ST. LOUIS — Jim Thome was one of the first players to emerge from the clubhouse and into the visiting dugout at Busch Stadium on Saturday. Thome was decked out in Dodger blue. It all looked so wrong. And it seemed all so right.
If anyone deserved a rags-to-riches story on the South Side this season, it’s the future Hall of Famer named James Howard Thome from Peoria.
White Sox general manager Ken Williams presented Thome with a Get Out of Jail Free card on Aug. 31, springing the veteran slugger from a season-killing trip to Boston, New York and Minneapolis to accept a trade to the first-place Dodgers. It was Thome’s chance to finally win a World Series ring after 19 seasons and 564 home runs in the majors.
Thome admits it wasn’t an easy trade to approve. His teammates and coaches helped nudge him to Los Angeles, and Thome’s now thankful for the move. But he can’t get the Sox off his mind.
”I’ll be honest, I would still love to come back,” Thome said, tightening the blue batting gloves on each hand. ”I still care about the city. I mean, we’re going to live there. Chicago’s very fond in my heart. The time that I spent there, [chairman Jerry Reinsdorf] treated me great. I guess we’ll deal with that when this is all over with.”
Thome, 39, will be a free agent this offseason. He hopes to have that elusive World Series ring on order once he files for free agency. But either way, he knows his days with the Dodgers are numbered.
He wants to return to the White Sox, even if they are toying with the idea of using Scott Podsednik as part of a revolving door built to accommodate speed at designated hitter.
It’s likely they will at least entertain the idea now that Thome will be free from the $13 million salary he earned in the final
year of a seven-year, $85 million contract he originally signed with the Phillies in December 2002. But if the Sox say no, Thome seems determined to make a return to the American League Central and his next call likely would be to the — brace yourself — the defending division-champion Twins.
”I want to come back to the American League,” Thome said. ”I guess you never know what’s going to happen. Chicago is a great city. It’s a great ballclub. The people there were great. If anything, I thank them for putting me where I’m at right now, giving me that opportunity.”
For now, Thome is focused on being a National Leaguer. And for one of the most feared designated hitters in baseball, that means adjusting to life as a pinch hitter.
The very thought caused him to pause during the 45-minute window he was given to approve the trade to the Dodgers.
”You’re getting four at-bats in the American League; you’re getting one here,” he said. ”You have to do a lot of homework as a pinch hitter. You have to watch the game, you have to be ready. That has never been an issue. That part of DHing and pinch hitting is the same. You’re really coming off the bench.”
It took some time for Thome to wrap his mind around the idea. For manager Joe Torre, it was a no-brainer to add the left-handed power hitter for the stretch drive.
”He is such a presence,” Torre said before Game 3 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals. ”He talks to the players, he’s easy to listen to. He’s not a gung-ho guy, but when he says something, you listen to him because he’s speaking from experience and he’s speaking from really a blue-collar type of background. It’s great to have him as a weapon and also just to be on the team.”
That’s the very reason that Sox manager Ozzie Guillen placed such a premium on having Thome not only in his lineup, but in his clubhouse.
And leaving the Sox meant getting another chance at a World Series ring before time runs out.
”The ring would mean everything,” Thome said. ”If you are put in the situation to do it, we were there in the ’90s twice with Cleveland and it eats at you when you haven’t accomplished it and you’ve come so close. That’s why this will be special if it does happen.”