Commentary

There's nothing phony about Jim Thome

Eighth member of the exclusive 600-homer club as real a person as you can imagine

Originally Published: August 16, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Jim Thome is no Babe Ruth, because he isn't the most famous human being in the whole United States of America.

Jim Thome isn't Mays or Aaron or Griffey, because he'll never glide through life, acrobatically pulling baseballs out of the sky or unfurling a swing so sweet they should paste it on a sugar packet.

Jim Thome isn't A-Rod or Barry or Slammin' Sammy, because he has never been stained by you-know-what.

[+] EnlargeJim Thome
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireThere was love in the air on Monday in Detroit when Jim Thome hit his 600th career home run.

So that's the 600-Homer Club, ladies and gentlemen. Seven larger-than-life figures -- and one Jim Thome.

There's not a drop of glitz or showbiz in his bloodstream. There's not a phony streak anywhere in his persona. He's one of those rare human beings, one of those unique stars, who is exactly who he appears to be. And there isn't a man who ever played with him who won't tell you exactly that.

Someday, Jim Thome's Hall of Fame plaque will tell the story of a guy who hit 600 baseballs that seemed as if they'd never come down.

Maybe, if he's lucky, it will also mention he had a higher on-base percentage (.403) than Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew.

It might even tell you, as my pal Dave Schoenfield wrote, this fellow scored 100 runs as many times (eight) as Gwynn, Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield combined.

But if that's the only sort of info you find on that plaque, it won't tell the real story of what has made Jim Thome one of baseball's most special people over the last two decades.

One thing that always has struck me about this man is that he was one of the few stars I've ever known who connected with the little people, not just the bigwigs. You'd see him walk through the ballpark, and he knew the security guys, the vendors, the season-ticket holders who sat near the on-deck circle and the writers from the little suburban papers he'd never read in his life.

He knew their faces. In a lot of cases, he knew their names. He asked what their kids were up to, how their families were doing. And he actually CARED.

"The thing that stands out to me about Jim is just who he is -- day-in, day-out," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti told Rumblings. "It's the way he treats the ushers and the parking-lot attendants, not just how great a guy he is in the clubhouse. He treats every person he meets with respect and dignity. And I'm not sure I can give anybody a better compliment.

"I know our clubhouse guys worship Jim Thome. And it's because of the way he treated them, not because he was a good tipper, because they were someone who did his laundry."

Sometimes, when you're a sports fan, it can be hard to know which athletes it's safe to root for. Too many heartbreakers out there. Too many lawbreakers.

But somehow, wherever Jim Thome has gone, people seemed to know instantly he was a guy they could invest in. I saw that with my own eyeballs.

I was working on a magazine story in January 2003, a few weeks after Thome signed with the Phillies. So I showed up at a local mall early on a bone-rattling Sunday morning and found hundreds of people camped out on a Jim Thome Watch.

By 5:30 a.m., there were so many folks shivering in the lot that security had to open the mall. By 7:30, there were already 300 people in line to get Thome's autograph -- even though the first scribble was scheduled for six hours later. By 9, the line stretched the length of the mall -- and not a single store had even opened yet.

Now this was not the Philadelphia of 2011, in which sellouts and life in first place have become a way of life. This was Philadelphia in 2003, in which the local baseball team was barely averaging 20,000 customers a game -- until Thome showed up.

It sold 50,000 single-game tickets the first day it opened the ticket windows that winter. And the Phillies' life has never been the same since. He wasn't around to play a single October baseball game in their uniform. But Jim Thome was the snowball that started the avalanche.

"I honestly can't think of another baseball player out there who could have had that kind of impact," Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. once told me. "Getting Ichiro wouldn't have done it. He wouldn't have been embraced by the community like this guy."

It was a marriage that didn't turn out the way either side envisioned it, though. Two years later, Thome needed elbow surgery. And while he was out, some guy named Ryan Howard showed up -- and won a rookie of the year award.

That could have made life uncomfortable for all of them, except Jim Thome wouldn't let that happen. He volunteered to waive his no-trade clause and move on if that's what the Phillies wanted. He only had one request:

If they were going to trade him, would they at least try to trade him to Chicago?

And why was that? Not because the White Sox had just won the World Series. It was because his dad needed him.

His mom had died a year earlier, and Jim Thome was worried about his father, Chuck. So it was time to go home.

Fortunately, the Phillies and White Sox made that happen. And someday, when he looks back on the four seasons he spent with the White Sox, it won't be the 134 home runs he hit that Jim Thome remembers. It will be looking up into the stands, catching his father's eye and remembering how those four summers helped both of them get through the passing of his mother.

"And that," Thome once told me, "is a wonderful thing that baseball brings. As an older guy in the game, I see now how baseball has a great way of bringing families together."

So it was no surprise that Monday night, after his 600th home run had settled to earth and the historic magnitude of that moment was still setting in, you saw Chuck and the entire Thome family sprinting toward home plate. There might be some men in this sport who would trot their families out for show at times like that -- but not this man.

If there's one word we could use to sum him up, that word would be "real." No spin doctors, no script writers needed here. It's all 100 percent genuine Thome-osity on display, 24 hours of every day.

So we'll just step aside now and let the conspiracy theorists and the beer-mug-half-empty crowd look for reasons to devalue this feat and the man responsible for it. We know you're out there. If you want to live in that dark corner of the universe, far be it for us to stop you.

But you won't be running into Jim Thome over there on the dark side. And you know what? That's your loss, not his.

Ready to Rumble

• When the Cubs set out to dump Carlos Zambrano next winter, don't assume they'll just release him or digest all of that $18 million he has coming next year. As other clubs point out, if GM Jim Hendry is around to make the call, that hasn't been his M.O. with previous get-this-guy-outta-here types, anyhow.

If the Cubs follow their Milton Bradley playbook (when Bradley was swapped for Mariners pariah Carlos Silva in December 2009) they'll be looking hard for a way to exchange him for some other team's big-buck headache.

If so, here are some candidates:

1) Carlos Lee: The Astros owe him one more year at $18.5 million, and he loses his no-trade protection this winter. On the other hand, why would the Astros want a loose cannon such as Big Z to help them lose another 100 games?

2) A.J. Burnett: The Yankees owe him $16.5 million each of the next two years, and he has just about exhausted their patience. On the other hand, their pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, has been there, done this with the Cubs. And it's safe to say he prefers Jay-Z to Big Z.

3) Barry Zito: The Giants are still on the hook for another two years and $46 million beyond this season, and they'd love to move on. On the other hand, they need more bats, not more starting pitching. At least Zito has been a good teammate.

4) Derek Lowe: He has one more season left at $15 million. And the Braves have let it be known he's available. On the other hand, they just got to witness Zambrano's act firsthand -- on Bobby Cox Night, no less -- and we don't get the impression they gave it two thumbs-up.

5) Alfonso Soriano: "He's just the kind of guy the Cubs should move Zambrano for," one scout quipped. "Oh, wait. The Cubs have all the bad contracts. That's not fair."

• One minor complication for the Cubs in their quest to make Zambrano an ex-Cubbie: He already had a full no-trade clause. And last week, he became a 10-and-5 man to boot. So he can still block any deal. But as one NL exec said, "You'd like to think he'd be sane enough to say he's not going to let that get in the way. Then again, 'sane' probably isn't the best word to use in his case."

• Most teams we surveyed gave us the impression they would rather have gallbladder surgery than take on Zambrano. But the Cubs will be overjoyed to hear that sentiment wasn't unanimous.

"I honestly think if he went to a veteran team, he'd be different," one AL executive said. "He couldn't go just anywhere. He needs to go to a Philly, or the Yankees, or the Red Sox -- a winning-type situation where he knew he couldn't get out of line."

"You'd need a very strong manager to handle him," a longtime NL scout said. "How about Florida, if they were basically taking him for nothing? Jack McKeon could handle him. But there aren't many guys like Jack."

• One final Zambrano tidbit: Despite his long history of disruptive antics, it's no sure thing an arbitrator will allow the Cubs to place him on the restricted list.

The commissioner's office had to give the team approval to go that route. But sports attorneys we surveyed said the history of the sport disallows the use of the restricted list for disciplinary reasons -- and predicted an arbitrator will ultimately rule against the Cubs on this count. At that point, they're more likely to reach a settlement in which they'd dock Zambrano a couple of weeks' pay, then send him home for the rest of the season.

But given this guy's many wigouts over the years, one Zambrano-ed out exec snapped, "if there's an arbitrator out there who hears this grievance and rules in favor of him, they should file a grievance against the arbitrator."

• Before we leave the Cubs, you can ignore all rumors about them trading Reed Johnson or Kerry Wood via a waiver deal this month. Other clubs say both players were blocked and pulled back.

Carlos Pena's name still hasn't shown up on the waiver wire, those clubs report. But teams that have spoken with the Cubs say they seem no more interested in moving Pena now than they were in July, unless they get something back that makes it worth their while. We were told by one source with numerous friends on the Cubs: "That's a bad clubhouse. And he's one of the few guys holding it together."

• You'd never know it from their decision to banish him to the Pacific Coast League, but the Marlins still view Logan Morrison as a future star and a future leader -- and not in the real distant future, either. So in their view, this was just a way to send Morrison a message that true leaders need to say and do the right things -- and the team clearly felt he had crossed that line.

But when other people in baseball look at this from afar, they ask these important questions: 1) Did the Marlins have to deliver that message THIS way? Was it really worth the risk that Morrison and their young core group would cease to buy into the whole direction of the organization? 2) Isn't this an indictment of the team, too, for not infusing the roster with more veteran leadership and leaving a vacuum a 23-year-old felt the need to fill?

"This is a team that needs at least one, and maybe two, of those [veteran] guys," one NL exec said. "And they need them in a role more prominent than a Wes Helms kind of guy, who never plays."

The Marlins did make a serious run at Michael Young last spring to fill that niche. And we could see them reviving that pursuit. They should also think strongly about bringing back Mike Cameron next year, the same exec said.

"You can see Mike Cameron has taken on some of that role," he said. "Since he's been there, Mike Stanton has played with a completely different intensity level -- especially defensively. I don't think that's a coincidence."

• When the late-night draft-signing dust settled to earth, 26 of the first 29 picks in this year's draft signed for more bucks than their recommended slots -- and nine of the first 100 signed for at least $2 million over those slots. So you can be sure Bud Selig was taking careful notes, especially when owners are continuing to press for a hard-slotting system in the ongoing labor talks.

"This just makes Bud more determined than ever to get slotting done," said one baseball man who's close to Selig. "He's made it his No. 1 priority. And if he doesn't come away with slotting, he could have a real problem with some of these small markets. He's basically promised a lot of people he'll get them slotting by next year."

• The Red Sox continue to poke around for a right-handed bat off the bench who might somehow sneak through the waiver-wire jungle. And the Yankees and Phillies are searching for veteran left-handed relievers. But the odds of anyone useful (and affordable) going unclaimed by all the other clubs in their league are longer than Wily Mo Pena's swing.

• The Delmon Young trade isn't a sign the Twins are giving up on the season. It's just a sign the Twins had given up on Young. But whatever happens over the last month and a half of this season, if you look over the horizon, this team can't regain its longtime place as a giant in the AL Central if Justin Morneau doesn't turn back into his old, pre-concussion self. Right now, Morneau is "not even close to the same guy," one scout said. "It's like he's swinging underwater. He just doesn't look like the same animal. And they really don't have a big [bat] down below that's coming." So these are nerve-racking times for a franchise that desperately needs its stars to play like stars.

• The Braves continue to say there's nothing more serious than tendinitis going on in Tommy Hanson's shoulder. But one scout who saw Hanson's last start is worried: "His fastball had absolutely no life. And his arm angle was way down. His elbow was down there next to his ear. He looked like Johan [Santana] looked last year right before the Mets shut him down. And that's not good."

• While we're talking Santanas -- but not Johan -- the Astros have a chance to hit big on outfielder Domingo Santana, the fourth piece they got as the player to be named later in the Hunter Pence deal. Santana was only hitting .269/.345/.434 at Class A Lakewood. But he was also seventh in the South Atlantic League in doubles (29). He just turned 19 this month. And scouts gush about his raw skills.

"This guy has a chance to be Vlad Guerrero," one scout said. "He's still crude right now. But he has the highest ceiling imaginable. You put him in there with the other guys they got, and this has a chance to be like the [Bartolo] Colon deal was for Cleveland." To refresh your memory, the Indians got back Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips -- whoever they are -- when they shipped Colon to Montreal in 2002.

• Speaking of Pence, the Phillies continue to find nonstop amusement in the high-octane pace of their new right fielder. Manager Charlie Manuel told Rumblings Pence is one of the few players he has ever had who makes him think twice about high-fiving him after a home run. Why is that? "Stick out your arm," Manuel chuckled, "and he might break it."

And bench coach Pete Mackanin reports, after a week of watching Pence's ferocious hacks at the plate, he kiddingly told Pence he should try blooping in a hit once in a while. To which Pence replied: "Pete, I don't do that. I melt faces."

Five Astounding Facts (Tuesday Edition)

1) How amazing was the Cubs' 6-5 win in Atlanta on Sunday? Well, besides stopping Dan Uggla's hitting streak, the Elias Sports Bureau reports they also became just the second team since 1900 (joining the A's, in a Randy Johnson start on June 24, 1997) to win a game in which they whiffed at least 18 times and walked NO times … and the first in modern history to win a game in which they punched out 18 times, drew no walks AND committed four errors. We guarantee they didn't practice THAT winning formula in spring training.

2) Speaking of Uggla, all he needs to do now is hit 33 homers this year, and he'll become the only player in history in the 33-33 Club (as in: 33-game hitting streak in a 33-homer season). The only two men in the 30-30 variation of that club are Joe DiMaggio (56 and 30) in 1941 and Rogers Hornsby (32 and 42 in 1920).

3) Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana have run off streaks this year of five straight starts in which they gave up one run or none (and went at least six innings in each). The last AL teammates with streaks that long in the same season: Wilbur Wood and Tommy John of the 1971 White Sox.

4) Another classic streak: The Dodgers have sure cornered the market on 1-0 games. Until they went and won a 7-0 game Sunday, their last five shutouts all came in 1-0 games. They're the first team to win five 1-0 shutouts in a row, according to Elias, since Larry Christensen's 1982 Phillies.

5) And that fabulous triple play the Brewers turned Monday was the first 4-6-3-2 trifecta since Les Expos spun one against the Padres at Parc Jarry on June 13, 1973. That one went: Ron Hunt to Tim Foli to Mike Jorgensen to John Boccabella. Out at the plate for the third out: Gene Locklear. Fun group!

Tweets of the Week

• The legend of Tony Plush (er, Nyjer Morgan) lives on, as the Chicago Tribune's trusty Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) reports:

Bob Uecker, asked during last night's game if he had an alter ego like @tony_plush : "Yeah, Bette Davis."

• And then there was the Jim Thome tweet that we think might have said it all -- except we're still not sure what it said -- from @OzzieGuillen:

500 homerun 600 homerun wuaooooooo mr thome

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in on the Carlos Zambrano beat, from the tremendous Chicago parody site, theheckler.com:

HENDRY SENDS ZAMBRANO
'CONGRATS ON YOUR RETIREMENT!' BOUQUET

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com