Thome reflects on road to 500
Slugger closes in on milestone with keen sense of history
CHICAGO -- When traveling amongst the landscape covering baseball's vast history, the Cleveland Indians' game on Oct. 4, 1991, at Yankee Stadium doesn't exactly have a great deal of lasting value or impact.
The Yankees began this particular contest from the season's final weekend with a 70-89 record, while the Indians entered at a dismal 55-104.
Cleveland's 3-2 victory ultimately holds very little meaning for anyone not taking part in the contest, but it does mark the official beginning of the legend that has become Jim Thome. As is the case for most legends, this Thome tale began with a little help from his friends.
Thome was a wide-eyed rookie, finishing up a 27-game stretch with his first of three Major League teams. Cleveland trailed by a 2-1 margin in the ninth inning with a runner on base and Thome scheduled to hit. Instead of grabbing one of his own bats, though, Cleveland catcher Joel Skinner provided the lumber to face New York reliever Steve Farr. Thome then produced his first career home run, depositing the drive into the upper deck in right.
"He was kind of searching for a bat and I said, 'Hey, use this,'" said Skinner, Cleveland's current third-base coach, recounting this somewhat famous Thome encounter. "I told him what Farr had and to wait for the fastball over the plate at some point in time and just don't miss it. He was really excited."
"To this day, he says, 'You used my bat,'" added Thome with a smile. "A T-141 Joel Skinner model."
Recalling something as specific as the bat model employed for career home run No. 1, taking place some 16 years ago, serves as a testament to Thome's appreciation for each and every big league moment. It also exhibits how closely he values the people who have stood by his side over the years, as Thome climbed from that first ball reaching the seats in 1991 to what soon will be the 500th home run of his illustrious career.
Along the way, Thome homered eight times off Roger Clemens, five times off Mike Mussina and four off Justin Verlander to run the gamut of talented veteran and youthful opposition. He has two home runs off Greg Maddux and one off Mike Maddux. Thome has gone deep five times against the current White Sox starting rotation and has 41 home runs over his career when previously facing his current employer. Thome even has gone deep 10 times against pitchers with the last name of Hernandez.
Talk of joining this exclusive long-ball fraternity began back in January, with Thome's 42 home runs during his first season as part of the White Sox leaving him 28 short of the important plateau entering the 2007 campaign. Thome always has been a team-first sort of player, addressing the individual accomplishments only in the context of reaching group goals.
Sitting currently at 494 home runs, Thome now finds it almost impossible not to talk about his expected feelings after launching six more. Although he wouldn't be considered emotional or known as someone who makes a big production upon solid contact, No. 500 will present a different scenario.
"Yeah, there will be emotion," Thome said. "Especially, I know with my dad, he'll be really, really proud. It's something him and I have talked about on occasion.
"My brothers will be there. It will be really cool from that regard. You have to remember all the great teammates you played with, the good hitters who helped you become better and get pitches to hit and visa versa. That's all that revolving effect you have on each other.
"It's one of the things where you don't try to go hit home runs. The main thing is if you can be healthy and play your game, all that stuff will eventually work itself out.
|"Take away his physical strengths and the brain, and the attitude he takes to the plate is what made him a Hall of Famer."|
|-- White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker|
From the time Thome reached 370 career home runs, the prolific slugger has been adding history to his home trophy room. Thome has tried to collect every home run ball that ties or passes another legendary hitter as he climbs up baseball's all-time list.
At some point down the line, hitters such as Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera will be doing the same with Thome.
"You hope that history passes itself on to the game," Thome said. "It's something that is special. As it's going on, you cherish it and respect it and the game, and you remember those guys for what they did well.
"That's the history of the game you want to remember. It's not about moving one ahead of Carl Yastrzemski and then not remembering Yaz. Or say it's Lou Gehrig as you go on. You want to remember each guy."
Memories of Thome most likely will start with his immense talent. Along with the 500 home runs, Thome also possesses one of the keenest batting eyes in the game. His 1,438 walks rank him third among active players, behind only Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas, and 21st on the career list.
And it's not if Thome turned out to be a home run-or-nothing sort of hitter. His average hovers just above the .280 mark, with three single-season .300 efforts to his credit, and he is fast approaching 1,900 hits.
Even the big career strikeout total sitting near 2,000 seems to work to Thome's advantage.
"Mentally, he's as strong as anyone the way he goes about hitting," said White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker of Thome. "You look at his strikeout total, and you would think he views it as a negative. The way he looks at it, though, is if a guy strikes him out, then he's got the pitcher set up.
"This pitcher thinks he can get him out with the same pitch and Jim doesn't think he can. He's a big strong guy, but he has a lot of explosiveness to his body as well. With A lot of fast-twist muscles, he can rip it through there pretty good.
"Take away his physical strengths and the brain, and the attitude he takes to the plate is what made him a Hall of Famer," Walker added.
Ask literally anyone in the White Sox clubhouse about Thome as a player, and they will tell you that he just might be the most integral bat in the White Sox lineup. Ask those same players about Thome, the person, and they will tell you he clearly is one of the classiest guys in all of baseball.
A native of Peoria, Ill., located just three hours outside of Chicago, Thome has the true down-home Midwestern values. He's such an outgoing and affable individual, always ready with a smile, pat on the back or a friendly handshake, that it almost seems too good to be true.
Where Thome is concerned, what you see is what you really and truly get.
"Literally, he's one of the best guys I've ever met," White Sox rookie starter John Danks said. "He's right up there with the [Mark] Buehrles and [Jon] Garlands, who have made me feel very comfortable, taken me under their wing. He's awesome."
"First of all, he was raised by great parents, obviously," Walker added. "But when he got into baseball, he was around classy veterans who taught him how to go about his business, and he's very appreciative of that fact. He passes it down the line and shows young guys. He's a credit to the profession, and it's an honor to be in the clubhouse with the guy."
Walker also termed his presence at the moment when Thome reaches 500 as a "perk of this job." It's the same thought passed on by manager Ozzie Guillen, who seemed almost more excited than Thome concerning this special on-field instance.
That 500 club extended an invitation for membership to Thomas on June 28 of this season, when the greatest hitter in White Sox history launched his milestone blast for Toronto at the Metrodome. Alex Rodriguez joined this same long-ball fraternity on Aug. 4 at home against Kansas City. Thomas and Rodriguez stand as two of five players who have a chance to reach 500 in 2007.
After his own achievement, Thome will cherish Manny Ramirez getting to 500 almost as much. The two played together from 1993-2000 as part of the vaunted Cleveland lineup, and although they have different on-field styles, the two have maintained a friendship.
"As I watch him do it, it will be very special for me," said Thome of Ramirez. "We hit third and fourth, fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh in our early years together.
"To progress and be sitting at the same number he's at, it's special to me because of what we accomplished together through our careers. You look at great players you played with and you pull for them all."
Following Thome's logic, a plethora of one-time Thome teammates are sitting around baseball and cheering on his exploits. Bobby Witt, who gave up home run No. 100, also could be watching. The same with Eric Milton, who yielded No. 300, and Jose Acevedo, who gave up No. 400.
It's a guarantee that Mark Clark, the opposition for home run No. 200, will be lending his support. The two grew up in the same general area of Illinois and remain friends.
The aging process has not always been kind to the 36-year-old, batting through nagging back, hamstring and rib-cage problems over the past three years. To counter these maladies, Thome usually arrives at 12:30 or 1 p.m. for a 7:11 p.m. contest to tirelessly work with White Sox athletic trainer Herm Schneider and assistant trainer Brian Ball. He's also one of the last players to leave.
"It's instilled in me and a part of my day for getting ready," Thome said. "Even on days off, I get antsy. I know I should be doing something. As you get older in your career, you learn you have to do those things to stay sharp.
"The thing that's gotten tougher for me is the little nagging things I never had early on. But at the other end, when you do work hard and get here early, you work your butt off to stay healthy, when you do get healthy, it's all worth it.
"I know when it's all said and done and you hang them up and you go home, you can look back and say, 'I did everything I could to prepare and get ready,'" Thome added. "That day, for the full season, whatever it takes, I'm going to get ready."
Five hundred home runs alone have Thome ready for the Hall of Fame five years after he retires. Thome has no idea when that final curtain call will come. He's enjoying playing baseball and enjoying playing baseball for one of his hometown teams.
When retirement finally comes around, Thome could wind up somewhere closer to 600 long balls than in the neighborhood of 500 where he currently resides. And to think, this massive total didn't even start with his bat. That honor goes to Skinner.
"He hasn't changed, the same kid," Skinner said. "You watch a guy like that mature and develop as a hitter, but the first time the guy came up to Minor League camp, you could just tell there was something there."
"If you didn't know who he was, you would just think he's another guy," Danks said. "It's like, 'You are about to hit 500 home runs. You can tell me to go jump in the lake.' But when we get to a city early, he'll be one of the first guys to come up to me and say, 'You are coming to eat with me.' He's done it all, but he still has all the time for you."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.