I don’t like to hold athletes up as examples for my kids very often. It just feels unsafe, particularly in this age of huge-ego, me-first sports. Plus, athletes are human. They make mistakes and those mistakes are often amplified by the media spotlight they find themselves in. There are not many 20 year-olds who can adjust to sudden wealth and fame with grace and class.
I grew up in Cleveland and while the Giants are my all-time favorite team, the Indians are a close second. I went to a lot of games in junior high and high school. We had some pretty good teams too. But among a team of stars, Thome always stood out to me. Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing – he’s from Illinois and I am Midwest through and through. Maybe it’s just that he showed up every day without a fuss, was active in the community and for the most part kept his eyes focused on baseball. It might be all of that, but I think the thing that I love the most about Thome is that he made the most out of what he had.
If you were to look at Thome on paper, you probably wouldn’t draft him. He’s slow, not particularly gifted in the defense department and has a tendency to either hit a towering homer or strike out. He’s never been much of a baserunner (see: slowness, above), but I can hardly remember a single instance over the course of watching him for 15 years where he didn’t seem to be giving his all.
There was an interesting piece in USA Today in light of Thome making it to an elite group of ball players – eight in all – who have hit 600 home-runs in their career. It asks if Thome, with a lifetime batting average of .277 – can really be considered a hall-of-fame-candidate. The author argues that Jim’s home-run milestone is tainted because he played in the steroid era and I wonder, is it?
The answer I keep coming to is no. Thome has never – and I mean never – been suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. He’s never lied to Congress or been self-agrandizing like some of his peers of the same era. He’s never done anything, I would argue, except play the game to the best of his ability and endorse on heck of a burger from McDonald’s (the Thome triple). He reminds me of some of the greats – Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial – if not in talent, then in sheer determination.
If that’s not good enough for the voters to put him in Cooperstown, fine. But he will always be a hall-of-famer to me, the kind of guy I want my kids to think of when they think about the game.
Thanks Jim. For everything.