Some of my favorite Jim Thome memories

Some of my favorite Jim Thome memories

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.

Cooperstown calls Jim Thome

Cooperstown calls Jim Thome

Charlie Manuel likes to tell the story of how the Cleveland Indians brass asked him to peek in on some of the club's top young prospects during the instructional league in the fall of 1989.

After a few days, Manuel, then the Indians' big-league hitting coach, called back to Cleveland.

"There's this kid down here from Illinois that can really hit," Manuel said.

That kid was Jim Thome and on Wednesday night a spectacular baseball journey that started with his being an unheralded 13th-round draft pick of the Indians in 1989 took him to the Hall of Fame.

A friendly giant of a man — literally and figuratively — Thome slugged 612 home runs, eighth most all-time, and made five All-Star teams. Those credentials helped fuel a first-ballot selection to Cooperstown by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Though Thome spent the majority of his career with the Indians, his selection was felt profoundly in Philadelphia, where he is a member of the Phillies' Wall of Fame. Thome played four seasons with the Phils and clubbed 101 home runs — including the milestone 400th of his career — with the club. He came to the Phillies as a free agent before the 2003 season, the team's last in Veterans Stadium. He finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting that year.

Though Thome was gone — traded to the Chicago White Sox to clear a spot for a kid named Ryan Howard — by the time the Phillies broke a 14-year postseason drought in 2007 and won the World Series in 2008, his signing marked a reawakening for an organization that had slumbered in the years following its winning the NL pennant in 1993.

Thome, who now works in the White Sox front office, was always a gentleman and a first-class teammate — "the best I ever had," said Dan Plesac, who pitched for 18 seasons in the majors — during his playing days. It seemed as if the entire baseball world was happy for him Wednesday night as he received 89.8 percent of a necessary 75 percent (of 422 ballots) for election.

No one was happier for Thome than Manuel, his mentor and former manager in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

“I couldn’t be happier for Jim, who is like a son to me," Manuel said. "This is totally deserving and, for me, ranks up there with anything I’ve ever seen happen in the game of baseball.

"For someone that I met as a 19-year-old and saw improve as much as anyone over time, it makes me smile to think that all that hard work, all those swings in the batting cage, paid off for him. 

"I started thinking this was possible after he hit his 500th home run and for the day to finally be here — it’s like winning the World Series all over again."

Phillies management, from the ownership level to then-general manager Ed Wade, targeted Thome after the 2002 season to help build some electricity around an improving club as it prepared to move into a new stadium, Citizens Bank Park, in 2004.

"A transformative moment for our organization," David Montgomery, the Phillies chairman, said of Thome's decision to accept the team's six-year, $85 million contract offer.

"Jim’s signing with the Phillies accomplished a great many things for the organization," Wade said. "First, he made us a better team. He gave us the opportunity to develop Ryan Howard at the proper pace. His clubhouse presence among a lot of outstanding young players allowed them to learn how to handle the pressures of the game. 

"In a global sense, his signing validated and reinforced the promises we made to our fans about being fully committed to use the resources of a new ballpark to build a championship-caliber organization. And, he just happened to open the door for us to hire the winningest manager in Phillies history: Charlie Manuel. Baseball, the Phillies, Philadelphia and many of us individually owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Thome.”

In addition to Thome, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman were elected by the writers. Jones, like Thome, made it in his first year of eligibility.

Thome, 47, ranks 23rd all-time with a .5541 career slugging percentage. The Peoria, Illinois, native hit 40 or more homers six times.

And while he impacted baseballs with his powerful left-handed stroke, his impact on his teammates was also profound.

"I want to say congrats to one of the most deserving, and one of the most genuine, people I’ve ever met in my entire life," Howard said.

"He was an unbelievable hitter but somehow an even better person," Chase Utley said.

“They didn’t call him ‘Gentleman Jim’ for nothing," Brett Myers said. "A great family man and that’s exactly how he treated his teammates — as family. He greeted everyone with a smile no matter who you were and made sure he spoke to all his teammates no matter what kind of day he was having.”

Jimmy Rollins said sharing a clubhouse with Thome was an honor.

"His infectious smile, gentle nature, and the extra-large and tight hugs he’d give his friends because he was genuinely excited to see you were things I looked forward to every day," Rollins said. "I congratulate him on a well-deserved Hall of Fame selection."

Everybody loves 'Gentleman Jim'

Everybody loves 'Gentleman Jim'

Philly loves you, Jim Thome, but so does seemingly all of baseball.

Although he played only four seasons with the Phillies, Thome’s impact reaches far beyond the box score (see story). He signaled the start of an era that would culminate in a title and two appearances in the World Series. 

Thome was definitely feeling the love Wednesday as he heard his name called to the Hall of Fame.

The moment Thome, and his dad Chuck, have been waiting for was caught on camera.

In a great moment, Charlie Manuel made a surprise phone call into MLB Network.

Among the many messages posted on social media, these two stood out to prove why Thome was destined to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Finally, some of his former teammates and friends chimed in as well.

Congratulations, Jim.