I am thinking of Jim Thome today.
About his time with the Phillies.
And about his richly deserved election to Baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday (see story).
I am thinking of Jim Thome today, and here are a few things I remember most about the humble, goodhearted man who treated everyone well — except, of course, the pitchers who served up his 612 career homers.
• The Phillies wanted Thome badly, wanted him to be the centerpiece of their reawakening and the move into Citizens Bank Park. They spent the fall of 2002 passionately recruiting him. General manager Ed Wade ducked out of Thanksgiving Day preparations with his family to write Thome and his wife, Andrea, a passionate and heartfelt email in which he listed the reasons why he hoped Thome would sign with the Phillies, why he thought Thome would be a good fit with the team and the city. The email, and a six-year, $85 million contract, helped land Thome. But so did this: On the day Thome toured Philadelphia and the construction site that would become Citizens Bank Park, he was greeted with an impromptu pep rally from members of the Local 98 Electricians Union. The workers even presented the free-agent slugger with a cap emblazoned with words Philadelphia Wants Jim Thome. It really touched Thome, a blue-collar guy from Peoria, Illinois, whose dad, Chuck, worked making bulldozers for Caterpillar. Only a small portion of Thome's Hall of Fame career unfolded here in Philadelphia. That organic outpouring from Local 98 helped bring the man to town.
• I will never forget Thome's first spring training with the Phillies in 2003. It was a certifiable event, his every move chronicled by a band of reporters. One quiet morning at Carpenter Complex, Thome was taking batting practice on Robin Roberts Field. Manager Larry Bowa was pitching. Bowa is a great BP pitcher with an amazing knack for putting everything right in a hitter's wheelhouse. With all eyes on him, Thome turned on one of Bowa's perfect serves and drove it high over the right-field fence, so high that it cleared a weed-choked embankment and landed up on the edge of Highway 19, the heavily traveled road that slices through Pinellas County. How far did that ball travel? Intrepid reporter Bob Brookover found out. He borrowed a tape measure from the grounds crew and crawled up the embankment to where the ball landed near a construction site. Five-hundred thirty eight feet. And six inches. 538½ feet. That's more than a tenth of a mile. Wow. Did Jim Thome know how to announce his arrival, or what?
• A decade later and then a veteran near the end of his career, Thome was back with the Phillies in a reserve role in 2012. He hit five homers in 30 games with the Phils that season and two of them remain indelible. On June 13 in Minneapolis, he launched a 466-foot bomb over the centerfield wall. It landed in the concession area next to a stand that sold a local specialty — fried walleye on a stick. Thome was able to retrieve the home run ball, the 606th of his career. "I think it had a walleye stick in it," he joked. Ten days later, Thome hit the last of his 101 homers with the Phillies. It was a pinch-hit, walk-off shot to beat Tampa Bay at Citizens Bank Park. First-year Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon had blown a save in the top of the inning and promised $5,000 to the person who got him off the hook with a game-winning homer. Of course, Thome obliged. And the money was donated to charity.
• My first personal interaction with Thome came in a one-on-one interview not long after he signed with the Phillies. It was right before Christmas 2002. He was a new father, full of curiosity, bliss and wonderment over the arrival of his daughter, Lila. As he talked about the blessings of fatherhood, he asked me if I had kids. I said yes. He looked at me in that earnest way of his and said, "Let me ask you a question: Did your wife breastfeed?" He was always a one-of-a-kind superstar, completely real and down to earth.
• Thome's first and most notable stint in Philadelphia began with celebrations, a 47-homer season and a fourth-place finish in the NL MVP voting in 2003. It ended with much less fanfare. He was hurt in 2005 and Ryan Howard had come up to hit 22 home runs in 88 games to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. While some might have groused about a young player coming up and taking his job, Thome was pure class, a lesson in humility and humanity as he supported Howard. After the season, he was traded to the White Sox. He said he completely understood the move. He talked-up Howard, said he was going to be a star. And he said Philadelphia would always hold a special place in his heart. He said the same thing Wednesday night after learning he'd been elected to the Hall of Fame.
I was thinking about Jim Thome today and these are some of my favorite memories.