Last night, Jim Thome clubbed his 600th career home run into the bullpen at Comerica Park. As he rounded first base, the man who has almost 100 more home runs with the Indians than any other Indian, the man who is tied for the all-time lead in walk off home runs, the owner of the 17th- and 34th-best career OPS and OBP, respectively, and the man with the eighth most home runs in baseball history, Jim Thome simply pumped his fist in the air and ran around the bases. As he got to home plate, it was tough to tell who was happier: his teammates or his family. Thome smiled too, but it was one of his trademark, humble smiles that really embodied his chase towards 600 home runs: just a great guy who happened to be a great hitter that stuck around for a while.
The first time I heard of Jim Thome was my first Indians game, a 12-6 win against the Twins on August 2, 1995. He didn’t homer in that game, but I immediately took a liking to Thome because he played my favorite position (third base), had a distinctive style (wore his socks high) and had the same first name as me. Thome had an breakout year in 1995, and went on to finish with 25 HR, not including game-deciding home runs in Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series. After the season, in the early days of the Internet, I memorized the full URL to a radio clip of Tom Hamilton calling a Jim Thome walk-off and listened to it over and over (“Thome BELTS IT! DEEP RIGHT! WAAAAAAAAAAY BACK AND GONE!” I believe it’s #10 on Wahoo! What a Finish!. Update: With Thome’s trade to the Indians, someone found it in their heart to upload this highlight to YouTube).
The Indians lost the first game I attended in 1996, but in the second inning of my second game that year, on May 21, 1996, Thome homered to right. It was significant because, seated in the upper deck, when Thome hit it, the ball momentarily looked like it was coming right at us, before diving underneath us into the mezzanine level (now known as Pronkville). From what I understand, the ball went over Pronkville and into the concession area back there, on the fly. At the time, it was in the top two or three longest home runs in Indians history.
In 1997, I remember the team pulling up their socks for Thome’s birthday, and since they won, doing it for the rest of the season, into the playoffs. The Indians made it to within two outs from a World Series title. During the World Series, Thome, who had been converted to a first baseman in spring training when third baseman Matt Williams was acquired from the Diamondbacks, made a fantastic diving stop to his backhand side and somehow flipping the ball to second base from his stomach to get the force play. It was a testament to how hard he worked, and how far he’d come in a year’s time. He made it look easy.
In 1998, Mark McGwire came to Jacobs Field and absolutely teed off on a Dave Burba pitch, putting him halfway to his record-setting single season home run count of 70. Later in the game, though, Jim Thome homered twice, both times to center field. The scorekeepers at Jacobs Field added up the distances and displayed on the scoreboard that while McGwire had hit a long home run in that game, Jim Thome had hit nearly 900 feet of home runs, and the Indians won big.
In 1999, I watched Jim Thome hit the longest home run in Jacobs Field history, a 511-foot shot to Eagle Avenue beyond center field, on TV. Later that year, visiting the field, I remember standing within about twenty feet on the near side of that spot, and being awed.
I remember when Thome signed with the Phillies. After Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and countless others, it didn’t come as a huge surprise to me, but since he went to Philadelphia I was able to sort of forget about it. It also didn’t hurt that, as Jim Thome stopped playing for the Indians, I coincidentally and temporarily lost interest in baseball, something that lasted for a couple years.
I remember Thome getting traded to Chicago, and on opening night in Chicago, Thome teed off on a Francisco Cabrera offering against his old team. It felt weird rooting against him, but in retrospect, it’s no wonder Chicago fans were so happy about it: Thome’s an easy guy to cheer on. The second game I went to that year was against the White Sox, and with the Indians mounting a late rally, Thome singled through the shift on the right side to put a nail in the coffin of what was a poorly pitched game by the Indians.
I remember watching the highlights of Jim Thome’s 500th home run, a walk off home run in Chicago. The Chicago play-by-play guys, who I normally can’t stand, called it perfectly, and you could tell they were Jim Thome fans by then (it probably didn’t take nearly that long).
His stint with the Dodgers wasn’t incredibly memorable (although according to Bill Plaschke, he made a memorable impression off the field), but he signed with the Twins before the 2010 season and had a comeback year, including a dramatic walk-off home run against his former team, followed almost a month after by another dramatic walk-off home run against another former team. And as he finished last season with 589 home runs, I just hoped he’d have enough left in the tank to get to 600.
And last night, he got there. There wasn’t much fanfare until it happened, and the celebration after the home run was pretty low-key (not unlike Jeter’s 3,000th hit celebration). I half-expect Thome to retire after this year, now that he’s hit 600, and if so, in five years, the baseball writers will decide if he is Hall of Fame-worthy. Honestly, I’m not even sure why we’re debating it. To me, these numbers jump off the page: 600, .961, and .404, his career home run count, on-base-plus-slugging, and on-base percentage, respectively.
It needs to be said that Jim Thome isn’t just numbers. He’s the ultimate in class, generosity and kindness. He’s put his nieces and nephews through college, he’s won the Roberto Clemente award and this year, on one of those ESPN Make-a-Wish segments, he gave a cancer patient his 500th home run bat. And he’s always played the game the right way: 100% effort, 100% integrity, and 100% and with the mindset that he’s one of the luckiest men in the world because he gets to play the game he loves every day. Coming up with teammates such as Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle, and in an era with Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, Thome’s effort and integrity are exceptional. To put it another way, I will tell my grandkids that I watched and enjoyed watching Jim Thome play the game, because he was naturally talented, yes, but succeeded because he was humble enough to keep working hard. As cliché as it sounds, you can’t put that statistic on a baseball card.
Jim Thome reminds me of the legendary Lou Gehrig, both in demeanor and statistics, who is probably best known for the following quote:
Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
There’s no other athlete that embodies this attitude more than Thome, and in a world of prima donna athletes and personalities dominating the airwaves, the fact that Thome could fight through all that to become the eighth man ever to hit 600 home runs while never forgetting where he came from is not only awesome; it’s flat-out inspirational. For that, and hundreds of other reasons, Jim Thome is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my book.