The annual, rambling essay on Jim Thome (and why the Phillies should get him)

Thome

It usually comes around once per baseball season that I will find a reason to write something about Jim Thome. Sometimes it's actually newsworthy, like if he had just joined a team ready to play the Phillies in the playoffs. But mostly it just has to do with the occasion of him showing up in town or appearing on the cover of a magazine.

See, it's easy to write about Jim Thome. It's easy because he's so likable and genuine. He's one of those guys that if you ask him a question, he's going to try as hard as he can to give you a good answer.

Case in point:

We were at Shea for a day game in 2003, which was Thome's first season with the Phillies. It was kind of an odd time in team history because the Phillies were supposed to be really good with guys like Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu coming into their primes along with players like Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins solidifying their standings as top-shelf talent. Mix in Thome and Kevin Millwood and the sky was the limit.

The problem was the Phillies didn't quite know how to be good. Worse, the manager, Larry Bowa, liked to talk about "winning" as if it were a character trait. He seemed to believe that abrasive behavior and misplaced anger was synonymous with being a leader. He was the exact opposite of Thome because Bowa could never get out of the way of his own ego. Thome was the biggest slugger in the game during the 2003 season and he was practically ego-less. Thome thought mutual respect and a positive attitude were synonymous with being a leader and always seemed to have dozens of teammates following his every move.

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Everyone loves Big Jim Thome

Jim

Not to sound too sappy, but whenever Jim Thome hits a home run, the world actually seems like a better place. Maybe someday we’ll learn that Jim Thome’s home runs cure certain infectious diseases, or, like something from Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, “angels get their wings.”

That would only make sense. In fact, try this experiment some time…

Go to a ballgame. Or hell, go to a movie, a show or the store. Anything. Just go some place where you will be surrounded by people you know. Now when you’re going through the rite of watching a game, shopping, etc., make sure to keep close tabs on the Twins game so that when (if) Big Jim goes deep you can announce it to your friends.

Big Jim just hit a home run!

After making this declaration, run to a mirror and look at your face because there is a 99.999 percent chance that you will be smiling. Ear to ear, baby.

In 20 years of hitting baseballs, Jim Thome has made a lot of people smile. Sure, there is the 589 home runs he’s belted in his career, which is the fifth-most in the asterisk era. Baring a historical hot streak, Thome will join Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only players to unsuspiciously bash 600 homers, next season. That’s a long shot for this year, however, there weren’t too many people in baseball who thought Big Jim would turn in the type of season he did in 2010.

In fact, even though he has played in just 105 games as the DH in his first season with the Minnesota Twins, he should tally a vote or two for AL MVP. Interestingly, Thome’s 25 homers this season are the same as the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, and he also leads the AL Central champion Twins in the category. It has been Thome, even more than reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer and 2006 MVP, Justin Morneau, who has most turned the team into a serious World Series contender.[1]

But it’s not just the home runs that make people smile. No, that’s barely scratching the surface. Everything about the guy is smile –inducing. Shoot, just say his name… Jim Thome… maybe it ought to replace the word, “cheese,” before pictures get taken.

OK, everyone look here and say, “Jim Thome!”

People just love Jim Thome. Actually, they just don’t love him as much as they celebrate him. That’s pretty much a universal sentiment in the baseball world where folks can get pretty jaded and cynical rather quickly. In a business that only goes deeper into the corporate abyss filled with hypocrisy, double standards and a dog-eat-dog mentality, it’s the genuineness of Thome that stands out. And the thing about that is all Big Jim does is subscribe to a theory concerning basic decency.

Joe Posnanski, the Sports Illustrated writer, dropped a cover story on us in the latest issue of the popular magazine that should have been delivered to mailboxes stuffed with gumdrops and lollipops, nailed it. The stuff about the guy we tried to convey to readers during his three seasons in Philadelphia only to figure out that Thome’s kindness wasn’t just relegated to those in baseball, is now available to a mass audience. Folks that might not otherwise know about Big Jim are greeted with passages like this one:

"I really do try hard to be a good teammate," Thome says. "I can't run very fast, but I try to always run hard. I may strike out a lot, but I try to walk to set up the guys who are hitting after me. The other day I didn't score from first on a double. I cost my guy an RBI. I felt terrible about that. I told him, 'Look, I really tried, but I'm old and I'm slow. I hope I can make it up to you in another way.'"

Teammates know he is sincere, and they love him for it. No, he can't run. He has played all of eight innings in the field (at first base) since 2007. His defense was the main reason the White Sox decided not to re-sign him. "[Manager] Ozzie [Guillen] wanted flexibility in his lineup," general manager Kenny Williams says. Guillen himself says, "Go ahead, blame me… . But I'll tell you I love Jim Thome. I wish I didn't. I wish I f—— hated the guy. But I can't hate him. Nobody can hate him."

Ex-teammates still talk about Thome lovingly in Cleveland (he does get booed a bit by Indians fans, but that's for leaving in the first place) and in Philadelphia and Chicago. He is relentlessly positive. Perkins remembers his first or second day back with the Twins this year after a long stretch in the minors. He was walking by Thome, who was taking his slow, methodical phantom batting practice. "And suddenly, he just stops," Perkins says, "and he smiles and gives me a fist. I mean, it's not like I'm Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. He barely knows who I am. But that's the kind of guy he is. He's the best teammate I've ever had… . I think everybody thinks that."

Thome smiles in his sheepish way when the story is recounted to him. "I think you just want to be a good person," he says. "I'm getting to do what I've wanted to do my whole life. I'm getting to do what millions and millions of people would like to do."

Quick story: a few years back when Aaron Rowand was still playing for the Phillies (he was traded for Thome, of course) and holding court in the clubhouse, he told a story about the first time he ever met Big Jim. At the time Rowand was still playing for the White Sox and finally coming into his own as player. So there he was on the field before a game, stretching and doing some calisthenics when suddenly, a man snuck up on him and wrapped him up in a vice-like bear hug.

When Rowand finally was let free by Thome, Big Jim launched into a stream of consciousness in which he heaped piles of praise on Rowand. But that wasn’t the part of the story that send folks into a gigantic smile… that comes with the kicker.

“I had never even met him before,” Rowand said with a fake incredulousness.

And, of course, a gigantic smile.

Mark-mcgwire-jim-thome-1999 From Posnanski’s latest:

Jim Thome holds out his left hand toward the umpire as he asks for a second to gather himself. He digs his cleats into the dirt, steadies himself. And then, like Robert Redford in The Natural, he points his bat past Thornton, toward the centerfield bleachers.

No, really, like Redford. Roy Hobbs was his inspiration. When Thome was a minor leaguer, he could not quite open up his hips when he swung. He was a 13th-round pick of the Indians in 1989; nobody saw all that much in him. His first year in the minors he batted .237 in rookie ball, and he did not hit a single home run. Then—"because I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he says—he happened to run into a hitting guru named Charlie Manuel. Manuel, who was Thome's manager in Triple A, told the kid that he had to open up his hips to power the ball to all fields. Thome tried, but he didn't really know how to do it.

"He saw something in me I didn't," Thome says. Manuel kept hammering away at him—open those hips, open 'em up—until finally they were in the clubhouse in Charlotte one day, and they were watching The Natural, and they saw Roy Hobbs point the bat toward the pitcher. "Let's do that," Manuel said.

Life is not often like the movies, but the Roy Hobbs gesture worked. It reminded Thome to keep his stance open and to drive the ball to left center. His power emerged. His strikeouts emerged. Jim Thome the slugger emerged.

Here’s another quick one on Big Jim:

It’s a common rite in baseball circles for players to quietly ask each other for autographs. What happens is one player on an opposing team gives a shiny, new baseball to a clubbie and sends him over to the other clubhouse to have it signed by a certain player. Players love signing those baseballs, too. It’s a huge thrill to sign for another player and a true sign of respect if a peer asks for an autograph (without actually asking).

Nevertheless, it’s usually something reserved for the big-time players. Word is Cal Ripken Jr. used to make special time just to sign items from the other team. All opposing team requests had to be made before the series against Baltimore began and Ripken would honor them before the opponent left town. But that was nothing like the one request I actually witnessed with my own two eyes and ears.

Sitting with Red Sox old-time legend Johnny Pesky in the home team clubhouse at Fenway Park, ol Mr. Red Sox summoned a clubbie to fetch two brand new balls to have signed by Thome. No big deal, right? Well, when the clubbie returned no more than 10 minutes later with two signed balls from Thome along with two more clean ones with a counter request.

“Jim would like you to sign these for him,” the clubbie told Pesky.

Pesky took a long moment, clearly taken aback by the request. Then, exhilarated by the fact that Jim Thome had sent two baseballs to have signed, Pesky looked at the clubbie before fixing a stare on me and asked:

“Are you joking with me,” Pesky said, amazed that Thome wanted the balls signed. “Jim Thome wants me to sign these?”

Needless to say, Pesky had the biggest smile on his face…

And Big Jim had just hit another home run.

He's 40 now. For a ballplayer, that's the age when everyone officially looks at you as ancient. Age 40 means the end is days away instead of years.

Still, based on a conversation with Thome in Clearwater, Fla. this spring, and reiterated in Posnanski’s story, 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 this spring 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.”

The 600 homers is looking him right in the face, but it still takes a lot of effort to get his body pieced back together to serve as a big league DH. But you know what, if there was ever a guy who has accepted his place in the game and is the personification of aging gracefully, it’s Thome.

“I think it’s difficult, but sometimes it’s the reality,” he said. “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.”

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.

But he’s not gone yet. Soon, yes. But the Twins are headed to the playoffs marking the third year in a row for Big Jim, with three different teams. Amazingly, Thome has gone to the playoffs with every team he has played for, except for one…

Philadelphia.

Crazy, right?

“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 that day in Clearwater. “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.”


[1] Can you imagine a World Series in Minnesota? In the first season in an open-air ballpark since leaving the Met for the Metrodome in 1981, the Twins could host Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series, which would be played on Oct. 30, 31 and Nov. 1. The average high temperature during the daylight hours in Minneapolis in late October/early November is 40 degrees. With the games slated to start long after the sun goes down, a Minnesota World Series could be quite chilly to say the least.