Every year before he leaves Peoria, Ill., for spring training, Jim Thome drives out of his way to cruise Jim Thome Drive, near Limestone High, his alma mater. Years ago he explained that the little side trip was his way of "keeping me humble, reminding me where I came from."
His annual detour would seem to be perfectly unnecessary, for Thome does humility like a Trappist monk. This is a man who was embarrassed for once watching one of his home runs -- a World Series home run 16 years ago -- and said it would never happen again. Turning 41 this month and playing in his 21st season, Thome has so mastered humility that he has lasted all these years through the thorniest era in baseball history with nary a whiff of controversy or negativity.
More than just "Gentleman Jim" -- he was once picked in a poll of players for SI as the nicest guy in the game -- Thome has been the rare delight: a superstar player with a commoner's modesty.
On the heels of Derek Jeter reaching 3,000 hits, it was fitting that Thome joined him in the company of iconic milestones this year with home run number 600 Monday night. Like Jeter, Thome has navigated his way through The Steroid Era and The Testing Era with a princely reputation -- beloved by fans and respected by opponents. He is truly worthy of admiration, and even more for his manners than his prolific career. When he hit his 500th home run, for instance, he sent handwritten thank you notes to people throughout the White Sox offices. Upon home run No. 600, the fans in Detroit, an intradivisional rival of Thome's for all but 3 ½ of his 21 big league seasons, rose immediately in an ovation of sustained gratitude.
There is an endearing throwback quality to Thome that all can appreciate. Part of it is that massive uppercut swing -- the way that barrel of his body rotates, sending his weight onto the heel of his front foot as his toes point up. It is a swing built for solid contact or none at all; only Reggie Jackson, another corkscrew swinger, ever whiffed more in baseball history. Rare is the hitter who can extract such excitement from so much nothingness. Part of his throwback nature, too, is his humorous running style, which can be described as a cross between Fred Flintstone and a Babe Ruth cinemascope.
POSNANSKI: Thome a reminder of a different era
But most of the nostalgia Thome evokes does come from that humility, his massive strength as a hitter counterbalanced by his kindness. It is eerie, here in the throwback uniform of the Minnesota Twins, how much he evokes the late Harmon Killebrew, who defined the gentle slugger in the Age of Camelot, when baseball, like the presidency, invoked wonder and belief. The presidency had Watergate and baseball had steroids, but those institutions, if you look hard enough, can still inspire.
Killebrew, who died in May, was eulogized as a warm-heartened friend, and less so as a Hall of Fame baseball player. In those footsteps does Thome follow. He has played for five teams, and is cherished by all.
Thome played 100 games for the first time in a season in 1995, at age 24. Beginning with that year, the next nine seasons would form the height of The Steroid Era -- the last nine years when steroids and other performance enhancing drugs could be used without penalty. Here are your home run leaders from those Dark Ages:
All of them have been connected to steroids except one: Jim Thome.
Now take the next eight years -- the first eight years of testing with penalties. From 2004 through this season, Albert Pujols has hit 323 home runs, and Adam Dunn is second with 293.
Thome, starting with his age 33 season, has hit 219 home runs since testing began, tied for 12th with Prince Fielder and Aramis Ramirez. He has stood the ultimate test: the test of time.
Back in 2005 Thome told SI, "The strongest thing I put into my body is steak and eggs. I just eat. I'm not a supplement guy. I try to get in shape, get ready to go. Steroids are not even a thought."
Unlike many great players, too, Thome never was tempted by the siren of entitlement. He wasn't always a great player. He wasn't even the star on his Limestone team. He was drafted in 1989 out of what sounds more like a freight line than a baseball factory, Illinois Central, and not until the 13th round. In his first pro season he hit .237 with zero home runs. The Indians brought up Thome in 1991 as an all-fields hitting third basemen who might someday win a batting title, not a home run title. When a 1993 issue of Baseball Digest considered the top rookie third basemen, Thome was mentioned in passing, but Scott Livingstone of the Tigers was considered to be the best "hands down." (Career home runs by Livingstone: 17.)
The lack of initial fanfare, speed, athleticism, individual honors and, for the past seven years, a defensive position have kept Thome in a strangely underappreciated light all these years. He never finished in the top three of MVP voting, and finished in the top five just once (fourth, for the third-place 2003 Phillies). He won one home run title. Even on the occasion of home run number 600, people waged a discussion about whether Thome is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, even a Hall of Famer at all.
There is no discussion. Thome is just the eighth player to reach 600 homers, and just the fifth to do so without a connection to steroids, which puts him in the company of Hank Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. Only two players not connected to steroids ever hit home runs more frequently, based on at-bats, than Thome: Ruth and Ryan Howard, who has yet to encounter the decline phase of his career.
Thome's career OPS (.960) is 17th all-time. He took his walks (eighth all time), but he is a Hall of Famer because, like Killebrew, he was an elite slugger over the better part of two decades. Being a gentleman didn't make him a better player, but it did make him a better man.
On Monday night he left the yard twice, not so much knocking on the door of the 600 Home Run Club as smashing it in. The first was a typical Thome blast: a soaring, majestic arc carrying beyond the deepest part of the ballpark. Of his 600 home runs, Thome has pulled only 34 percent of them. Most of them bore the DNA of 599: moon shots toward the center of the field, between the gaps, leaving so much time to ponder the man's strength before they returned to earth.
Number 600 was an opposite field fly off lefthander Daniel Schlereth. Thome so grew out of his early profile as a .300 hitter that teams would overshift their infielders to the pull side. Indeed, Thome has grounded out to third base only 70 times in 21 years, and many of those occurred with the third baseman swung around to the shortstop position. But when Thome lofts a ball, even leftfield cannot hold his power.
The modifier of "country strong" virtually disappeared from baseball years ago, a vestige of the days when boys grew up with the manual chores of farming. Thome brought back "country strong." He brought back integrity.
When Thome hit number 600, his father, Chuck, was there quickly to embrace him. Chuck built bulldozers for Caterpillar and was known as a slugger in slow-pitch softball leagues in Illinois. It was a beautiful moment and one seemed pulled from baseball's past, as if arranged by Rockwell and costumed with flannel. But with some luck, and the humility worthy of invoking the likes of Killebrew and Thome, it is baseball's future, too.