The Pride Of Peoria Cleveland slugger Jim Thome is an All-Star starter and maybe--just maybe--the best player in his baseball-rich family

July 13, 1998
July 13, 1998

Table of Contents
July 13, 1998

Boxing [bonus Piece]

The Pride Of Peoria Cleveland slugger Jim Thome is an All-Star starter and maybe--just maybe--the best player in his baseball-rich family

The Thome family has been playing ball in Peoria, an old factory
town in central Illinois, for about as long as any living person
there can remember. In the stands of the little ballparks that
are scattered throughout the city, grown men with good memories
argue nightly about which Thome was the best ballplayer Peoria
has ever raised. There's Jimmy, the first baseman for the
Cleveland Indians, a starter in the All-Star Game this week.
Nice player, though maybe not in the class of his older
brothers, Chuckie and Randy, both high school legends. There's
the father, Chuck Jr., who was paid big bucks to play "amateur"
ball in a now-defunct softball circuit locals still refer to as
the Outlaw League. No speed, no glove, tremendous bat. Then
there's Junior's father, Chuck Sr., the grand old man of Peoria
baseball. And of course there was Junior's late sister, Carolyn
Thome Hart. When she was 15, Caterpillar Tractor created a
mail-room job for her so she could play with the grown women on
the company softball team, the Dieselettes. "Jimmy's a good
young player," one Peoria native, Chuck Siebel, says. "But his
aunt could rip it."

This is an article from the July 13, 1998 issue Original Layout

Still, the kid's all right. Jim Thome (rhymes with homey) is 27
years old, and at the All-Star break he was batting .326 with 23
home runs and 73 runs batted in. Those numbers, like the player
who produced them, do not come out of nowhere. Thome was drafted
by the Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 draft, after a year
of junior college. He was called up to the bigs in '91, then
again in '92 and was called up for good in '93. He has increased
his homer total annually, and in the past four seasons his
dinger numbers look like a fantasy stock pick--from 20 to 25 to
38 to 40.

Thome came up as a third baseman--he bats left but throws
right--and switched to first last year to accommodate the newly
acquired Matt Williams. Williams was traded by Cleveland after
last season, but Thome has stayed put. When he was initially
asked to migrate across the diamond, he became neither cagey nor
petulant. He said, "Well, it wouldn't be my first choice, but if
it's for the good of the team, then fine."

Evidently Thome is not schooled in the ways of the modern
ballplayer. In spirit he is not a modern ballplayer. He's the
player his grandfather would have been, had Chuck Sr. had the
chance to pursue his dream instead of hiring on at the Hiram
Walker Distillery in his early 20s, taking steady work to feed
his family.

Now the Thomes, all of them, are making up for lost time and
lost chances. When the Indians are in Cleveland, which is a
10-hour drive from Peoria, a Thome, more often than not, is in
the stands. When the Tribe is in Chicago or St. Louis or
Minneapolis or Kansas City or Detroit, the same. Last week
Cleveland had a three-game series in Milwaukee, a mere four
hours by car from Peoria, and Jimmy's parents, Chuck and Joyce,
were there in the second row of Milwaukee County Stadium, so
close to the visitors' dugout they could almost touch the
youngest of their five children.

You could say the Thomes get into the game, the whole clan. When
Jim ambles into the on-deck circle, wearing a helmet covered
with pine tar and his pant legs just below the knee, like guys
in the '50s, his father clasps his meaty hands together and gets
loud. The son is 6'4" and 225 pounds--all beef, no filler--and
his father is about the same. They do things big, father and
son. When Chuck yells, "Oh-key now, Jimmy, bang one!" he can be
heard in the upper deck. On June 30 in Milwaukee, the home plate
umpire, Mark Hirschbeck, ejected Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove
for arguing a balk call. From his perch in the dugout, Hargrove
invited Hirschbeck to kiss his butt. The quick ring-up got Chuck
going, big-time. "That'll make the highlight films!" he barked
at the ump. Fans on the first base side, clear across the field
from Thome's seat, were laughing. There was even a hint of a
smile on his son's broad, earnest face.

In recent weeks the son has been batting cleanup, behind David
Justice and in front of Manny Ramirez, a fearsome heart of the
order that helps explain why the Indians are third in the
American League in run production, 5.6 per game, and have a
10 1/2-game lead in the American League Central. However, like
his childhood baseball hero, Dave Kingman, Thome strikes out a
lot--more than 100 times in each of the past three seasons,
including a career-high 146 last year and 93 already this season.

Peoria is midway between St. Louis and Chicago, so there's no
one team that the citizenry roots for, but the Thomes have
always been aligned with the Chicago Cubs, for whom Kingman
played from 1978 through '80. As a kid Thome would be glued to
the tube whenever the Cubs were on, and he waited eagerly for
his inaugural journey to Wrigley Field. That trip came in May
1979, when Jimmy was eight. He was pulled out of school for a
day, and the trek to Mecca was made.

Buzzing down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, Jimmy gaped at the
boats on Lake Michigan and asked his mother, "Maw, which boat do
you suppose is Dave Kingman's?"

"Probably the biggest and most beautiful boat out there," Joyce

"Gee," said the boy.

"And one day," his mother said, "you'll have the biggest and
most beautiful boat out there, right beside his."

"Do you think?"

You might say this is the family that time forgot.

At Wrigley, young Jimmy was determined to get Kingman's
autograph. When the usual methods failed, the boy tried a bolder
approach. At the conclusion of batting practice he slipped away
from his family, hopped over the little wall that separates the
seats from the field and searched for his man. His parents, in a
panic, were looking under the seats and in the aisles for their
missing boy when a man in a Cubs uniform suddenly appeared,
carrying an eight-year-old kid. "Is this yours?" Barry Foote, a
Cubs catcher, asked Joyce and Chuck. "We found him in the
clubhouse." Jimmy, beaming, was clutching a baseball covered
with Cubs signatures, though the one he wanted most continued to
elude him. Nearly two decades later, Thome finds it hard to turn
down a polite request for a signature.

Not that he is overburdened by such requests. Given his numbers,
and the fact that he's been to the last two All Star Games and
two of the last three World Series, you would think Thome's fame
would extend far beyond Cleveland and Peoria. (His fiancee,
Andrea Pascione, has an Ohio following, too; she worked as a TV
reporter in Cleveland.) But on the national sports landscape,
Thome is, at best, only faintly famous. "You can't really say
he's underrated, because everybody considers him one of the top
hitters in the American League," says Jeromy Burnitz, a former
teammate who is now with the Brewers. "But he's surrounded by so
many good players, it's hard to stand out on that team."

For a while, it didn't appear that Thome would stand out at
anything. It looked as if he would follow the pattern set by his
grandfather and father and brothers: graduate from high school,
take a job in town, become a local legend in Peoria's Sunday
Morning League. At Limestone High, Thome was as good at
basketball (his nickname was Bird) as he was at baseball--an
all-state player in both. But he was twig-thin and not fast, and
no four-year colleges showed serious interest in him for either
sport. In his first season in pro ball, playing for the Indians'
Rookie League Gulf Coast team in '89, Thome batted a sickly .237
with no homers in 186 at bats.

But something significant happened that year. Thome fell under
the spell of Charlie Manuel, a hitting instructor, coach and
manager in the Cleveland organization, who over the years has
taught Thome how to be a player. Today, Manuel is the Indians'
hitting instructor again, and he typically works with Thome
three times a day. In mid-afternoon he watches Thome hit in an
indoor cage. Around 6 p.m. he watches Thome take batting
practice. After BP he tosses underhand pitches to his pupil, who
smashes them into a net. Manuel believes Thome's immense
strength is inherited. But, says Manuel, Thome's talent in the
batter's box and in the field (where he is reliable and
improving) has been painstakingly cultivated.

"All the credit goes to Jimmy, because he works so hard and he's
real coachable," says Manuel, leaning against the batting cage
in Milwaukee, watching Thome with considerable care. "One thing
we came up with together. I was managing him at Charlotte in
'93, on the AAA team, and we were in the clubhouse and the movie
The Natural was on the TV. Robert Redford steps in, batting
left, just like Jimmy. We were looking for a swing key,
something that would open Jimmy up, let him hit to all fields.
Redford steps in there and holds the bat with his right hand,
way out in front of him, shoulder high. We both said, 'Let's try
that.' Right away, it worked."

Since he got to the majors, Thome has been influenced the most
by Eddie Murray, who was his teammate for nearly three seasons
beginning in '94. "Eddie taught me to play the game exactly the
same when you fail and when you succeed," Thome says. He has
bright eyes, a loud speaking voice and a simple, direct manner.
When he wants to make a point he taps you on the knee with the
back of his hand. "Hit a home run, hey, enjoy the moment, but
then let it go. If you strike out with the bases loaded, same
thing, let it go. Eddie was always real relaxed, the same guy no
matter what happened. You've got to be that way in this game,
because there's no perfect player. You're going to have your
good streaks and your slumps. I don't smash helmets when I
strike out, because it's not the helmet's fault, it's my fault."

That sort of simplicity comes naturally to Thome. The license
plate on one of his trucks reads 25 DBTH, for his jersey number
and his operating philosophy: Don't believe the hype. Thome is
in the first year of a four-year contract extension that will
pay him a minimum of $24.6 million, but looking at him you would
never know he's rich. His main concession to wealth is the 100
wooded acres in Ellisville, Ill., a 45-minute drive from Peoria,
that he bought for deer hunting last year.

In a way Peoria is still the center of Thome's universe. He
continues to keep a lot of his stuff--souvenir balls, T-shirts,
a CD called Country Dance Super Hits--in his bedroom in his
parents' house, the house where he was raised with his two
brothers and two sisters. It's a little house, long since paid
off with the wages Chuck earned working at Caterpillar for 39
years. The TV room is a shrine to Jimmy's career. "He deserves
the attention," says Jenny Thome Ellis, Jim's twin (older by 90
seconds), speaking for her older sister and two brothers. "It
don't bother us. You can't be jealous of somebody you love."

One night last week Jenny, a bank teller, was driving around
Peoria in her Chevy Blazer. (Her Illinois license plate reads
INDIANS.) She was making the rounds, checking the ball fields,
seeing what games were being played. It was 6:30 and everybody
in town was finished with supper. Her parents were up in
Milwaukee, about to watch the second game of the Indians-Brewers
series. Her brother was about to begin the 726th game of his
major league life. "He'll get two hits tonight," she said
suddenly. "I get these feelings. Can't explain it. Two hits.
He'll drive in two runs. The Indians will win 5-3."

Not much surprise in the next morning's paper for Jenny. Jimmy
got a hit, and reached on an error that could have been ruled a
hit. Cleveland won 5-2. He drove in two of the five. As they say
in Peoria, same old, same old. You know those Thomes. For
baseball, they got a knack.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA A '50s guy Thome wears his uniform pants up high, just like they did in the good old days. [Legs and feet of Jim Thome in cleats and knee-high socks]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RONALD C. MODRA MOVIE BUFF Copying Robert Redford in The Natural, Thome uses his bat to set his stance and to prepare his swing. [Jim Thome in game]COLOR PHOTO: RALF-FINN HESTOFT/SABA SISTER ACT Thome's twin, Jenny Ellis, older by 90 seconds, shows off the family shrine to Jim's career in their parents' house in Peoria.
"He's surrounded by so many good players, it's hard to stand out
on that team."
His license plate--25 DBTH--is shorthand for his philosophy of
life: Don't believe the hype.