- Bruce Levine, Chicago baseball beat reporter
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To a man, the Chicago White Sox are looking forward to the return of their former teammate Jim Thome, as he comes back to the South Side as a member of the Minnesota Twins for a three-game series this weekend.
"Gentleman Jim," who played for the White Sox from 2006 through August of 2009, has a reputation as being a killer at the plate and the nicest, most easy-going guy off the field. First baseman Paul Konerko, who was probably his closest teammate in Chicago, thought that he knew about Thome as an opponent, but he learned a lot more about him when they became teammates in 2006.
"I never saw him miss. I never saw him make a mistake when it came to dealing with people," Konerko said. "He was just as nice to people at the ballpark as he was in a hotel or restaurant. I never saw him snap at somebody or not give someone the time of day. And I was with him a lot, so I can't say that it was a fluke. That's just who he is. It's pretty incredible to watch him with people. Usually someone will make a mistake and lose their temper. He never does."
In the offseason, the White Sox decided to go along with manager Ozzie Guillen's idea of having a flexible, rotating designated hitter. That theory alone pretty much eliminated Thome from the team's future plans. The much-revered Peoria, Ill., native quickly signed with the Twins after Guillen told him the White Sox didn't have any room for him.
"Jim is a great guy," Guillen said. "I still get e-mails. They're still blaming me for Jim not being here. This is one of the most special people I ever managed. He's welcome in my house, not just my clubhouse. There's not that many [opposing players] that can walk through our clubhouse. This man can.
"Do we miss him? Yes. But I made that decision, and I take the full responsibility. I told Jimmy why he couldn't be here. I didn't have that many at-bats for him. He understood. I was honest with him. Jimmy truly understood my idea. I respect that."
Thome is a part-time DH for the Twins, sharing at-bats with Jason Kubel who also platoons in the outfield.
"Jim, Cal Eldred and Sandy Alomar Jr. to me are the three nicest people in baseball," White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle said. "Those guys respect everyone in baseball, whether it's a new player or a parking attendant. He's one of the nicest guys you could ever meet."
Konerko summed up his time as Thome's teammate and good friend.
"Nobody works harder or has a better work ethic than Jim Thome," he said. "There is nobody that I've ever played with that comes to close to working as hard as Jim does. It's even more impressive because of what he already had accomplished before he came here. He was relentless in his work regimen before and after games. I've never seen anybody get after it like he does."
Thome signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Twins in February. Guillen said he hopes White Sox fans pay proper tribute to the future Hall of Famer when he is introduced on Friday night.