Thome's Sox future uncertain past '09
Veteran slugger wants to keep playing but contract set to end
CHICAGO -- This much is certain regarding the final stage of Jim Thome's illustrious career: Barring any sort of unforeseen major injury, the affable Peoria, Ill., native intends to play on past his 19th big league season in 2009. Another two or three years should make 600 career home runs all but a lock for the prolific slugger currently sitting at 541, and give his two children a true chance to see dad in action.
More importantly, it presents Thome a few more opportunities to chase that elusive World Series crown, if the White Sox don't emerge with a title this season.
But this much is not quite as certain: The 2009 campaign marks Thome's last year contractually with the White Sox, also meaning it could be his last year of an enjoyable run as part of the South Side organization. Where predicting the future comes into play -- even his own -- Thome elects to let someone else serve as psychic.
"I really just worry about this year," said Thome, taking a brief break from his Saturday hosting duties at the Joyce Thome Benefit for Children's Hospital of Illinois at the Peoria Civic Center.
"One thing I was telling [my wife] Andrea is that I'm truly going to enjoy this year because you can never look into the crystal ball," Thome said. "If this is my last year [in Chicago], I'm truly going to enjoy every minute of it -- as I am going to enjoy this last phase of my career."
It would be hard to find a more even-keel or higher-character athlete in professional sports, let alone Major League Baseball, than Thome. That's not a shot at any other competitor, but far more a compliment for the Peoria native.
Don't think for a moment that Thome's return for his fourth season with the White Sox holds even the hint of sentimentality, the local boy makes good and comes home for the end of his Hall-of-Fame career tale. For starters, Thome truly earned his way back by reaching 564 plate appearances in 2008, giving him at least 1,100 over the past two years and thus reaching the total needed for vesting his $13 million option in 2009. But take away the contractual semantics, and it quickly becomes clear how Thome remains a viable left-handed power threat in the middle of a potent but slightly altered White Sox lineup.
In fact, his style at the plate perfectly fits the plan of attack on offense for the White Sox so frequently talked about by general manager Ken Williams. Some skeptics will sarcastically joke about Thome being slow afoot and his high strikeout and home run totals as what makes him the White Sox prototype.
Instead, it's his combination of patience and power that makes Thome so valuable. During 149 games played in 2008, his highest total since joining the White Sox, Thome blasted 34 home runs, drove home 90 and scored 93. He also drew 91 walks and was tied for seventh in the American League with 4.1 pitches per plate appearance.
Even when Thome was heading back to the dugout after one of his 147 strikeouts, he was helping to drive up the opposing starter's pitch count and working into the weaker middle relief from said team's bullpen. Thome is smart enough to factor in the aging process in preparing for yet another season, as he turns 39 on Aug. 27.
His plan now is all about quality over quantity.
"When you get to be 38, you change a little body-wise," Thome said. "Your body feels different, and you still have to work as hard but you have to work smart.
"That's what I'm learning as I'm getting older. I may not work out three hours per day. I might do one-and-a-half hours, but I do it the right way."
As an older player who does swing and miss quite frequently, as the 147 strikeouts would indicate, Thome becomes an easy target for "over-the-hill" cries or talk of being past his prime when slumps arise. Thome heard those catcalls last year after a .226 average posted in March/April and a .183 average in May. Thome had a rough finish, average-wise, with a .205 mark in September/October.
The career average of .279 in 2,160 games for Thome might now be his high-water mark, but Thome's potential goes beyond the basic numbers. He hit .304 with runners in scoring position in 2008, and showed how he can change the course of a game with one swing of the bat. Just ask Nick Blackburn and the Twins for references, after their 1-0 loss, courtesy of a Thome blast in the American League Central tiebreaker.
Thome also has formed a solid clubhouse core with other White Sox veterans such as Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye and A.J. Pierzynski, as just a few examples.
"Just don't panic and understand it's a long haul and a long season," said Thome when asked about handling slumps and the brief but pointed critiques that might come with the slumps. "And when you have good players around you, you feed off of that.
"Of course, there have been some times when I've been frustrated when I'm not swinging the bat. As a designated hitter, it's especially true, because that's all you've got.
"There are other important things," Thome said. "Be a good clubhouse guy, a leader, a friend to your teammates. I feel blessed to have played this long and had that sort of opportunity."
Will that blessing continue for Thome in Chicago beyond 2009? It's a question Thome is not concerned about figuring out or prepared to answer. There's little doubt that a healthy Thome still is a productive Thome, with or without the White Sox on his uniform in the future.
"[White Sox chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf has treated me great," Thome said. "He has given me the opportunity to come home and play.
"Playing for [manager] Ozzie [Guillen] and with guys from Konerko to Dye to A.J., they are all proven winners. I've been given the chance to play in a great, winning organization, and I'm excited to get going again."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.