Thome returns to chase 600th HR, 1st ring

Jim Thome’s back still aches in the morning, just as it has for

the past 10 years or so.

The older he gets, the more the Minnesota Twins slugger has to

do to get those disks and muscles warmed up and ready for another

day on the diamond.

There is going to come a day when that pain will be too great

for him to bear, when that mighty swing of his will slow down too

much for him to get around on a 95-mph fastball, when all the

weight lifting, stretching and cold tubs in the world won’t be

enough to get his body prepared to handle a 3-2 slider.

But not yet.

After the season he had in Year No. 18, there was no question

Thome was coming back. He was too productive at the plate, had too

much fun in the clubhouse and got too close to that elusive World

Series ring to walk away.

”I wanted to play,” Thome said without the slightest

hesitation. ”That’s that competitiveness in me. When you’ve done

it a long time, it’s hard to imagine not doing it. But there is

going to be a day when you’re not going to do it and I understand


He will turn 41 in August, but there was no shortage of suitors

lined up at his door this winter to try to sign him as a part-time

DH and dangerous pinch hitter. The Texas Rangers made a strong push

to join the defending AL champions, with Nolan Ryan wooing him


In the end, Thome decided to return to the Twins and Target

Field, a gleaming new ballpark that he said rejuvenated him and

helped him put together one of the most efficient seasons of his

career. He hit 25 homers in just 276 at-bats and his .627 slugging

percentage was his highest since he led the league in that category

during his 52-homer season in 2002.

So he’s back. Back in search of his 600th career home run. Back

to win the championship that has eluded him all these years.

”He’s awesome,” Twins catcher Joe Mauer said. ”To watch him

day in and day out is about as good as it gets. The excitement he

has coming to the park every day, that rubs off on people. He’s

just been a pleasure to play with.”

Barring a significant injury, Thome should become the eighth

player in league history to hit 600 homers. He’s just 11 away.

Heck, the big lug swatted 11 in August 2002 alone, though that was

long ago.

Last year, he passed Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew, Mark

McGwire and Frank Robinson on the career home run charts and is 21

away from leapfrogging Sammy Sosa for seventh place.

”Obviously we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but with

every home run, it’s special,” Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer

said. ”He’s passing somebody with some record. Not even just home

runs. It seems like every pitch that is thrown to him, he’s passing

somebody in something. Every time it’s just more and more special

as we go along.”

In his first summer in Minnesota, Thome would occasionally wear

a purple No. 4 Brett Favre shirt during pregame workouts.

The similarities were many. Each has been able to play a kid’s

game longer, and better, than most 24-year-olds around. Favre was

coming off perhaps the best season of his career at age 40, leading

the Vikings to the NFC title game after the 2009 season.

Thome was thrust into a more prominent role – the everyday DH –

when Twins slugger Justin Morneau went down, and the 40-year-old

was the only Twins player who managed to make spacious Target Field

look small.

Then Favre showed last year just how fleeting success can be,

especially as a player gets older. The quarterback struggled

through a season of injuries, had his beloved consecutive starts

streak end and threw 19 interceptions as the Vikings stumbled to a

6-10 finish. He also was embroiled in a scandal alleging he sent

inappropriate text messages and pictures to a woman when both

worked for the New York Jets.

”It’s hard to do it on a consistent basis, to hit home runs, to

knock guys in, to throw touchdown passes,” Favre said when talking

about himself and Thome in September.

Thome agrees, echoing Favre’s oft-used phrase ”no guarantees”

when talking about the upcoming season. But Thome also made it

clear that Favre’s downfall didn’t give him any pause about coming


”If you like the guys you play with, to me, coming to work

every day and enjoying what you do is what it’s about,” Thome

said. ”It’s not about a one-season deal. If I don’t have a good

year and we win a World Series ring, that’s what you strive to get.

It’s not about the individual. It’s about us. That’s one thing we

do really well here.”

Twins general manager Bill Smith didn’t seem to have any

reservations about bringing Thome back, either.

”His role has changed a little bit from that 650 at-bat hitter,

but his impact hasn’t changed,” Smith said. ”His impact on a

lineup, his impact on a game, his impact on a team hasn’t changed.

He’s got tremendous value. It’s all about leadership and it’s all

about playing the game the right way.

”He fits into this organization as well as any player


Thome has always aw-shucksed his way around talking about his

individual accomplishments.

Sure, 600 homers would be ”special,” Thome says, using one of

his favorite words. Then his thoughts turn to that ring, and a

different gleam starts shining, right next to the crow’s feet at

the corner of his eyes.

”But on the other end, man that World Series ring is something

every player should want and strive to get,” Thome said. ”I’ve

been close. But just not over that hump.

”We’ll see. We’ll see.”