CLEARWATER, Fla.— It doesn’t matter what it says across the front of the jersey or even what color the whole ensemble is because Jim Thome always looks good in a baseball uniform. For one reason or another, the guy was born to wear the uniform.
The Twins makes it a cool 5-for-5 for Thome, who showed up today at Bright House Field in a dark blue uni with grey pinstriped pants, and, of course, those trademarked bloused pants showing just enough sock. You know, old school.
Hell, Thome is a ballplayer and he makes any uniform look the way it should.
Maybe for Thome it’s enough to leave out the “school” in that last phrase. After all, he’s going to turn 40 in August and is pretty much just a pinch hitter and a DH these days. He’s not the threat he once was during his two full seasons with the Phillies or the first couple of seasons with the White Sox. In fact, Thome has not hit a home run since last Aug. 21 and had just five singles in 22 pinch-hitting appearances with the Dodgers. Even with 564 career homers, there weren’t too many takers for Thome’s services last winter before he caught on with the Twins.
But you know what? Thome is cool with all of that. He understands that he has to make some changes.
“I think it’s difficult, but sometimes it’s the reality,” he said before batting cleanup as the Twins DH on Saturday afternoon. “I don’t want to say you aren’t young forever, but you play the game and you work hard and you do what you gotta do to prepare, but there is a time you’re body feels different. My body doesn’t feel the way it did when I was 30. I’m going to be 40 this year and I’ve come to grips with that. I’ve had to work hard to stay where I’m at, but you try to approach it as it comes.”
It’s tough to imagine what would have happened to the Phillies if Thome had not left Cleveland before the 2003 season, just as it’s difficult to see how things would have been different had he not been injured during the 2005 season and played out his contract in Philadelphia. Had Thome not been injured it’s pretty reasonable to think that Ryan Howard would have been traded.
Nevertheless, don’t write off Thome as simply being a brief exit point until Howard was ready. Not at all. Thome really got the ball rolling for baseball in Philadelphia. He legitimized the notion that the Phillies could be a competitive ballclub in the NL East.
“We needed to do something at the time,” Jimmy Rollins said. “He brought excitement back to Philly baseball.”
Now the end is creeping ever so closer, though Thome warns that there is still plenty of baseball left for him to play. For now at least, Thome says he isn’t taking one last lap around the track.
“I don’t think so,” Thome said when asked if 2010 will be his last season. “For me, not yet. Maybe soon. I have kids and I want to be with my kids, but I think you know it [time to retire]. When the time is right maybe I’ll wake up and say, ‘You know what, maybe this is it.’ It’s not there yet. I love the game and I have an appreciation toward the game and I respect what’s been given to me.”
Perhaps two more seasons puts Thome at 600 career home runs, but of course that depends on how many chances he gets to swing the bat for the Twins this season. As it stands now, lefty Jason Kubel is tops on the Twins’ depth chart at DH and he’s coming off a season in which he hit 28 homers and got 103 RBIs.
Don’t expect Thome to play much at first base, either. Not only do the Twins have perennial All-Star and the 2006 MVP in Justin Morneau playing there, but also Thome has been at first base four times since leaving the Phillies in 2005.
But you know what? Thome has accepted the fact that the Twins’ offense isn’t going to lean on him too much. Call it aging gracefully.
“You try and look at your career and you realize you’ve played a long time. It’s one of them things that you want to keep playing and your heart is there, but this is probably going to be a little bit of a different role for me,” Thome explained. “But I still wanted to play. I still wanted to go out and compete. It’s a great situation, it’s a great organization and it has great people — the manager is great. I’m happy. I’m really just happy. You look around here and see Morneau and [2009 MVP Joe] Mauer and they are good people and I think that’s a reflection on the organization for sure.”
Then again, Thome always says things like that. It’s why he’s been beloved wherever he’s played and why everyone will miss him when he’s gone.
Just don’t expect him to go anywhere too soon.