Thome's historic moonshot still resonates
Slugger's 600th home run a milestone celebrated far and wide
Even months after his historic trot around the bases, reality is still sinking in for Jim Thome. That powerful swing, a slice through the night that spawned one of his signature shots to the opposite field, propelled the Pride of Peoria into an elite class of legends.
"I've hit 600 homers," Thome said. "How could you ever dream of doing something like that?"
The dream of reaching the Major Leagues has come true for thousands over time, with countless others falling to the wayside when reality catches up with childhood fantasy. In the long, storied history of baseball, there have only been eight men to achieve the milestone met by Thome this past season.
Thome will forever be known as one of the game's good guys, but his place in baseball will also be as one of the best sluggers to ever settle into a batter's box. With his slightly open stance, bat aimed at the pitcher and broad shoulders hinting at the strength of a farm boy, Thome turned himself into a true great.
Thome carved a path from the fields of Peoria, Ill., to certain enshrinement in baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"Let's put it this way," Indians manager Manny Acta said, "Do you know how many people have played in the big leagues in way over 100 years? And only eight have been able to accomplish what he has? That's greatness. That's greatness."
In one of baseball's best moments from the 2011 season, Thome cemented his Hall of Fame case with an historic display of power in Detroit. Playing for the Twins on Aug. 15, he launched a pair of home runs to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa in the 600-home run club.
No. 600 came on a 2-1 breaking ball from Tigers reliever Daniel Schlereth, who watched helplessly as the baseball arced over left field before dropping beyond the wall. Comerica Park -- filled with rival fans -- erupted in cheers and the crowd rose to its feet to offer Thome a warm standing ovation.
At home plate, Thome's Minnesota teammates gathered and waited as Big Jim made his way around the basepaths. Thome's father, Chuck, jogged onto the field, with Thome's wife, Andrea, and their two children, Lila and Landon, close behind. The game temporarily ceased in order to recognize Thome's accomplishment.
Thome was overwhelmed in that moment.
"It was kind of surreal," Thome said. "When a baseball game stops, you kind of go, 'Wait a minute, they're stopping this game because you've done something. You've done something really special.'"
As he closed in on the crowd awaiting him at the plate, Thome's thoughts were with a person who was not there.
Thome's mother, Joyce, passed away due to cancer in 2005. During Thome's youth in Peoria, Joyce used to drive him out to Bradley Field and watch from the shade of a tree as he crushed baseballs. She was there from the start and there during Thome's rise to stardom on the big league stage.
"One thing I thought of while going around first base was my mom, to be honest," Thome said. "Because of what she's meant, knowing how happy she would've been at that time."
Thome's ascension to baseball greatness began as a 13th-round pick by the Cleveland Indians in the 1989 First-Year Player Draft. Two summers later, he launched his first career home run for the Tribe on Oct. 4, 1991, at Yankee Stadium. Fittingly, the first of Thome's tape-measure blasts came off Steve Farr.
Thome went on to belt at least 30 homers in a season 12 times, reaching at least 100 RBIs or 100 walks on nine occasions. He was named to five All-Star teams and -- while the bulk of his career was spent with Cleveland -- he enjoyed tours with the Indians, Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers and Twins.
Thome will continue his journey with Philadelphia in 2012.
When the 2011 season concluded, Thome had 604 home runs to his credit. He is only the third player in baseball history -- joining Bonds and Ruth -- to reach at least 600 homers, 1,600 RBIs, 1,700 walks and a .400 on-base percentage over a career.
Along the way, Thome became known as much for his affable personality as his powerful swing.
Not surprisingly, praise came flooding in once his 600th home run was in the books.
"It can't happen to a better man," said Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, who was a teammate of Thome's with the Indians from 1999-2001. "Jim Thome is a class act. He's a professional. As a teammate, I appreciate everything he did for me and for the team."
"Jim is one of the easiest players of our generation to root for," said Rodriguez, who hit his 600th homer during the 2010 season. "It's hard to overshadow 600 home runs, because it is a tremendous accomplishment and an exclamation point on a career bound for the Hall of Fame.
"But to me, the way he has treated the game -- and the people in and around it -- will always be the first thing that I think of when I think of Jim Thome. In so many ways, he is a legend of our game."
"I'm very, very proud of him," said former teammate Sandy Alomar Jr., who is now a first-base coach for the Indians. "To put him in the same class as Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and all those guys, you can't believe things like that happen in your era, and for a player who I know very well."
"It's amazing, especially a guy like him because he's a great person," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "To be a part of it was a great experience and was a cool moment, too. So I'm very happy to be a part of it, and see him to get to his goal."
"You're just happy for him," said Michael Cuddyer, a former teammate of Thome's in Minnesota, "and his family, his wife and his dad, everybody. Just everybody who makes Jim Thome who he is."
Thome ended the 2011 season with a reunion in Cleveland.
The Indians brought him back to where it all began with an Aug. 25 trade that sent No. 25 from the Twins to the Tribe. Two days later, Thome homered for Cleveland on his 41st birthday. He homered again in his first trip back to Minnesota on Sept. 16, and he added another shot on Jim Thome Day in Cleveland on Sept. 23.
The slugger always seemed to have a flare for the dramatic.
"When you want to be great," Thome said, "you've got to enjoy the spotlight."
When he belted his 600th home run, Thome tried to enjoy it for as long as humanly possible.
"It's just a moment, honestly, that time stops," he said. "Time stops and you want to savor every moment that that time gives you. It doesn't last long, but the buildup and the journey to get there was sure a lot of fun."