Being Frank About Beer
A Major League legend teams with a Sand City brewmaster to debut a national brand ahead of Monterey Beer Festival.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
You don’t see many Davids who are built like Goliath.
Nobody, consequently, sees one in 6-feet-5-inch, 275-pound Frank Thomas.
His career arc doesn’t exactly evoke underdog either. This is an athlete who was bigger than Barry Bonds without the juice, a back-to-back American League MVP who finished in the top 10 of MVP voting every year from 1991-97. This is the guy with more home runs than Lou Gehrig, more RBIs than Reggie Jackson and more hits than Mickey Mantle. This is the hulk who swung rebar in the on-deck circle, the only player in the 173-year history of America’s pastime – not Babe Ruth, Ted Williams or Ty Cobb – to achieve seven consecutive seasons with a .300 average and at least 100 walks, 100 runs, 100 runs batted in and 20 home runs.
But look a little more closely, and you might glimpse what makes the hitter they call “Big Hurt” wince. You notice a surprising pattern of rejection, and another pattern in how he responds. You sense what would brew bitterness in others, and what it’s fermented in him instead. And you discover that what he’s up to now, at age 43 – which will soon bring him to Sand City and the Monterey Beer Festival – makes for his biggest underdog undertaking yet.
Carroll Township Little League All-Star Game, July 16, 1975. A young pitcher blinks hard, heaves his left foot to the sky and slingshots his best heater toward home plate. The lanky right-handed hitter sees the fastball he wants. He plants his front cleat, introduces aluminum to rawhide. Home run.
More than 2,500 miles and two-and-a-half decades away, that same hitter looks over a different field of play, the Coast Guard Pier and his first annual Monterey Beer Festival. The most prominent elements aren’t grass or sun – or even suds and smiles – they’re serpentine Port-a-Potty lines, a depressing layer of smoke and the pressing funk of sea-lion feces. A team effort – thirsty crowds, a Fort Ord controlled burn and unabashed Monterey Bay marine mammals – collaborate on an at-bat that’s not a strikeout, but certainly isn’t a home run either.
Even though this hitter, Sand City’s Jeff Moses, can claim a University of Dayton football scholarship, Punt, Pass and Kick titles and even Junior Olympic gold – and co-founding responsibility for the first gag reflex of a beer fest – Frank Thomas isn’t partnering with him for his athleticism. It’s the beer he’s into.
“First of all,” Thomas says, “I love beer.”
Fortunately Moses’ beer stein of experience has filled since that inaugural. He learned the marketing-and-sales side of beer at English Ales of Marina, then mastered the catalog of regional craft beers and nice imports as a distributor for Monterey Beverage Co. Not long after a mentor asked him to help run Coast Range Brewery in Gilroy, he stepped in as GM, changed the name to Farmhouse Brewing Co., tapped into 12 states and – most precipitously – started making Coastal Fog as a craft house brand for rapidly expanding superstore BevMo!. Soon he asked to expand their lineup of private label beers, and today – with BevMo!-exclusive labels like Hoptopia, Irondale and One-Door Ales – he’s in the admirable position where the chain buys around 500 barrels of suds from him every month.
That keeps the cash for his burgeoning beer dynasty flowing, and allows him to finance his own San Jose-brewed boutique labels that earn small-craft cred, including his Hermitage oak-aged IPA, double IPA, stouts and Single HOP Amarillos, Ahtanums and Admirals – “Geeks love the stuff,” he says, “others would consider it undrinkable” – and even respectable wines (with grapes from all-organic McIntyre Vineyards in Soledad) and upscale sodas (like Root Beer 101).
Most every Moses elixir is available at Post No Bills, the still-new, increasingly popular, stainless-steel-and-graffiti watering hole in the Sand City Independent, a combination of urban setting and Willy Wonka selection of small-batch beer his brother owns. Eleven years in, his annual summertime MBF will feature a lot fewer sea lions and a lot more beers: Instead of the 20 breweries present at the first Coast Guard Pier occasion, the Monterey Fairgrounds affair this June will feature 80, along with classic rock bands and a selection of local chefs like Andre Lengacher (Lugano Swiss Bistro) and Elena Saucedo-Steele (Sweet Elena’s).
“It started as a true beer tasting,” Moses says. “It’s evolved into a big beer party. You can taste Almanac – $150 a case – and Bud Lime in one place.”
He’s also added a big BevMo! Holiday Beer Fest at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, the largest seasonal event of its kind in the country.
None of his projects, though, can be described as ambitious as Big Hurt Beer, a 7-percent imperial lager cracking open its national debut right now. Billboards are already up in Las Vegas, where Thomas has wintered for eight years. BHB-wrapped trucks are prowling Chicago – where he has made his home for two decades and does Chicago White Sox TV color commentary – in the wake of a big home opener party with the Sox last Friday. (U.S. Cellular Field/Comiskey Park will pour drafts and serve cans.) BHB’s new website launched last week, and new 12-packs ($12.99 retail) just shipped to Illinois, Nevada, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. This week BHB will appear in all 100 BevMo! stores, escorted by an email blast to 300,000 BevMo! believers. For good measure, later today Monterey Beer Fest’s list of 10,000 fans will get word that Thomas will host 2012’s installment. Casinos and clubs in Vegas and Chicago will set off Big Hurt parties all summer.
Moses’ connections with the beer world are already paying off beyond the BevMo! placement: His familiarity with Brian Kovalchuk, ex-president of Pabst, brought in a BHB founding partner with national distribution pipelines and big-picture perspective.
But it might be what could be called Moses’ Oprah intuition which proves most valuable from here.
At the moment, Michelle Pfeiffer was almost a nobody, far closer to her post at the supermarket register than Elvira Hancock in Scarface. A 22-year-old production assistant named Moses was sent to retrieve her from her trailer for a scene in a TV movie called Tales from the Hollywood Hills.
Moses, now 48, remembers the walk back vividly.
“Every single person – man, woman child – turned as she walked by,” he says. “It made me realize some people have this talent to attract other people. It was like a glow.”
Moses believes he learned then and there that any face of a successful project demands that same gift.
“Frank has that quality,” he says. “When he walks into a room, people turn.”
Early entrance into the binary New York-Los Angeles television entertainment orbit provides Moses with a harvest of Pfeiffer-style stories. Watching Carl Lewis streak by for 100-meter gold at the 1984 Olympics, trackside. Monitoring guests for the most famous sports announcer to flip on a microphone, Howard Cosell, as the legend lay dying and making final goodbyes. Coaching Oprah as her writer and assistant on how to cope with a sitcom set filled with improv-loving comedians (Chicago Grapevine flopped). Producing segments for ABC news on topics ranging from the heart-wrenching (needle exchange programs) to the light-hearted (Pittsburgh as the capital city of swing dancing). Mingling with the A-list, or as Moses murmurs, “partying with Melanie Griffith at the China Club when she’d bring her friend Cher.”
Entertaining stories, certainly, but it’s the insights that came with them which will serve him more than the memories.
“You learn from true masters how to entertain people,” he says. “The other side: learning how to work on the fly and produce projects without a structure. Especially through all the pilots, one big thing I came away with is how to make something out of nothing in a short time.”
That gift has guided Moses to sell old Roller Derby reels to Major League Baseball TV producers seeking to fill slots vacated by a strike season, and to transform the Monterey Beer Festival from the original stinker into a 5,000-plus-person affair. It helped seed the upscale craft-beer concept the Seaside City Council couldn’t comprehend (Post No Bills), the widening BevMo! house brands and the first-ever beer-centric film collection, Short Pour Film Fest, which ran all four days in the main hall of the Great American Beer Festival a year ago.
The entertainment world also taught him to identify something about Thomas that’s rarer than any glow: Big Hurt actually likes people. He puts a 24-ounce ribeye dinner at swanky N9NE Steakhouse in Vegas on pause to say hi to a fan. Autographs, easy. At his parties, all interested parties get a picture.
“I’ve been around enough celebrities to know that is not common,” Moses says.
Thomas shrugs. “In Georgia, we talk to everybody,” he says. “Everybody’s like family in a Southern comfortable way.”
Another way to look at it: Within a story that can’t be told without the word big – big 24-ounce cans, big billboards, big parties, big-as-a-walk-in-freezer Thomas himself – it’s his smile that’s the biggest presence.
It was something small, though, that brokered the BHB partnership: a little friendship between teenagers.
Moses and Jackie Harris were both young TV production runners in New Orleans for college football’s Sugar Bowl. For years they’ve been do-anything-for-you friends. Today she’s a well-known sports agent out of NYC. Her stars were seeing their endorsement deals – and particularly beverages – freeze over in the chill of the recession.
“I knew Jeff was one of the most creative and entrepreneurial people, and was developing beers and sodas,” Harris says. “I said, ‘What do you think of Frank Thomas, Big Hurt? His eyes lit up. ‘I love it,’ he said.”
But loving beer and beating Budweiser are two very different things.
The baseballs would come in from all different angles: slow and curving through the sticky Southern air, or high and scorching hot, or shooting away like a spooked snake. But they’d often leave the same way: crushed like a beer can, sent soaring above the 30-foot left field fence, to land on top of a high school classroom building they renamed Hammer Territory.
At the end of a decorated high school career in Columbus, Ga., though, it was Thomas who was crushed. He went undrafted in the amateur draft, passed over by guys he knew he could outhit. Even college baseball scholarship offers were skimpy at best – small schools only. “Shocked and sad,” he later told the Chicago Tribune.
Thomas accepted a scholarship to play football at Auburn, played his way onto the baseball team, won a free ride with his bat – and Southeastern Conference MVP – and, four years later, became the Chicago White Sox’s top-10 draft pick. He immediately deployed the key skill he had learned in high school, one that would come to define him as a pro: He always waited for his pitch.
“I wanted to be free swinger,” Thomas says, “but my high school coach would count wild swings, and I’d have to run sprints in the outfield for each one. So I learned.”
Yet as historic and heroic as he was for the Sox from nearly the very beginning – in his first full season he won the first of four Silver Slugger awards, given to the best offensive player at each position – unpleasant plot twists awaited.
In 1994 he smashed his way to 32 home runs by midseason, and had 38 – plus a .353 batting average, 101 RBIs and a suitcase of other stunning statistics, like his .729 slugging percentage – when a players’ strike punctuated the season with nearly 50 games to go. A once-in-a-lifetime chance at a Triple Crown – the Sistine Chapel of athletic achievements – evaporated with it. Thomas hastens to add that the White Sox’s superb shot at a world title did too.
“We woulda won the World Series,” he says. “We had five number-one starters.”
Thomas continued to deliver with the consistency of Chicago winds – his career average sits above .300 – before injuries and the loss of his father shook his steadiness. Then, in 2005, despite owning White Sox records for essentially every meaningful category – from on-base percentage (.427) to home runs (448 doubled the next closest) – and recent resurgent seasons on his resume (42 home runs in ’03), he had to hear he had been released. Not from the owner or management, who he thought had become family, but from a reporter.
Plenty of objective people would feel wronged several times across that series of events. But at each station Thomas galvanized who he was becoming instead.
When he went undrafted, he threw himself into the Auburn University regimen that changed his career.
“Our trainers pushed you to the limit,” he says. “There were days where you were crying – it was always blood, sweat and tears. It was the best thing for me. Who knows how far my career would’ve gone [without it]. Playing football in the SEC made me a man.”
When an opportunity at the Triple Crown, arguably the most elusive accomplishment in modern sports, was stolen by a greedy owners and players, he shrugged.
“You can’t recreate that,” he says. “You try to take it in stride.”
When contemporaries cheapened his accomplishments and the Major Leagues with injections, creams and “clear”s, he was the first to volunteer for steroid testing and to testify – and today even somehow finds a bright side.
“[Baseball] made a lot of money with those home runs,” he says. “They brought interest back to the game.”
And when the White Sox set him adrift, he acknowledged it would’ve been nice to receive a little more love, then signed with the Oakland Athletics and promptly finished fourth in MVP voting as he led the A’s to the division crown with 38 HRs and 114 RBIs – and a playoff series victory over the Seattle Mariners in which he went 5 for 10 with two home runs.
Plenty of sweat equity – “I worked my ass off,” he says – but no I told you so’s.
“I was raised right,” Thomas says. “You don’t have to say things like that. You see it in their faces.”
Instead, resilience. He owns those two league Most Valuable Player trophies, but it’s the two Comeback Player of the Year awards (and a second place for the award in Oakland) that land closer to the character of the man.
And gratitude. “When stuff went down, I was surprised, but I just always felt blessed, coming from a small town and making something big,” he says. “That opportunity doesn’t happen very much.”
And basic humility: When asked about his fondest memories – maybe the 500th HR? Pounding two home runs in his first game against the White Sox? – he says quietly, “I’m just proud of my consistency.”
There are other things he’s left with as well: a statue outside Comiskey Park in Chicago, for one, and, come 2014, a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.
More importantly, he’s also left with an abiding intensity in the face of naysayers.
“I’ve always enjoyed that role of proving people wrong,” he says.
Consecutive-hit-streak-record-holder Joe DiMaggio once repped Mr. Coffee filters (“This filter was scientifically designed to extract only the finest qualities from your coffee”). Fellow Yankee Hall-of-Famer Mantle once stumped for MP-27 foot-fungus spray (“Believe me – I’ve seen a whole lot of scratching going on!”). Five hundred-home run, 3,000-hit first baseman Rafael Palmeiro even stood up for Viagra (“Let’s just say it works for me”).
They’re not just selling something, they’re telling us something, namely, just because a star’s game is Cooperstown-quality, it doesn’t mean their frontman acumen is.
As singular as Thomas’ silhouette is in the batter’s box, his place in baseball’s panthenon of endorsements may be just as unique: He’s no gimmick.
“He’s putting his all behind it,” Harris says. “Frank and Jeff are both very creative and entreprenurial.”
Thomas likes the beer, but he should. He helped design it. Moses told him, “You have to like it or you won’t feel good about promoting it.”
His particular profile: smooth, easy-drinking lagers, which – for better or for worse – fits into a category of beer more competitive than the American League East. So they went for something unique with the slightly sweeter, higher alcohol, bigger flavor – which will prove crucial.
“Frank’s celebrity will help to get us noticed,” Moses says, “but the flavor profile has to bring them back.”
Thomas is familiar with the scouting report. “The first thing you get is, ‘This is just a novelty beer, nothing serious, it’ll last a year or so,’” Thomas says. “It was never my intention to get involved if it’s gonna be that.”
Sure enough, the contract between the principals stretches 15 years.
“I take it personally,” he continues. “That’s my name on the beer. You have your name on it, you care 100 percent.”
In Vegas, Thomas is tirelessly pitching casino heads, distributors and even guys on the sidewalk. It’s like a modern-day Babe Ruth hand-selling you a signature Babe brat.
“I get my cooler,” Thomas says, “Fill it up with ice, nine or 10 beers, and keep it in my car. The best pitch I can make: Taste it.”
“Usually brands take you and put your face on it,” Moses says. “Here you have the opposite: Someone of stature takes a product and tries to grow it.”
The team’s approach is guerrilla by comparison to Bud’s relentless, $3.5 million 30-second Super Bowl spots: The wrapped trucks, Thomas cut-outs in Chicago liquor stores, his appearance at Bacardi on the Park for the Sox home-opener, where he poured at the bar for two hours.
“We just have to get it in people’s hands,” Thomas says.
“Everybody he talks to, he engages,” former Pabst president Kovalchuk says.
Critics remind him he’s entered the premium domestic lager market, maybe the most crowded in the beverage biosphere (see sidebar, this page), which includes Anheuser Busch InBev, who spent a cool $1.4 billion in U.S. ads in 2010. They point out his first real business venture out of baseball, a record label – starring underdogs dropped by bigger labels, fittingly enough – scratched and skipped. Even Moses acknowledges merely getting the brand recognition going will be a Green Monster-sized hurdle.
Thomas counters. He says he couldn’t have crafted a better fit: “It’s an opportunity for something special. You work for it. This is something new and unheard of from an athlete.”
Harris agrees. “Frank could do so many things,” she says. “He picks things he has a passion for.”
In other words, no free swinging here, just the familiar hard work. Thomas was waiting for his pitch. Now that he’s got it, try telling him he won’t prove you wrong.
A BIG HURT BEER PARTY takes place 4pm-midnight Friday, June 8, at Post No Bills, 600 Ortiz Ave., Sand City (no cover). The Monterey Beer Fest, hosted by Frank Thomas, happens 12:30-5pm Saturday, June 9, at Monterey County Fairgrounds ($40; $60 VIP). For more on BHB, visit http://bighurtbeer.com; Post No Bills: www.postnobills.net; MBF and Moses’ beer brands: www.nightthatneverends.com