Editor’s note: As University of Maine sports fans hunker down amid concerns about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the BDN hopes to inspire fans by recounting stories of some of the most memorable Black Bear games, teams and athletes in program history.
It was 25 years ago that Larry Thomas realized his dream of pitching in the major leagues.
The Chicago White Sox selected the University of Maine’s ace lefty in the second round of the 1991 draft and he passed up his senior year to sign.
Thomas played an important role in the 1991 Black Bears’ 23-game winning streak and their 48 victories, school records that still stand.
He was transformed from a starter into a reliever in 1995, and he posted a 4-1 record and a sparkling 1.34 earned run average for Class AA Birmingham that year before arriving in the Windy City.
Thomas made 17 appearances for the White Sox and registered an impressive 1.32 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings. In 1996, he made 57 relief appearances for Chicago and was 2-3 with a 3.23 ERA in 30 2/3 innings.
However, elbow issues curtailed his career. Thomas pitched in just five games for Chicago in 1997 and spent most of the season with Triple-A Nashville. He was traded to Texas and never made it back to the big leagues.
“It was a hard thing to swallow … not being able to pitch anymore,” he said, believing he might have pitched for several more seasons.
“But when I look back, I accomplished a lot of things most guys couldn’t.”
Among Thomas’s favorite memories are facing Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Cal Ripken Jr.
“The first time I faced Ken Griffey Jr. I struck him out on a 1-2 slider down and away,” recalled Thomas, who is the fourth-year head baseball coach at Central Alabama Community College. “I idolized that guy. I watched him throughout his career.”
Ripken Jr., the former Baltimore Orioles shortstop who owns the record for most consecutive games played (2,632), hit a come-backer to the mound against him.
The 50-year-old Thomas said his three years at UMaine under the late John Winkin were extremely valuable.
“It was about making us the best we could be,” Thomas said. “[The pitchers] would talk and learn from each other. We’d collaborate with the catchers and talk about how we were going to pitch certain teams.”
He said it was the same dynamic in the big leagues, where one of his catchers in Chicago was former Boston Red Sox star Carlton Fisk, whose pitch-calling he trusted.
“You don’t shake off a Hall of Famer,” Thomas said.
He said he was fortunate to play with quality major leaguers such as Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Lance Johnson and Kirk McCaskill, among others.
“You learned to make sure you played the game right,” Thomas said.
UMaine’s 1991 season is one he will always cherish. The Black Bears endured a grueling spring trip during which they faced nine nationally ranked teams.
Later, a 12-2 loss in the second game of a doubleheader in Portland against Providence left UMaine with a 13-13 record. It was a wakeup call.
“Coming off our southern trip, we all knew we were good. We knew we had the players and pitchers to make a statement in college baseball,” Thomas said.
The Black Bears, which featured the likes of Mark Sweeney, Ben Burlingame, Rob Higgins and Gary Taylor, won the next 23 games.
“The pitchers would dominate one game, but if the pitchers struggled, the hitters took over. We had a couple of games in which we trailed by five and came back to win,” Thomas said.
He learned during his pro career that players from bigger college programs who played UMaine were surprised how good the Black Bears were.
“They said they took us for granted. We had a chip on our shoulder. We felt we could compete and beat those teams, not just hang with them,” Thomas said.
The work ethic and leadership qualities exhibited by Sweeney and the other veterans rubbed off him and the younger players.
Thomas was part of a three-man rotation with Burlingame and Mike D’Andrea, but when D’Andrea got hurt in the ECAC Tournament and couldn’t pitch in the NCAA Regional, it proved to be too much to overcome.
UMaine reached the championship round, needing to beat Clemson twice to go to the College World Series, but ran out of pitching.
“That was as good a team as they have ever had at Maine, but they aren’t going to get the recognition they deserve because they didn’t make it to the World Series,” said Mike Coutts, who was an assistant that year and is now the head softball coach at UMaine.
Sweeney was a first-team All-American and Thomas, who set the school single-season record with 108 strikeouts in 99 1/3 innings, was a third-team selection. He also tied the school record by making 15 starts.
“His slider was crazy. It was the best I have ever seen,” said former teammate Chad White, who also played in the minor leagues.
“He was a tough competitor,” Coutts said. “He had command of three pitches [fastball, slider, changeup] in the strike zone.”
The Massachusetts native lives in Alexander City, Alabama, and teaches nutrition and orientation at Central Alabama Community College. He and his wife, Alicia, have three children: Toby, 26, Liam, 15, and Olivia, 10.
Toby was a second baseman who played five years of minor league ball and is now coaching with his father as a volunteer assistant.
Larry Thomas tries to pass along the lessons he has learned to his players.
“One of the things I love about the game is you are always changing and evolving. My main goal is to get our players to the next level and help them become the best player they can be,” he said.