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Jim Thome: Legendary

(originally written 8/17/11)

Monday night, Jim Thome of the Minnesota Twins hit two home runs against the Detroit Tigers. 

The two jacks were #599 and #600 of his 21-year career. Only seven other players have ever hit more—and three of them had “help”.

If he wasn't already, Jim Thome became a legend that night.

Twenty years ago, when a considerably slimmer, smoother Thome (pronounced Toe-me) hit his first home run for the dreadful 1991 Cleveland Indians, not one soul in attendance could have possibly believed they were witnessing the birth of a legend (When I say "witnessing", I use the term loosely—if you view the footage, Thome's homer lands in the upper deck of old Yankee Stadium, and nary a fan is anywhere in the picture. A beautiful sight, indeed. But I'm not here to talk about the past.)

Thome didn't stick with the Tribe for good until 1994, when he replaced a series of stiffs as the Indians' regular third baseman. (How many of you knew/remembered Thome came up as a third baseman?) That year kicked off a new era in Cleveland, which erected a shiny new ballpark, shiny new uniforms, and a winning team centered around multiple young superstars. Thome was not the face of the Indians and wouldn't be for another seven years; in these days Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, fellow youngster Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Eddie Murray ranked higher on the publicity chain than did Thome, who quietly went about his business and never got caught up in his—or his team's—success. 

In spite of Thome's relative obscurity—or perhaps because of it, he put together year after year of impressive power numbers. Somewhere along the road he developed his trademark hitting routine, pointing his bat towards the pitcher to kick off every at-bat. It wasn't meant to show up anyone; Thome made that clear. It was just his "thing", and no one ever faulted him for it. It didn't hurt that he'd fast established himself as one of baseball's good guys from the very beginning. One can only imagine how much cowhide Jose Canseco would have worn had he adopted a similar routine.

Cleveland became a perennial playoff team throughout the late '90's...but could never claim the championship. Eventually Murray, Belle, Baerga, Lofton, and finally Alomar and Ramirez would move on. Plus: Thome was left as the face of the franchise in the early 2000's. Minus: the franchise was now rebuilding. Thome continued lumberjacking home run after home run, amassing league-high walk and K totals along the way. As 2002 ended, Thome was still light years away from legendary status, but he was undoubtedly one of the game's hottest commodities as he entered free agency for the first time. He'd crank out 52 homers for Cleveland in 2002, second only to Alex Rodriguez in the A.L., and the Phillies noticed. Off to the N.L. Thome went.

Overall, his Phillie tenure disappointed. Thome led the N.L. in homers in 2003 (47), but spent most of 2005 disabled, and the Phils’ never rose in the standings. With young, cheap, talented Ryan Howard ready to take over first base for good, Thome was swapped to the defending World Champion White Sox (for Aaron Rowand, who at the time still had value.) This effectively marked the end of Thome's defensive career; he's played all of four games in the field since 2005 ended.

Thome continued to be the classic three-true-outcome slugger: walk, K or four-bagger. He continued to accumulate four-baggers, many of them, and reached career homer #500 in 2007. Still, the word "legend" and Thome could not be found in the same sentence anywhere.
The years continued passing, and Thome continued swatting for the Sox and Minnesota Twins (following a very brief pinch-hitting stint with the Dodgers in '09). In time, 600 bombs came within reach. 

Finally it was reached.
Thome became a legend.

Joel Sherman, an excellent writer for the New York Times who knows more about baseball than about five of me combined, wrote about Thome's Hall of Fame chances, reminding us that Thome was never "The Man" on the HIGH majority of his teams, that he never came close to an MVP, made relatively few All-Star teams, and that once the emotion of the moment passed, Thome would be seen for what he was—a very good, very consistent player who lasted longer than most others and thus accumulated his six bills worth of jacks, but not a true Hall-of-Famer.

Sherman was not intending to be nasty or critical of Thome; he was just stating facts. If Thome's career ended when he was 35, he'd have been lucky to attain 20% of the HOF vote upon eligibility. The same could not have been said about Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr. and Babe Ruth, the four "untainted" members of the 600 club; those men had all guaranteed their enshrinements by the age of 30. 

Thome would not be the first player not universally considered among his era's best to reach the Hall—see Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Dave Winfield and others. In the entertainment world, we have the "Lifetime Achievement Award" for those who were never A-list movie stars, but whose era could not be properly documented without his/her contributions.

Thome should not be penalized for circumstances beyond his control, such as losing headlines to his pool of superstar Cleveland teammates, or for playing during an era when every A.L. team seemed to carry an All-Star first baseman or two. It is not his fault that reporters find good guys boring and would rather follow a Belle or Ramirez than a Thome. It is not his fault Mo Vaughn—whose overall career and achievements badly pale in comparison to Thome’s—chose to have his brief period of dominance during Thome's formative years. 

(Of course, had so many more of Thome’s peers played clean as Thome had…maybe he is viewed as among the best. We’ll never know.)

Listen: the man’s overall body of work states very clearly that baseball's history cannot be told without prominent mention of Jim Thome—a criteria which, according to the peerless writer Jerome Holtzman, makes him Hall-worthy. He's been regarded as one of the game's best gentlemen from the get-go, a true ambassador for the game of baseball. Kids have been imitating his batting stance for two decades. He's been wildly popular in every city he's played in. He's helped nine teams reach the postseason. And he was fun to watch, a burly "farm boy" whose sole mission was to hit baseballs as far as possible as often as possible and never knew the meaning of a two-strike swing.

In an era where so many superstars take from the game, and do nothing to make it better (A-Rod, Bonds), Thome is a guy who wears his love of baseball on his massive sleeves. It is not all about the homers, either—similar three-true-outcome players, such as Adam Dunn, could whack 800 bombs and never approach Thome’s level.

In an era chock with cheaters and cheapened home run records, Thome’s achievements are unquestionably as genuine as his personality. He didn’t slam equipment when he struck out, didn’t make the annoying “safe” signal when running to first base, didn’t visibly have an ulcer whenever called out on strikes (see: Kevin Youkilis), and when he hit one out, he acted like he’d done it before. No drawn-out admirations, no Sosa-esque theatrics, no lagging around the bases. He was—and is—100% class, a hulkier, friendlier Hank Aaron in that regard.

So when someone asks me why Jim Thome belongs in the Hall of Fame, this will be my standard reply: 

He just DOES.
That’s where legends belong, after all…

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