Thome still trying for World Series title

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 26, 2012

So, did you hear the one about the future Hall of Famer who started the season with a supposed contender, got traded to a shocking upstart, missed almost two months with a neck injury and then returned to play a hero’s role in a pennant race?

That’s Jim Thome.

“It’s something that I really try not to analyze too much,” the Orioles’ designated hitter was saying over the phone from Baltimore on Tuesday. “I don’t know what to even say, with the way everything played out, (first) going to Philadelphia …

“You don’t sign with a team to be traded. But it’s just part of the business. To actually get traded here with how they’re doing so well … it’s great. Hopefully, we’ll have more to talk about at the end of the month.”

Specifically, on Oct. 3, if the Orioles earn a postseason berth.

The Orioles trail the Yankees by 1-1/2 games in the AL East but hold a two-game cushion over the Angels, the team in third place in the wild-card race.

If the season ended today, the O’s would host the Athletics in the wild-card game, and Thome, 42, would appear in his 10th postseason, seeking his first World Series title.

“It would be a dream,” Thome said. “That’s why I’m still playing. Not for individual things. To get the opportunity to look into your teammates’ eyes at the end of the year and celebrate.

“That’s what it’s all about. It’s what it should be all about. It’s what I’ve dreamed of since the ’90s when we were in Cleveland.

“You get the opportunity once, it’s addictive. But I realize the process. You can’t really think about it too much. It just has to happen.”

Thome, after going on the disabled list on July 31 with a herniated disk in his neck, had reason to think that it wouldn’t happen — not for him, not this season, not ever again.

“A lot of guys would have said, ‘I’m done, see you next year,’” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.

Thome did nothing of the sort.

Instead, he reported to the Orioles’ spring facility in Sarasota, Fla., determined to rehabilitate his injury and resume playing. Showalter said Thome gave him regular updates, followed the team closely, even asked jokingly for the Orioles to play some quicker games so he could go to bed earlier.

Thome finally rejoined the team Friday in Boston after playing a pair of games in the Instructional League. It didn’t take him long to add to his legend.

On Saturday, Thome doubled in the go-ahead run in the Orioles’ 9-6 victory in 12 innings after starting 0-for-5, striking out twice and grounding into a double play.

On Sunday, he hit a pinch-hit, ground-rule double with one out in the ninth that would have tied the score if the ball had stayed in play. Instead, the Orioles lost, 2-1.

“Our whole club lit up when he got those big hits in Boston,” Showalter said.

Thome has that effect on people.

The Orioles acquired him from the Phillies for two minor leaguers June 30. “I always wanted to trade for a 600-home run hitter,” general manager Dan Duquette joked Tuesday, knowing that Thome is seventh on the all-time list with 612.

Actually, Duquette said he wanted Thome for both his presence in the lineup and in the clubhouse. Thome has appeared in 67 postseason games — or 22 more than the rest of the Orioles’ position players combined.

Yet, this was not like when Thome went back to Cleveland or Philadelphia, or even when he stayed in the AL Central with Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox. Thome, a 22-year veteran, had no prior connection to the Orioles, and knew few people with the team.

His contract did not include a no-trade clause, but Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. showed Thome the proper respect, honoring the player’s desire to return to the AL and play for a contender.

For a change, the Orioles qualified.

Thome produced a .746 OPS in his first 18 games for Baltimore after the trade. But then he hurt his neck — a different injury for a player who has overcome frequent back trouble, reporting hours early to the ballpark, doing extra conditioning to prepare for games.

“Anytime you’re into the neck area, you’re talking about a situation after baseball,” he said. “Am I going to be — I don’t want to say, ‘not healthy,’ but it comes into your mind. What can possibly happen when I get done with baseball?”

Still, he did not consider retirement an option.

“I went down and did all the protocol, everything I was supposed to do, gave it rest, got an epidural,” Thome said. “The frustrating thing was, as our club started to play well, here I was, down in Florida, saying, ‘Am I going to get back?’ I asked that question.

“You’re rehabbing. You’re 42 years old. Not that age has anything to do with it. But you see time ticking, the clock ticking. How much longer are you going to play?”

Still, Thome being Thome, he stayed positive and followed his rehabilitation program, knowing that if he returned, it would not be until mid- to late September.

And, Thome being Thome, he made time for every young Orioles player in the Gulf Coast League and Instructional League, according to team officials.

“Sometimes, you’re just dealt the card you’re dealt,” Thome said. “It’s up to you to be positive, not to be depressed, moping. The kids see that. I realize that. Their watchful eyes are on you.

“It was important for me to go down there and interact with the kids, be somebody to them like Eddie Murray was to me as a young guy when I was with Cleveland.”

Funny thing, though: Thome knows when to be reserved, too.

When Showalter asked him to address the Orioles upon rejoining the club, Thome replied, “Let me get a few games under my belt, get some credibility.”

He still hasn’t spoken to the club and probably won’t, Showalter said, preferring to talk to teammates individually.

“That’s how much respect he has for what these guys have done,” Showalter said. “He’s never gotten the ‘Disease of Me,’ thought he was bigger than the team.”

No, the beauty of Thome is that he just wants to be part of the team. That’s why he worked so hard to come back, to rejoin a set of teammates he barely even knew.

“It’s a unique team,” Thome said. “You’ve got enough young guys who are so hungry, it rubs off on the guys in their fifth, sixth years of service time. And the veterans, it helps them as well.

“There is a definite sense of urgency. Look, the sky’s the limit. Would anyone have thought we’d be in the position we’re in? You have to ask yourself that. Believe it. Go with it. Don’t think too much. Ride it out.”

So, did you hear the one about the 42-year-old optimist, the guy who can’t tell you when his career will end because he is having so much fun?

That’s Jim Thome.