There is no municipal tug-of-war over Jim Thome. He’s Cleveland’s. He’s Philadelphia’s. He’s Chicago’s. He’s Minnesota’s, too. He’s also the property of Peoria, the first place he called home. And it’s OK. We all are willing to share.
Once in a while, an athlete comes along who leaves you feeling blessed that he graced your city, no matter how much time he spent there. Thome played 22 big-league seasons, 13 with the Indians, 3½ with the Phillies, almost four with the Sox and the rest sprinkled among the Twins, Dodgers and Orioles.
Try to tell Sox fans that he’s not theirs. And it would be surprising if an Indians fan begrudged a Sox fan his or her feeling of ownership. Gentleman Jim tends to bring out the best in people.
Thome was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, and he once again let us know there’s enough of him to go around for everyone. The aw-shucks kid from the heart of America touched all the bases.
‘‘I wore six uniforms in my career, and every time I pulled one on, I had the honor of representing a community each with its own identity,’’ he said. ‘‘The faithfulness of the Cleveland loyalists, who sold out 455 consecutive games; the unparalleled intensity of the Philly sports fan; the immense pride of the Chicago South Side; the endless blue skies for day games in Minneapolis; the Southern California sunshine at Dodger Stadium; and the cathedral that is Camden Yards in Babe Ruth’s hometown of Baltimore.’’
He came to the Sox as a 35-year-old designated hitter in 2006, the year after they won the World Series. He wasn’t the phenom he had been with the Indians, but he still hit 42 home runs and drove in 109 runs that season. What teammates talked about that season (and the next three) was how hard he worked and the effect that effort had on how they approached the game.
That’s Jim Thome.
He was different. He cared about people. Most of us media people develop a b.s. detector early on. We know who’s real and who isn’t. There was no deceit in him.
A small moment. I was standing in the Sox’ dugout before a game in Minneapolis. Thome walked up to me and started a conversation. I never had talked alone with him before, but soon enough he was asking me about myself. I couldn’t tell you exactly what we said to each other if my life depended on it. But I can tell you how unusual it is for a professional athlete to seek out a writer to ask how about his or her life.
You could hear that approach to life in his speech Sunday, a portion of which was directed at young players who might be dreaming of a Hall of Fame career.
‘‘Ask other people about themselves,’’ he said. ‘‘You never know what you might learn.’’
Thome is eighth in baseball history with 612 homers, yet you hear almost as much about how nice he is as you do all those dingers. You say there’s no measure for kindness, no analytic that quantifies goodness? A 22-year career begs to differ.
That’s not a reflection on anyone else’s poison-tipped personality; it’s a reflection on one man.
You could hear it when Thome talked about growing up with a dream.
‘‘It’s the same dream that so many kids have, of one day getting to the big leagues,’’ he said. ‘‘I never forgot that dream, even after I became a major-league player, because I could always see the dream’s reflection in the faces of the kids in the stands or whenever a child would just come up to say hello.’’
Now a special assistant to Sox general manager Rick Hahn, Thome went to Cooperstown in February for a tour of the Hall.
‘‘In that moment, I recognized that the dream I had as a little boy growing up in Peoria did not live in my head; it lived in my heart,’’ he said. ‘‘I still can’t believe this happened to me, a 13th-round draft pick out of central Illinois.’’
One of the realities of modern sports is that few athletes stay with one team for a long time. There are exceptions, such as fellow Hall inductee Chipper Jones, who spent his entire 19-year career with the Braves. And there are others on the other extreme, such as Edwin Jackson, who has called more places home (13) than a military brat.
With great players, though, we sometimes feel cheated. Cubs fans certainly felt that way when Greg Maddux jumped to the Braves at the height of his career because of frustration with the Cubs’ stinginess.
Thome cheated no one. Wherever he went, he made people feel as though he were theirs. He played a long time for the Indians, but he hit his 500th homer with the Sox. His 600th came with the Twins.
You can’t spell Thome without ‘‘home.’’
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.