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. 

Thome departs the same way he entered

Thome Jim Thome wanted to step out of the batter’s box, wave to the crowd and doff his Twins’ batting helmet to the fans at the Bank on Friday night. As the cheers grew steadily louder as he walked from the visitor’s on-deck circle to the plate, Thome pointed out that the time wasn’t right.

Returning to the ballpark he helped open with a home run into the second deck for the first (unofficial) hit with his third different team, Thome wished there was some way he could have acknowledged the Philly fans. But as a pinch hitter in the top of the fifth inning with the game still very much in the balance, it would have been very odd. See, Thome worries about things like respect for the game and the opponent as well as the proper way to play the game.

Yes, baseball really matters to Jim Thome.

He thought about it again on Saturday night, too, when his two-run home run in the ninth inning started a five-run rally for the Twins that lead to the ugliest loss of the season for the Phillies. This time the ovation for the rocket Thome belted into the second bullpen (estimated at 466-feet) was mostly nostalgic. Sure, it was the future Hall of Famer’s 570th homer and was a shot off the 30th different team, but it was kind of a farewell to his old hometown fans. The standing ovation was a tribute for a guy who got the whole thing started for the Phillies.

Would this new golden era of Phillies baseball been possible if Thome hadn’t signed with the Phillies before the 2003 season? When he left Cleveland after 12 years and 334 homers it sparked a resurgence that turned Philadelphia from a place where ballplayers ran from as soon as they could, to a destination.

Could the Phillies have gotten Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay or been able to keep Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels if Thome hadn’t first shown up? Would Charlie Manuel have come to Philly if it hadn’t been for Big Jim? Hell, would Ryan Howard ever been a five-year, $125 million man without Thome?

Short answer… no.

“We needed to do something at the time,” Rollins said. “He brought excitement back to Philly baseball.”

It was a long time coming, too. So if the fans want to give Thome a standing ovation even though he helped the Twins beat the Phillies on Saturday night, it’s OK. For a pretty obvious reason, it felt right.

“That was pretty special. For the fans to do that, it was their way of showing respect and me telling them that I thought it was pretty cool,” Thome said after Saturday’s game. “The home run [Saturday] brought back a lot of memories.”

Thome hit his 400th homer at Citizens Bank Park and is closing in on the rare 600-home run plateau. In fact, if Thome gets to 600 he will be just the eighth player to do it (assuming Alex Rodriguez beats him there), but just the fifth slugger to reach the mark having never been linked to performance-enhancing drug use.

In other words, there’s no other way to view Thome other than as one of the greatest home run hitters to ever live.

“For me, it's humbling to talk about,” Thome said, acknowledging that he was at the “latter” part of his career. “When you get to this stage, it's something. It's pretty surreal to me. I'm just humbled and blessed.”

Actually, his homer on Saturday very likely could be his last plate appearance in the ballpark he christened with that homer back in 2004. 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—where he hit 89 homers—or the first couple of seasons with the White Sox.

But you know what? Thome is cool with all of that. He understands that he has to make some changes and he’s willing to slide into a support role for the Twins’ stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Whatever it takes to get another shot at some October baseball, Thome will do what it takes.

“I'm a team guy, and this whole group here is filled with team guys,” he said. “It's nice to talk about home run records. I'm humbled by that. I'm really excited to talk about winning.”

Yes, the end is creeping ever so closer, and the names Thome passes on the all-time lists get more impressive every time he hits the ball. For instance, home run No. 570 pushed him past Rafael Palmeiro into sole possession of 11th place on the all-time homer list. Harmon Killebrew is just ahead at No. 10 with 573 homers.

Plus, with 1,584 RBIs Thome is tied with Killebrew and Rogers Hornsby for 35th all-time. Six more ribbies ties him with Andre Dawson and 11 more equal Mike Schmidt and George Brett. Interestingly, two more seasons could push him past Reggie Jackson for the most strikeouts ever, as well as into the top 5 in walks.

Indeed, it’s been a pretty nice career for Big Jim, though he warns there is still plenty of baseball left for him to play. Last weekend very well could have been Thome’s last stop at the Bank, but not his 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.”

And where would the Phillies be without him? Probably not where they are now.

Thome not ready to hang ’em any time soon

Jim_thome 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.