Jerry Reinsdorf

Jim Thome on brain trust of White Sox rebuild: 'They genuinely, passionately want to bring a championship here'

Jim Thome on brain trust of White Sox rebuild: 'They genuinely, passionately want to bring a championship here'

On an August night in this future-facing season, the White Sox momentarily took a look to the past.

Jim Thome, the Land of Lincoln native who spent four seasons on the South Side and immediately became a fan favorite, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this summer, and the White Sox honored him before Saturday’s game against the Cleveland Indians, the team whose cap Thome is sporting on his Hall of Fame plaque.

As fun as it was for fans to get to see the team celebrate one of the all-time greats — they lined up for his bobblehead and gave him a standing ovation during the pregame ceremony — Thome is also a part of this rebuilding effort on the South Side. It’s a process designed to return the White Sox to the postseason for the first time since Thome’s days. It was he, of course, who hit the home run in the Blackout Game that clinched the team’s most recent playoff berth a decade ago.

Thome is a special assistant to general manager Rick Hahn and had nothing but great things to say about the team’s brain trust of Hahn, team president Kenny Williams and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Most notably, he commended their drive to bring a winner to Chicago, a process that fans are seeing play out before their eyes on a nightly basis throughout all levels of the organization.

Thome, as part of his role, imparts bits of wisdom about hitting to the organization’s young players. His 612 career home runs and new status as one of the game’s immortals should be ample credentials for the guys who are planned to one day make up the next White Sox team to contend for a championship.

“I look forward to getting back and getting out on the road and seeing our young, great prospects,” Thome said. “I’m going to Instructional League, I look forward to that, that’s always one of the highlights. The draft is another one of my highlights.

“And just honestly sitting around with Kenny and Rick and Jerry and discussing the moves and things that this organization is going to (do to) go forward. To be a part of that is very special. They’ve given me the opportunity to be around the game in that capacity, which I’ve got to say is very fun. I really have enjoyed it.

“Being around Rick and Kenny, the motivation to win is big. So that drove me now from this side, to try to be a part of a championship, just not as a player anymore, but now in the front office.

“Kenny’s great at scouting. Rick has a great demeanor. I think Rick is very well suited for his job. I think one of his biggest strengths is he’s a great listener. … He’s got a great personality. Top to bottom, I think our organization has a lot of those guys. They genuinely, passionately want to bring a championship here. I hope we’re all together to do that soon.”

White Sox fans, and the team as well, are hoping that the next Thome — and the next Konerko, Pierzynski, Buehrle, Dye, et cetera — is among the wave of highly touted prospects about to wash ashore on the South Side. And in addition to the production that would bring, they hope the connection to this organization and to this fan base is just as strong as Thome’s.

“This is so special,” he said of being honored Saturday. “This is my family, this is where I work, this is where we live. I think you all know my relationship with Mr. Reinsdorf. This is really special.”

WATCH: White Sox grounds crew member Nevest Coleman receives 2005 World Series watch

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AP

WATCH: White Sox grounds crew member Nevest Coleman receives 2005 World Series watch

Nevest Coleman, a White Sox grounds crew member who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in 1994, received a World Series watch by team owner Jerry Reinsdorf Wednesday afternoon.

In 2005, every groundskeeper was given the same commemorative timepiece. Coleman was rehired in March after he was freed from imprisonment after 23 years in November when DNA evidence exonerated him. The organization decided to give him the device he would’ve gotten if he was still working for the White Sox during the time they won the World Series.

The team issued a statement in March about having Coleman back as an employee.

“We’re grateful that after more than two decades, justice has been carried out for Nevest,” the White Sox said. “It has been a long time, but we’re thrilled that we have the opportunity to welcome him back to the White Sox family. We’re looking forward to having Nevest back on Opening Day at home in our ballpark.”

Now, he is working at Guaranteed Rate Field for one of his old crew mates, who is now his boss, and is grateful to have his job again on the South Side.

“They didn't have to hire me back,” Coleman said in March. “I appreciate the White Sox giving me the opportunity to come back to work.”

How Thome went from 'Jim Blankin' Thome' to White Sox slugger

How Thome went from 'Jim Blankin' Thome' to White Sox slugger

COOPERSTOWN, NY --  Before he made it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, before he finished his career with 612 home runs, before he became a special assistant with the White Sox and before he hit the game-winning home run for them in the 2008 Blackout Game, Jim Thome had a nickname.  It was created by Jerry Reinsdorf and Ken Williams for all the damage he had inflicted on the White Sox when he was mashing his way into baseball immortality with the Indians in the 1990’s. What did they call him?

Jim ‘Blankin’ Thome.

“He just killed us in so many pressure situations. Just killed us,” Williams said about Thome.  “We would find ourselves walking out of the ballpark uttering those words. I finally fessed up to Jimmy about all of this and what his nickname was and then I finally told him where it started to be late in games, I’d see him walk up to the plate and I’d tell Jerry, ‘I’m out of here.  I’m not going to watch this again.’ And then I would hear the crowd roar as I was walking down the stairs out of the ballpark.”

If you can’t beat him, acquire him.

That’s what Williams did in November of 2005.  With the World Series champagne barely dry, Williams traded away fan favorite Aaron Rowand to Philadelphia for Thome to give the White Sox some left-handed thump in the middle of the order and he permanently removed “Blankin” from Thome’s middle nickname.

“When we traded for him, I remember telling him in our first conversation, ‘I’m so glad you’re here. I’m tired of watching you beat our brains out,’” Reinsdorf said.

Losing Rowand was tough on Reinsdorf.  He was one of his favorite players. When Rowand came back to town for the World Series ring ceremony the following year, the two of them hugged and cried together.

“That’s how much I love Aaron Rowand,” Reinsdorf said.  “But I’d trade my mother to get Jim Thome.”

When the White Sox acquired him, Thome was still grieving the loss of his mother.  Joyce Thome died of lung cancer on January 5, 2005. I asked Thome here in Cooperstown the first thought that enters his mind today when he thinks about playing for the White Sox.

“Coming home after Mom’s death. Being traded from the Phillies and the joy and the happiness baseball does give families,” Thome said. “We went through a very emotional time with losing Mom and having  that opportunity to come home, and what I think baseball did was ease the pain of her death, to be honest.”

A brick honoring Thome’s late mother sits at the corner of 35th and Shields in Brick Plaza in front of the White Sox World Series statue. Word is there will be an empty chair for her during the induction ceremony on Sunday.

When Thome hit his 500th career home run in 2007, he says he felt his mother was with him as he rounded the bases.  That walkoff home run will always be remembered as one of the greatest moments in recent White Sox history.

And Reinsdorf almost missed it.

“I was ready to leave the ballpark, because I didn’t think (Thome) was going to come up again,” Reinsdorf said. “He had been sitting on 499 for a while and I actually went to my office, packed up and I started walking out of the ballpark and I said, ‘There’s no clock.  I better not leave, because if something happens after I left I’m going to kill myself.’ So I stayed and he hit the 500th home run which was a walkoff in typical Jim Thome fashion.”

Thome delivered in so many clutch situations, he reminds Reinsdorf of another great Chicago athlete, probably the greatest of all.

“This is a stretch, but in a way, Michael Jordan because they’re both winners and they both rose to the occasion.  Jim Thome has 13 walkoff home runs, the most in major league history. In a way, that reminds me of Michael Jordan taking the last shot.   As individuals, their personalities are completely different, but he was clutch.”

After Thome retired, he and Reinsdorf would speak about his Hall of Fame chances.  Most of the world believed Thome would get in on the first ballot. Jim wasn’t as sure.

“Since he retired, we’ve been talking about the day.  When is it going to happen? Counting down almost for the five years.  He had some questions. Will he make it on the first ballot?” Reinsdorf recalled. “I always told him, if you don’t make it on the first ballot, then they shouldn’t have a first ballot.  Of course, he did make it the first time around.”

What will Thome’s speech be like?  Reinsdorf gave some predictions.

“I think it will be succinct, I don’t think it will very flowery, I don’t think it will be long.  It will be sincere and I’m sure he’s going to break down. That’s just the kind of guy he is, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks down talking about either Charlie Manuel, his mom, his dad or his wife.”

Thome has his speech prepared.  He says there are many people to thank.  It was a long road to get from Peoria to Cooperstown.

The words to the speech have been written.  The emotions that might come pouring out will be real.  His daughter Lila is singing the national anthem. He might want to have some tissues standing by.

“There have been moments here the last couple days, we talked about Mom, we talked about Lila, I broke down,”  Thome said. “But I don’t know how it’s going to feel tomorrow. Just embrace it. I’m sure there’s going to be emotions, but this is truly what it’s all about is to get that opportunity to go on stage and let everyone know how much you appreciate and what they’ve meant.”

The feeling will be mutual.