Jim Thome had to know he’d be back, didn’t he? On an off day in late August of 2008, Thome, playing for the White Sox, visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, for the first time. He had his dad with him, along with the ball he’d blasted for home run No. 500 not quite a year before in Chicago.
Thome had to know he’d be back at the Hall, though it wasn’t a subject he readily addressed as he neared the end of an extraordinary 22-year career. But now? Now it is a done deal. The call from the Hall came Wednesday, with the 47-year-old Peoria native, who last played in 2012, getting in on the first ballot with a vote percentage of 89.8.
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“Every Midwest kid can dream of a day like this,” Thome said, “and I’m living it today.”
Also in the class of 2018, which will be inducted July 29 in Cooperstown: iconic Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Expos and Angels right fielder Vladimir Guerrero and longtime Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Like Thome, Jones — at a whopping 97.2 percent of the vote — made it in his first time on the ballot. Pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell also are in, having been elected in December by the Hall’s Modern Era committee.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the greatest hitter and pitcher of the steroid era, each received over 50 percent of the vote, suggesting their time may be coming. Former Cubs superstar Sammy Sosa, on the other hand, came in at less than eight percent. Maybe next year? Maybe never, Sammy.
Sox fans won’t ever forget the sight of Thome after his 500th home run — a walk-off shot to center to beat the Angels at what was then called U.S. Cellular Field — being carried on the shoulders of teammates Jermaine Dye and Bobby Jenks.
An even bigger, perhaps more memorable homer came a year later, on the final day of September 2008. Thome sent a monstrous solo blast over the center-field wall — and a stadium packed with Sox fans into an utter frenzy — for the only run in a one-game playoff against the Twins.
Thome belted 134 long balls in a Sox uniform and 612 in a career spent with six teams, most notably the Indians. His 13 walk-off homers are the most by any player in history. He claims his career on-base percentage of .402 is his favorite personal statistic. His 1,747 bases on balls are the seventh-most of all time. But it is those home runs — the long and majestic, and the clutch and magical — that still leap so quickly to the fronts of our minds.
The bat pointing toward the bleachers in right field. The stance open. The uppercut swing. Blastoff.
Thome ranks eighth on the all-time home run list — with three more than Sosa, 29 more than Mark McGwire, 43 more then Rafael Palmeiro and 57 more than Manny Ramirez. Those ahead of him include Alex Rodriguez, by 85, and, of course, Bonds, by 150.
On that list, Thome stands out as the one mighty bopper from the steroid era whose name never was linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
“The strongest thing I put into my body is steak and eggs,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2005, amid the worst season of his career in Philadelphia. “I just eat. I’m not a supplement guy. I try to get in shape, get ready to go. Steroids are not even a thought.”
Anyone who consumed the sport back then heard a lot of players issue a lot of denials. Hopefully, some of them were even telling the truth. It would be lovely to think of Thome as one of them, especially given his reputation as one of the true nice guys of baseball.
Thome made his big-league debut eight days after his 21st birthday, a third baseman who would spend his first 13 seasons in Cleveland. He made a permanent switch to first base roughly halfway through his time with the Indians and took on a regular designated hitter role in 2006, the first of his four years with the Sox.
Thome is the only member of the 600 club who never was an MVP. Despite reaching the postseason 10 times, he never won a World Series. Yet what an impact he made. He won two Marvin Miller Man of the Year Awards, a Roberto Clemente Award and a Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, all in recognition of his community service, sportsmanship and character.
The Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley was on the Sox beat during the Thome years and calls him “as good a guy as I have ever covered.”
“The best thing I can say about Jim Thome,” Cowley said, “is every time you were done talking to him — interview or just BSing — you walked away realizing how much more room you still had to be a better person.”
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