Oct. 20, 2009
by Jon Cooper
OSR Sting EXTRA
ATLANTA — There’s something about J.J. Thomas’ career at Georgia Tech that follows and still rankles him.
“If I had a nickel for every time that someone asked me if I played with Nomar [Garciaparra] and [Jason] Varitek . . . ” he said with a laugh.
That Thomas, whose given name is James Henley Thomas, Jr., didn’t play with Varitek and Garciaparra, but right after, is important.
It helps define and magnify his career. He did enough himself to be recognized Nov. 6, when he former will be inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame with, among others, teammate Kris Wilson.
“That was a big thing that Georgia Tech Baseball was known for up to that point,” said Thomas, a slugging first baseman who played on The Flats from 1995 through 1997. “But we definitely had a very big freshman class.”
While people may still mistake Thomas’ teammates, there was no mistaking Thomas, who set the standard for slugging and clutch hitting.
“He was a great competitor and had tremendous power. His power numbers still stack up very high in the record books at Georgia Tech,” said baseball coach Danny Hall. “He contributed right away, from his freshman year, and just had as much power, probably, as anybody we’ve ever had here.”
Thomas, a Marietta native and former Wheeler High star, was a three-time All-ACC selection (first team in 1997, second team in ’95 and ’96) and an honorable mention All-American in ’96.
He ranks second in school history in career home runs (56, one behind Varitek) and has two of the top 10 single-season home run totals (22 in 1997, tied for third, and 21 in 1996, sixth). He’s also in the top 10 in career slugging percentage (.675, seventh), total bases (442, eighth) and RBIs (184, ninth) and has the 10th-longest hitting streak in school history (21 games in ’96).
Wilson remembered that Thomas was as big a hit off the field.
“J.J. is a funny guy. He’s kind of got that dry sense of humor,” recalled the right-hander. “When I first met him I didn’t know about him and then the more I hung around him the more I liked him.”
Thomas’ timing with punch lines was topped only by his timing at bat with games on the line.
“He made a lot of people think they had ESP,” said Wilson with a laugh. “They would be, ‘J.J.’s going to hit a home run right here’ and he would do it. He always did it at the time we needed it. He was just a clutch hitter.”
“We were never really out of a game if we could get some guys on and get J.J. up there,” added Hall. “He could hit a home run just about any time, anywhere and out of any ball park.”
He admitted he is flattered by the legend of his clutch hitting, but denied ever hitting a home run on cue.
“Honestly, it was a humbling career. I struck out a lot but then did seem to rise to the occasion,” said Thomas, who holds the school season and career records for strikeouts, at 80 in ’97, and 203, respectively.
“One thing I took pride in was to be able to come through in the clutch moments. To be able to come through when it counts, that, to me, is a true baseball player.”
Thomas is as proud of the team effort that his incoming class of ’95 showed in upholding the quality of Tech baseball following the memorable `94 season, which saw stars, Garciaparra, Varitek and Jay Payton all leave for long careers in the Majors.
In that three-year stretch, from ’95 through ’97, Tech won 38, 40 and 46 games.
“The biggest thing that I noticed was that we jelled right off the bat,” Thomas recalled. “A lot of us had played in the East Cobb Baseball system and although we were young, I think we exceeded a lot of expectations.”
The ’97 season was most memorable, as Tech won the ACC regular season championship going 19-4, then came within one game of going to the College World Series before losing in the Mideast Regional.
“We definitely had a special team and we were basically one game away from getting to The Show,” recalled Thomas, who was second on the team in homers (22) and RBIs (70, Mark Fischer led Tech in both).
He also was third in runs (70), hit .304 and was 9 of 10 in stolen base attempts. “All of us were kind of clicking. Everybody matured the way that we had hoped and we definitely knew that we were good and we were ready to prove it. We had a little swagger to us and it was a lot of fun.”
Thomas was drafted in the 15th round of that year’s June amateur draft by the Houston Astros, and played in their minor league system for four seasons, retiring after the 2000 season.
He still lives Marietta and has returned to his baseball roots, the East Cobb Baseball League, working, fittingly, with the East Cobb Astros. Thomas finds it rewarding to help mold the next generation of baseball players and admits he’s not shy about steering them toward Georgia Tech to play baseball.
“As many as I can,” he said.
It’s an easy pitch for him because of the pride he still feels about playing baseball and going to school on The Flats.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Not only is it a highly regarded academic school, but the competition in baseball, there definitely is a standard. Georgia Tech, in my mind, has always been a top-10 program in the nation and that’s where you want to play.”
The Georgia Tech Hall of Fame Induction Dinner will be held on Friday, November 6 at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. A social hour will begin at 6:30 p.m. with the dinner/program to follow at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets may be purchased at $50.00 per person through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund (150 Bobby Dodd Way, N.W., Atlanta, GA, 30332-0455 or by calling 404-894-6124). Additional information relative to the banquet may be secured by calling Lucius Sanford, Executive Director of the Georgia Tech Letterwinners Club at 404-894-8865.