The boy was 9 years old when he snaked through the crowd at Wrigley Field, then silently, miraculously, wiggled his way inside the Cubs dugout minutes before the start of a game in search of his hero, Dave Kingman. Young Jim Thome didn’t get a chance to meet his idol before Cubs catcher Barry Foote delivered him back to his father, who was not surprised by the actions of his son. A young Jim Thome loved Kingman, the Cubs, baseball and home runs.
And now, 33 years later, Thome has hit home run No. 600, the eighth man out of the slightly more than 17,000 major leaguers in history to reach that level, a level with only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa as prior members. Thome has hit 158 more home runs than Kingman, with a slugging percentage almost 80 points higher and an on-base percentage 100 points higher, and Thome has achieved these Hall of Fame numbers due to tremendous strength, an equally strong work ethic, a great swing and a calm, steady hand. He’s been a good dude every day that he has spent in the big leagues, the kind of guy who would embrace a 9-year-old who had somehow infiltrated the dugout, then promise to hit a homer for him that day.
“I didn’t get to meet Dave Kingman that day, they got me out of the dugout before I could,” he said. “But I loved Dave Kingman. He used to have a boat. And every time I would drive down Lakeshore Avenue in Chicago with my dad, we’d look at the lake and I would ask my dad, ‘Is that Dave Kingman’s boat?’ I eventually got his autograph at the All-Star Game in Colorado [in 1998]. It was cool. But he didn’t know that he was my guy.”
And now, Thome is “my guy” to so many current players, especially teammates that he has affected in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and Minnesota. Ask any player from those teams, and they have a hard time ever remembering seeing Thome angry, or in a bad mood, or mean or rude. Every day, he has been the same: Stoic and solid.
“He is the world’s nicest man,” said Twins closer Joe Nathan. “He’s one of those guys that the hype is so great before you meet him, then he lives up to the hype, and more. When you see him from across the field, you think, ‘He can’t be that nice,’ but he is. He is so genuine. There are other players that will be forgotten when they leave, but he will not be. We will be talking about him for years to come. To me, he’s like [Hall of Famer] Harmon Killebrew. They are one in the same. When you meet both of those guys for the first time, you think, ‘Wow, this is someone that I will be wanting to talk to on a daily basis.'”
“Jim Thome is the best,” said Twins reliever Matt Capps. “He is just a regular guy. I’ve been to dinner with him, and people come to our table, and he takes time to say hi to a kid. I’ve seen guys with six months in the big leagues snub a kid in a restaurant. Not Jim, and he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’ll talk to a guy who knew him from Cleveland in 1993. He is a role model for all of us, he is like every one of us would like to be. I’d like to get 20 years in the big leagues like him, but what am I going to be like in 12 or 15 years? Meeting him, you would never know that he was on the cusp of hitting 600 home runs.”
“He’s like Babe Ruth around here,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, smiling. “The fans here get all mad at me for not playing him every day. The other day [as Thome was within two home runs of 600], the White Sox were throwing that [Chris] Sale kid, the left-hander throwing 97 [mph], and the fans wanted me to pinch-hit Thome for [Danny] Valencia [who bats right-handed]. They just love him here. He’s great. He has been a pleasure.”
“He is the nicest, gentlest, kindest guy you will ever meet … to everything except the baseball, he still hits that really hard,” said Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer. “He has great fire to him. It’s not like, when he strikes out, he says, ‘Oh, that was such a good pitch.’ It’s nothing like that. That’s the perception some people have of him, but he hates to lose. When he walks in a room, everyone watches everything he does. It’s the way he treats people, it’s the way he respects the game. When I heard he was re-signing with us, I was so happy for a lot of reasons, but one reason was I wanted to be there for when he hit No. 600. Every night, I would pray that I was on base when he hit his 600th home run.”
Thome’s major league career began in 1991, at age 20, a relatively thin, but strong third baseman, the position he played for his first six seasons. He moved to first base in 1997. He wasn’t a particularly good third baseman, “but he really worked at it,” said one of his former instructors. “You might have to tell him how to do something a hundred times before he got it, but he always got it because no one tries harder, no one cares more than Jim.”
When Thome arrived in the big leagues, he was an opposite-field hitter, he rarely hit a ball to the right of center field. But he got bigger and stronger as he aged, he learned to pull the ball, and soon was hitting homers deep into the right-field seats at then-Jacobs Field, but he was still able to take that ball away from him and hit it deep into the seats in left.
By 1996, he had emerged as one of the best power hitters in the game. Thome hit 40 homers in a season six times, and 50 once. From 1995 to 2004, he hit 393 homers, fourth most in the major leagues. He averaged more than 45 homers a year from 2000 to 2004; only Bonds, Sosa and Rodriguez — all with connections to performance-enhancing drugs — hit more. Thome and Rodriguez are the only players to have a 40-home run season for three different teams. Thome holds the Indians’ record for home runs in a season with 52. He holds the White Sox’s team record for home runs in a season by a left-handed hitter with 42.
Thome’s numbers came without flair, flash or controversy, especially involving steroids. But they are Hall of Fame worthy numbers: His on-base percentage is almost 50 points higher than that of Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and his slugging percentage is almost 70 points higher than Jackson’s. Obviously, there is no comparison defensively with Ken Griffey Jr., but Thome’s slugging percentage is 20 points higher and his on-base percentage is 30 points higher than Griffey’s.
But Thome isn’t flashy like Griffey, and he certainly isn’t colorful like Reggie. There are no hilarious Thome quotes, no great anecdotes about his brushes with fame. He is a just a guy who loves to hunt, and hang with his buddies. He is Gomer Pyle, a soft-spoken guy from Peoria, Ill. The best you get from him is an occasional misstep born from his charming naivete. When he set the record for the most home runs by anyone in Indians history, he said, “What makes it so special, is that I hit all these home runs for the same team.”
About as good as it gets from Jim Thome is when he talks about his family, including his brother, Chuck, “who is a monster,” he said. “He makes me look like a runt.” His aunt, Carolyn, is in the Softball Hall of Fame.
Thome and his dad also visited Cooperstown a few years ago to deliver his 500th home run ball to the Hall of Fame. “That wasn’t a ball that I should keep, that was something the Hall should have,” Thome said. “It would just be sitting on my mantle at home. Now it’s something for everyone to see.” The great father-son trip to Cooperstown “was really special for us,” Thome said. “At the hotel [the Otesaga] there, my dad and I sat out on the terrace and they had lunch for us. They told us all the stories about the Hall of Famers. We toured the museum. I think it was the greatest days of my dad’s life. And other than the birth of my children, it was the greatest day of my life.”
They will go again, for sure, in another six or seven years, depending on when Thome retires. Only that time, Thome won’t be going as a visitor. He will go as a member of the Hall of Fame.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book “Is This a Great Game, or What?” was published by St. Martin’s Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
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