Understated Thome joins legends
Jim Thome is an earnest son of the Midwest, consistent and country strong, and a man whose ruthless left-handed swing defies his status as the one of the nicest men in baseball.
In 8,137 at bats over 21 seasons with five ballclubs, Thome, now the designated hitter for the Twins, has clubbed 600 home runs, a big and round number that previously inspired awe and wonder but instead has left fans weary in the wake of the Steroid Era, even when Thome ought to be celebrated as the 21st century's clean champion of power-hitting.
But Thome isn't one for flash or fame, so it was apropos that when he became only the eighth player out of the more than 17,000 to play major league baseball, he did so with far less fanfare than those who preceded him to the milestone. In Detroit on Monday night he crushed home run No. 599 in the sixth inning and followed it with No. 600 in the seventh, an opposite-field three-run homer off lefty reliever Daniel Schlereth that blew open a one-run game.
It was the 48th multi-home run game of his career, and the succession of one right after the other negated much of the expected build-up and media coverage. Rather than an interminable string of live cut-ins for every at bat -- as was the case last year when the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez needed 52 plate appearances in between homers 599 and 600 -- Thome finished his quest in his very next opportunity, helping preserve his understated ways, much as he did last year when he tied and passed Twins great Harmon Killebrew in successive at-bats.
"It's pretty special," Thome said in spring training of the prospect of joining the 600-HR Club. "You can never fathom that. I would never have thought that. You come in your early years and you want to keep doing well to survive and keep playing until, maybe, you have an organization give you a long-term deal. You get to a point where you've had a little bit of success, and you see that success and you want to keep doing well and strive not only to be a good player but to do it for a long time."
That longevity has been a regular theme for the 40-year-old Thome, who has hit at least 20 homers in 16 of the past 17 seasons. Perhaps it's that steady accumulation that has muted much of his Hall of Fame career, especially given that his peak -- he has had six seasons of 40 or more home runs but just one of more than 50 -- coincided with a window of time when players such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire started making 60-homer seasons look routine.
That also meant that Thome's best offensive years occurred in a time when offense ruled the game, and while Thome surely had great power and great bat control -- he batted .288 and averaged 112 walks from 1994 to 2005 -- he wasn't much of a runner, fielder or thrower. He has 19 career stolen bases and has played only 28 innings in the field in the last six seasons. He's succeeded with two exceptional tools but only two. Perhaps that's why he's made only five All-Star teams and had only one top-5 MVP finish.
Also, after starting his career in Cleveland for 12 seasons, he's bounced around to four teams over the past nine seasons. Thome hit his 300th home run as an Indian, his 400th as a Phillie, his 500th as a White Sox and now his 600th as a Twin.
Regardless of the uniforms he's worn or the era in which he's played, what matters is that Thome has reached 600 without a sniff of allegation linking him to untoward conduct on or off the field. And now he joins a list of legends: Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Rodriguez, and Sosa. After only three players reached the milestone from 1931, when Ruth became the inaugural member, until 2002, five have joined in the past decade, though only Griffey and Thome have done so without the taint of performance-enhancing drugs.
Thome's career has followed the arc one would expect a big-bodied, aging slugger to follow. He moved from third base to first base to designated hitter. He's persevered through chronic back problems and from a disappointment before 2010 when the White Sox decided not to bring him back for a fifth season. Little did he know then how well that decision would work out: Minnesota signed him and he played a pivotal role in helping them to an AL Central crown. He played fewer games and had fewer at-bats but still hit 25 homers last year and completed his sixth season with an OPS greater than 1.000.
Before the season, while sitting at 589 home runs, Thome reflected on the forthcoming achievement and summarized the perpetual wonder of the game that has driven a steady stream of boys to ball fields for well over a century.
"The great thing of baseball is that every day you never know," he said. "It's the unexpected. Today might be the day you go out and hit two home runs or three home runs. Or it might be that day you strike out four times. That's what makes you keep going back -- the unknown. But to fathom being at almost 600 home runs? How could you? You can't. I don't know, I feel very humbled to say the least with that."
That sentiment seemed to resurface Monday night. After finishing his home run trot, he was greeted at home plate, first by his teammates and then by his family. When Thome had a quiet moment to himself back in the dugout, the TV camera caught him shaking his head in bewilderment, a crease of a smile forming at the lips and a major milestone in the books.