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Talkin' baseball: A rising star and a veteran slugger share thoughts


LARGO, Fla. -- Two hours after Twins designated hitter Jim Thome missed homering off Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels by a foot on Thursday afternoon, Thome was back in uniform, only this time he wasn't at the ballpark. Instead, Thome was in anonymous Largo, reclining on a sofa in windowless industrial warehouse in which he and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria were among the past and present major leaguers who had gathered to shoot the latest Pepsi Max commercial.

In between takes Longoria and Thome, two of the game's more insightful and articulate stars, spoke with off-set about their perspectives -- one already a star at age 25; the other a 40-year-old veteran slugger just 11 home runs away from becoming the eighth player in history with 600 -- on such subjects as hitting, competing for traditionally small- or mid-market division-championship teams and playing alongside a certain shared teammate (hint: think dreadlocks).

Here's our give-and-take, edited only for length and clarity. Many have taken to calling last season the Year of the Pitcher for the decreased number of home runs and inordinate number of no-hitters. Now that you've had an offseason to digest it, any theories as to why it happened?

Longoria: You could point to a number of different things, I guess, but I think it was just a down year for the hitter. Guys didn't hit as many home runs. I feel like there was just as much production; if you look at the RBIs and other numbers like that, it's probably about the same. There just weren't as many home runs hit. Jim would probably be able to answer it better because he's seen a lot more years of hitting and pitching.

Thome: The one thing I've seen is that I think young pitching today, these guys have tremendous arms. It seems to me you'll see an organization that's gone out and drafted really well and they've drafted pitching. They're getting those good young arms and giving them an opportunity within two to three years of being drafted of getting to the major-league level. Confidence is a big thing too. A lot of the pitching today has confidence -- as much as the hitting does.

I don't think hitting has suffered because you've got a new wave of young players coming up that are tremendous players like Evan, like Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, [Ryan] Braun. To say that pitching had a great year, yes, but also did the everyday players. Has the increased prevalence of the cutter played a role?

Longoria: Pitchers figure out which guys have a hard time hitting, and obviously the cutter right now is hard. It's not an easy pitch to hit. A straight fastball is a lot easier to hit than a cut fastball. I think pitchers have gone to movement. There are not many guys that throw straight fastballs any more.

Thome: In the mid '90s you'd face [pitchers] that come out basically with sinker-changeup. Now you're seeing that hard 92-to-94 mile-an-hour cutter whether it's to a right-hander or a left-hander. What I see is more late movement than there was in the early '90s to the mid '90s.

Longoria: The other [change in the game] you could really point to is the way that guys train.

Thome: No question.

Longoria: From the time that you came up to now, guys that are breaking into the big leagues now, their training methods are a lot different. The philosophies are a lot different.

Thome: And the technologies. Yes.

Longoria: That has a lot to do with it also.

Thome: I agree with Evan. Training has changed. Guys are going home and they're training year-round. Honestly I've pretty stayed with the old cliché of what got me here. I take three weeks to a month off and then get into it. I've changed my routine a little bit just from my back history. I've had history now with my lower back. Randy Johnson and I were talking about it -- as you get older, you have to train smarter. I don't mean harder, but you train smarter and do things that your body needs if, say, it's had an injury. Both of you play for small- or medium-market franchises, yet you both won your division last year. Is there an extra pride that comes along with that and to what do you attribute much of your clubs' success?

Thome: I think so. In our case, the organization, it's great how fundamentally sound the guys play. Over the years when I was in Cleveland and Chicago playing against the Twins, you look at their guys, and they just don't beat themselves from the fundamental side of the game. They've got that attitude and work ethic. You see them out there early doing the little things. Not only do you see that in spring training, but it goes on through the year. It doesn't stop. It's a fun thing to watch.

It's an organization where fundamentals are No. 1. They want to win a game 2-1 doing things the right way rather than banging a team out 10-9. Our teams in Cleveland in the '90s, we scored a lot of runs. It's not that our teams weren't fundamentally sound, it was just a different style.

Longoria: It's definitely been a pretty sweet ride for me, Tampa being what they were before before I was there. For the three years of me being there, it's been pretty fun to be part of an organization that has obviously built from within. They haven't really gone out and spent a whole lot of money on free agents. Most of the players that are in the big leagues now or have been in the three years that I've been there are pretty much all homegrown products with a mix of some great additions of free agents who have been quality players for us. There's a pride and a sense to want to repeat that. With Boston and New York in the AL East and Chicago and Detroit in the AL Central, you've had to watch your division rivals make splashy additions this offseason -- what's it like watching that happen?

Longoria: It's kind of an understood thing for us to watch the Yankees and the Red Sox [make offseason additions]. They have always been two organizations that have competed every year. It hasn't been much of a surprise, but it's definitely hard to compete at the top of the division with two teams who do things like they do. You can't help but respect what their organizations are trying to do -- that they're trying to win championships. That's really what it comes down to.

Thome: The Central has always been very competitive, my being with the White Sox, now with the Twins and Cleveland in the '90s. It's always been a very, very competitive division. Look at the last four years -- there have been two Game 163s. Anything can happen. Evan, have you ever seen Jim play third base? (Thome was a third baseman in Cleveland from 1991 to 1996; during those seasons Longoria was between the ages of five and 10.)

Longoria: No, I haven't. [laughs] I had heard he was a third baseman. But you hit [home run No.] 600 against us?

Thome: No, I tied [Harmon] Killebrew.

Longoria: Tied him? Didn't you go ahead?

Thome: The next at bat, yes.

Longoria: That was pretty cool. That's been one of the coolest experiences for a young player -- playing against guys who I grew up watching. Obviously, Jim and my idol, the guy I grew up admiring the most, was Ken Griffey Jr., and playing against him when Junior was with Chicago in 2008 was pretty surreal to be on the same field as guys I grew up watching. But, no, I never saw him play third base. To return the favor -- Jim, have you seen Evan's acting chops in the New Era commercial where he's seeking his lost cap?

Thome: Yes, very good. He's the man in that regard, there's no doubt. He's been in some great commercials. We talk about it in baseball. It shows that the new, young talent, the new superstars right now -- not only are they good athletes and good players, but they also can do other things well. It's cool

Longoria: Ryan Braun has a new good one too.

Thome: Does he?

Longoria: I think it's for Muscle Milk. But that's a really good one too.

Thome: But jumping out of the helicopter, that is pretty cool.

Longoria: I still get asked about it. Jim, as you approach 600 home runs, has the reality of that number started to sink in?

Thome: It's pretty special. 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. With that being said, with a lot of ups and downs along the way and a lot of nights when you go home and you scratch your head and you go, 'We've got to get back to the drawing board.' You might go four or five days and start swinging the bat really well and that might carry on for a month.'

The great thing of baseball is that every day you never know. 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. Do you see any similarity between the homegrown cores of Jim's Indians in the '90s Indians and Evan's Rays right now?

Thome: Yes, I think absolutely. It starts with the minor leagues and scouts and drafting, as I said before, good young pitching. [The Rays] have drafted extremely well. What happens is that, for a little bit there, you suffer. You're not as good as where they're at right now. But now you're seeing the reward for that three, four, maybe five-year period where you're not competing at the level you want, but then all of a sudden, at the snap of the finger, things turn around. I remember when these guys got really good. They had good pitching, good core everyday guys and they locked him up to a long-term deal, similar to what [general manager] John Hart did in Cleveland with our young guys in the '90s: myself, Manny [Ramirez], Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar [Jr.].It kept us around for a while and it kept that core group together for a while, and it's a similar kind of thing [in Tampa Bay].

Longoria: It's been fun to watch our team grow because I was in the minor leagues for almost two years, and I'm still playing with a lot of the same players I cam through the minor leagues with. That right there in itself shows how far we've come as an organization and how well the coaches and everybody and how good a job they've done to develop the talent they've had.

You also have to understand that to have a good team that's homegrown, there's going to have to be years when you're not good. To draft that high in the draft and get the good players, you have to finish last in the league. That's really where, for nine, 10 years in a row, we were drafting first or second in baseball. They had some bad drafts, but they've had some really good drafts in the last five, six years. Those are starting to come on [in the majors]. I have to ask -- after spending some time around Manny Ramirez in Rays camp this week, what's it like having him as a teammate? (Thome played with Ramirez from 1993 through 2000 with the Indians; Ramirez signed to join the Rays this offseason)

Thome: Manny is a joy to be around. He is. Manny does a lot of fun, good, silly things to keep the team loose. I will say this: in the years that we were together there were not a lot who worked as hard as him. He put his time in. Talk about a guy that spends a lot of time in the cage.

Longoria: Countless hours.

Thome: Countless hours. Manny has earned what he's got. He looks like he's in really good shape and he's having a good spring.

Longoria: Manny is a really good player. I have to say that, in being around him this spring and working out with him in the offseason, it made me see that Manny is a really good teammate. He really just likes to put on the uniform. He's in the clubhouse at 9 a.m. and he's already put on his pants and shoes and his belt. Not a lot of guys do that. Manny just loves baseball and being around baseball.

Thome: Manny is in a similar position that I'm in. We know we're not going to play forever. I think when you've competed at a high level and then when you get a little older, you don't play as much, you don't play everyday. As an older player, you need those breaks. You appreciate, like Evan said, getting to the ballpark early and putting the uniform on. The game is a great game. We love to play it. That's what I've always seen with Manny. He's always loved playing the game. Believe it or not, he loves his teammates. He likes being one of the guys.