the right-hander was: Maddux was named on 97.2 percent of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, falling just short of Tom Seaver’s record of 98.84 percent.
Somehow, the 16 writers who didn’t include Maddux on their ballots failed to be overly impressed with these statistics: 23 seasons; 355 victories (eighth most in Major League Baseball history); a 3.16 ERA (despite a fastball that rarely topped 90 mph and despite having to face countless juiced-up hitters); an MLB-record 18 Gold Gloves and four National League Cy Young Awards (won consecutively from 1992-95).
When Vegas Seven caught up with Maddux in April 2011 for a Seven Questions interview, the Valley High School alum was his usual humble self while reflecting on his remarkable two-plus decades pitching for the Cubs, Braves, Dodgers and Padres. “I feel very proud of the career I had,” Maddux said at the time. “I feel good about the longevity of my career. … I only won 20 games twice out of 23 seasons, and you would think to win as many games as I did, you would probably have to win 20 games a year more [often] than I did, but you don’t. You just have to make your starts. If you pitch pretty good and you win half of your starts, if you’re lucky enough to make 600 starts, there’s your 300 wins right there.”
Like Maddux, Thomas was a dominant force throughout a 19-year career spent mostly with the Chicago White Sox. Nicknamed “The Big Hurt” not long after getting promoted to the big leagues in 1990, Thomas lived up to his moniker, punishing American League pitchers to the tune of 521 home runs (tied for 18th on the all-time list), 495 doubles and 1,704 RBIs. But Thomas—who won back-to-back American League MVPs in 1993-94—was much more than just a raw power hitter, as evidenced by the fact he hit .301 for his career and finished with nearly 300 more walks (1,667) than strikeouts (1,397).
Despite a career that progressed through the heart of the steroid era—and despite his massive 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame—Thomas’ name was never mentioned in the same performance-enhancing-drug breath as contemporaries Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. It’s something he addressed when I sat down with him in March 2012.
“When I think about the era I played in, I have mixed emotions,” said Thomas, who bought a home in Seven Hills in 2002 (which he sold last June) and is CEO of Las Vegas-based W2W Records. “I always thought I was playing with the best players ever, and the numbers were saying that. I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. I stayed away from all that, because I was so into, ‘What do I have to do to get better every day and help my team win?’ I was already the biggest guy. I didn’t know that everyone was chasing what I was doing. … Then all of a sudden everybody caught me and passed me, and I’m like, ‘Fuck! I guess everybody’s outworking me.’ That’s what was in my mind: that I wasn’t working hard enough. But I really wasn’t cutting any corners. I was working my ass off. Lo and behold, 12 years later we found out what the hell was going on.”
Hall of Fame voters certainly validated Thomas’ career: While facts and overwhelming circumstantial evidence continue to keep the likes of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa out Cooperstown—most likely forever—Thomas skated through on his first try, garnering 83.7 percent of the vote (75 percent is required for enshrinement). It was validation that Thomas was hoping for when we met nearly two years ago: “Making the Hall of Fame when I’m eligible in 2014 would be the final chapter, in my mind—to get into that hallowed Hall and be recognized as one of the greatest players of all time.”