In an age when we’ve all been soaked by cynicism’s steady drizzle, it’s easy to look at Jim Thome’s resume and think: too good to be true.
Or better yet: How did the Twins’ slugger sneak up on 600 home runs without anyone noticing?
There he is, at 599, on the doorstep of one of most baseball’s most cherished plateaus, yet free of controversy — or buzz.
Maybe it’s because Thome has been so well-behaved throughout his 21-year, five-team career; all the man has done is crush baseballs into fine powder, without chest-bumps, elaborate handshakes or look-at-me displays outside the dugout.
In fact, Thome’s personal space is like a Norman Rockwell painting — all optimism and cheerfulness, hardly the behavioral profile of someone who’s cheated his way up the ladder of success.
It’s an unfortunate asterisk that Thome lives with, having entered his home run-hitting prime between 1997-2004.
The balance of power changed so radically in those years, the non-steroid users were practically irrelevant. But baseball insiders believe Thome remained beyond the reach of steroids’ long tentacles. He never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, nor was his name mentioned in the Mitchell Report.
Maybe that explains why Thome’s pursuit of No. 600 has been so far off the grid, because it was so sterile. After all, of the seven sluggers who’ve reached this high, three of them — Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa — have either confessed to juicing or were suspected of it.
That might’ve been a problem for Thome, except that his home runs came at a steady clip; he averaged exactly 40 home runs per 162 games throughout his career.
“That’s what sticks out when I think about Jim, his strength and longevity,” said Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. “He’s a big, strong guy who’s kept his skills for a long time, which you have to respect.”
There has never been a spike in power or run-production that would undercut Thome’s legitimacy. Unlike Bonds, who slugged a record 73 HRs at age 36 despite never hitting 50 in any previous season, Thome peaked when he was 31. He hit 52 homers in 2002 and found a comfortable niche as he got older.
Even though he hasn’t had a 40-home run campaign since 2006, and no 30-HR seasons since 2009, Mariano Rivera said, “I still consider him dangerous. Every time Jim faces me, I know he’s thinking one thing — home run.”
It’s reason enough to trust Thome and maybe admire him, too. It’s not just that he’s aging the way non-juicers are supposed to, it’s that he’s otherwise so flawed. While Thome’s swing-for-the-planets approach has made history, it’s also turned him into a strikeout machine. He led the league three times in whiffs and is second on the all-time list behind Reggie Jackson.
Thome isn’t proud of the swings and misses, but he’s long since given up trying to remake his image.
“It’s tough to strike out,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2010. “Believe me, I hate striking out. It’s no fun. It’s embarrassing. But there really isn’t anything I can do. It’s just part of my game.”
Yet, that struggle has always been part of Thome’s charm. His war with pitchers are not unlike Casey At The Bat — a thrilling, all-or-nothing assault that ensures one of two possible outcomes. Either Thome goes deep, or he goes down in flames.
It’s the imperfection that makes Thome’s home runs so authentic. It’s the difference between genuine leather, which is scratched, and the synthetic stuff, which is perfect.
That all-too-human quality is one reason Thome is so popular among his peers.
“One of the best guys around. I actually have Jim’s jersey in my house,” Teixeira said. “Back in ’05, when he was with the Phillies, he approached me and said he collected first basemen’s jerseys. He asked if I would sign one for him. I was like, ‘of course.’ So I got one of his.”
Thome’s Q-rating may be a factor when Hall of Fame voters study his resume some day. At least there’s some history on his side — 600 homers have opened Cooperstown’s doors to those who’ve been eligible (Aaron, Ruth, Mays).
Still, Thome falls short on several other litmus tests.
Was he ever the best player at his position? Not really.
Was he a dominant figure in the game? Sort of, placing in the top-10 in OPS 10 times.
But did Thome win a Most Valuable Player award? Not even close; he finished in the top five in the voting only once (fourth in 2003) and placed in the top 10 just three times.
And if being an All-Star counts for anything, Thome was voted on just five times.
So what is it, exactly, that’s made Thome so special?
Maybe it’s that he represents something so very old-fashioned — friendly and contently un-hip. Even umpires like him.
Maybe home run No. 600 will change the low profile; maybe Thome will go on a tear and catch Sosa in the next few weeks. And with A-Rod on the disabled list, it’s possible Thome will inch his way toward the sixth spot on the all-time list.
By then, it’ll be impossible to ignore this (every) man. The world can finally gaze at the wide-open space called Jim Thome’s career — the numbers aren’t perfect, but the timing certainly is.