Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011Posted: 8:12 p.m.
By Chuck Garfien
It's three-and-a-half hours before the first pitch between the White Sox and Indians, and Jim Thome is back in Chicago, all alone in the bowels of U.S. Cellular Field, taking his customary whacks into a baseball net.
With the scent of Bengay surrounding him, Thome is preparing his 41-year-old body for Thursday's game, the 2,745th of his major league career. Thome is one who always lives in the now, playing for the present. However, here in the final month of the season, with his numbers tailing off just like they've done for every baseball great to ever play the game, there's a part of Jim that is starting to see the finish line.
"You can't play baseball forever," said Thome, seated in the Indians dugout, back with the team that drafted him in the 13th round in 1989. "To sit here and answer today, 'Am I going to play next year?' I don't know. That being said, you go out and you enjoy it. If we're not able to get into the playoffs and we go home, I'll enjoy every moment that I was able to come back to Cleveland and be apart of this great organization that drafted me, and look at it being very special."
Since the time he learned how to walk, Thome has basically had a bat in his hand. Baseball is what he knows, and what he does. It's provided Thome with a bright path to follow all these years. But what happens when that journey comes to an end?
"I think that's a challenge, and also something I look forward to, being there everyday with my family and turning to that phase of my life," Thome said. "None of us baseball players have been home everyday, and it's exciting to think about it, and also a little bit scary, because you don't know what the next chapter is. Maybe I will stay in the game, that's kind of the feeling, but I don't think any player really knows until after they retire."
Two weeks ago, the internet nearly exploded in Chicago when rumors spread that the White Sox had attempted to claim Thome off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. It would have brought Thome back to the Southside for one final curtain call. Thome heard the same rumors we did. However, it was the Indians who nabbed him, giving Thome the possibility of ending his career with the team where it all began.
But Chicago still has a special place in Thome's heart. He and his family still live here, and he plans to retire in Chicago when his career is over.
"I think everybody knows my history here in Chicago. I have fond memories. Jerry (Reinsdorf), the organization has treated me great here," Thome said. "That was a very special time in my career, especially with everything that happened with Mom, and coming home and getting the opportunity to play here was very special."
If you'd like to see Thome play again, this might be your last chance. It's the Indians' final trip to Chicago this year, and not knowing what the future holds, it could be the unofficial good-bye for the burly slugger who has belted 602 home runs in a career that should ultimately end at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Thome played only three-and-a-half seasons with the White Sox (2006-2009). Does he wish he could have stayed a little longer? The answer is yes, but....
"I would pick every team that I played for and say, 'Man it would be very special to have played for them a little longer,' absolutely yeah," Thome said. "But that's the business and that's part of it. You don't have any second regrets. You don't look back and go, 'I wish here, I wish there.' It's all been positive and great."
And that's the essence of Jim Thome, a man who seems to live in a world where it's always 75 degrees and sunny with light winds. His carefree demeanor blended with a burning desire to win has made him one of the game's most popular players both on and off the field. When time expires on his career, he'll have decades of memories to look back on. But why wait until then? Thome is soaking it in already.
"As we go through baseball it's a whirlwind, and it goes by so quick that sometimes you need to take a step back and reflect on it and smile."
He smiles. We cheer. He's earned every one of them.