July 26, 2014
Frank Thomas and his Hall of Fame display this weekend in Cooperstown
By Charles Goldberg
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It's already been a good weekend for Greg Norton.
He's been with his former teammate Frank Thomas, seen old friends, met a few fans and has had the opportunity to walk around this shrine to baseball with his 9-year-old son.
Greg Norton and son, Jace, are sharing the game that dad played for 13 years as a major leaguer during this weekend when baseball's Hall of Fame inducts six more greats of the game. Norton, an Auburn assistant baseball coach, is here because Thomas' wife, Megan, invited him and his family to be with Thomas, the one-time Auburn star, who is being inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.
That, and the surprise party.
"His wife invited some folks and didn't tell him," Norton said.
Thomas and Norton played together for five years with the Chicago White Sox. Neither they nor their families have forgotten the relationship. It began in 1995 when Norton showed up in his first big league camp and Thomas was already an established star.
By 1996, Norton was with the White Sox.
"I played third and first base, and he showed me the ropes," Norton said. "He was one of the veteran players who took care of the younger guys…took us out to dinner, hung out with us a bit and would talk ball. He was a superstar who didn't put himself above the younger guys. He was a guy you could talk with. That was definitely a good trait that Frank had. He helped make the transition from minor league ball to the majors a lot easier for us."
Thomas was already on his way to his Hall of Fame career, one that ended with 521 home runs, a .301 career batting average and a couple of American League MVPs.
The White Sox liked him from the start. They made him the sixth overall pick out of Auburn in 1989.
"I can't say I've talked to Frank on a regular basis over the years, but we've had a relationship and our wives have had a good relationship," Norton said. "It was fitting for us to come up and me a part of it."
It was fitting because they played together…and because of Auburn.
Norton coaches at Plainsman Park, where Thomas is honored in photo and name on Auburn's Wall of Fame. So are Bo Jackson, Tim Hudson and Gregg Olson, all players Norton knew or played with or against in his big league travels.
Norton first came for the Auburn job because he knew head coach Sunny Golloway from the days Golloway was a coach at Oklahoma and Norton was a player.
"Once I showed up in Auburn, it was 'I'm here for a reason, that there's more of a tie-in with Auburn than I knew.'
"I look at the wall and you've got Bo Jackson, who used to come to spring training with the White Sox when I was there as kind of an advisor; and then there's the time Frank was the superstar of our team."
Frank and Bo? They'd talk Auburn.
"Bo and Frank would go back and forth messing around with each other. The entertainment level was outstanding. I hadn't seen Bo in 15 or 20 years until this year when he was in our dugout during a game, but the first thing he tells me is I'm uglier and older than I remember. That was classic Bo."
Tim Hudson is on the wall "who lives down the street and was a teammate and a friend of ours. You go to Gregg Olson, and I tied a major league record off of Gregg Olson in my first game. Everybody on the wall I had some kind of relationship or tie with Auburn baseball, making it a really special place."
Wait. Major league record?
"It was August 1996 and it was my first game. I pinch hit against the Tigers and got a base hit off Jose Lima, and we batted around and I got a hit off Gregg Olson in the same inning. At the time, they said Billy Martin and I were the only guys to get two hits in the same inning in their first two major league at-bats."
Tie-ins? Norton played with new Hall of Fame inductee Tom Glavine and played for new Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Cox.
Father and son call tell stories like that on a Hall of Fame weekend.
"I'm able to share this with my son," Norton said. "We walked around town and I told him who all the Hall of Famers were. We walked through the museum, and that makes me appreciate the game I've played all of my life, and that's something I was able to share with my son.
"We looked at autographs balls like we have, and that he'll have one of these days. It was a special day for me."
And Greg Norton got to pick up a bat around Doubleday Park where he once won a home run hitting contest.
"I took him to the batting cage and had him hitting balls, and, of course, he wanted his dad in there. So I hit some balls off the machine. We had a good day. For me, being a pro guy, I think it should be a requirement for all coaches, high school, college and professionally, to come up here and really appreciate the talent and the history of the game."
That means the talk could turn to Frank Thomas.
"For Frank to be the first SEC player to be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and to be an Auburn Tiger, is pretty special," Norton said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine