Baseball has just witnessed one of the strangest retirements of a big-time player in its history. Jim Thome was always regarded as a slow base runner, but he turned his retirement into the all-time slow-motion performance.
The granite-jawed slugger, who is one of the top home-run hitters in the sport’s history, is on his way to election to the Hall of Fame. He just took a detour. Thome, who played 12 years for the Cleveland Indians in his 22-year career, signed a one-day contract with the Tribe to make retirement official on Saturday.
The real-life Jim, a rather massive dude at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, posed next to an even bigger Jim in the form of a tribute statue at Progressive Field. It had been two years since Thome, then 41 and hopeful of continuing his playing days, took his last at-bat with the Baltimore Orioles during the 2012 season.
He was 41 and the possessor of 612 career homers, leaving him seventh on the all-time list, and he wanted to keep going. His only options over the last few years of his career were as an American League designated hitter, but Thome’s back kept acting up and relegating him to long stints on the disabled list. After the 2012 campaign ended his phone didn’t ring.
Thome put up with the silence and in July of 2013 accepted a job working in the Chicago White Sox’s front office. Still he did not retire. With this ceremony in Cleveland at last he seemed to accept that his playing days were over.
And marvellous playing days they were. Thome was a terrific power hitter, bashing those 612 homers and finishing with 1,699 runs batted in. He was such a feared hitter with a good batting eye that he concluded with 1,747 walks. A five-time All-Star, Thome batted .276 with a .402 on-base percentage.
Although his very best seasons came with the Indians, Thome made a strong impression in Chicago during his four seasons with the White Sox. Not all of it came on the field. In various polls Thome was frequently voted the nicest guy in baseball. He lived up to that reputation over and over again, chatting in a friendly manner at his locker before and after games, even on non-baseball topics.
One of Thome’s favorite discussion subjects was the outdoors, especially fishing. An Illinois native, Thome owned a home in Peoria where he built a fishing pond primarily for his father’s use. After he slugged his career 500th home run, Thome and his dad made a driving pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York to present the ball to the Hall of Fame.
Thome was one of the Indians’ featured players when the club reached two World Series – and he wore old-fashioned high socks clearly visible from the right-field stands. Early in Thome’s career he played some third base, but during his prime years was a first baseman. When his back hindered him he switched to DH full-time.
Good Guy Jim
Always heavily involved in charitable causes and community activities, Thome set up trust funds for 10 nieces and nephews to pay for their college educations. Sometimes it seemed he won good-guy awards as frequently as he belted home runs.
It would have been good for Thome and good for baseball if he could have coaxed one more season out of his ageing body, and perhaps he was in denial for these two years, refusing to accept that he was truly finished as a player.
Despite his appearing in a business suit rather than a baseball suit on Saturday alongside his family when the statue was revealed it seems entirely possible that if some team called Jim Thome right now and wanted him to play for the 2014 stretch run chasing a pennant he would jump in.
Maybe. Or he might just say, “Where were you two years ago?”
Surely, though, Thome has done enough in his baseball career to be honored in Cooperstown as a member of the Hall, not merely as someone donating a special piece of memorabilia.