So I’m trying to figure out the perfect way to encapsulate the career of Jim Thome, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, and I keep going back to the Home Run. As a kid who grew up in Cleveland, I saw plenty of Jim Thome home runs – majestic rainbows, opposite-field rockets, line shots, every manner and variety. There was only one capital-H, capital-R Home Run.
On July 3, 1999, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals, Thome launched a fastball to center field. Gravity finally corralled it 511 feet from home plate. The ball bounced over a wrought-iron fence, out of Jacobs Field. The Indians memorialized it with a life-sized Thome statue near its landing spot. I figured there’s nobody better to talk about it than the man who gave it up.
Don Wengert is a pharmaceutical salesman these days. He lives in Iowa. When he first picked up his phone, he sounded excited to reminisce about his days as a right-handed journeyman with a predilection for allowing home runs. He was going to dinner but we’d talk soon. Two texts went unreturned. A phone call, too. Finally, on Friday morning, he picked up.
“Listen,” Wengert said, “Jim Thome was awesome, but I really have no comment.”
And that was fine. Because by not wanting to talk about it, Don Wengert said everything you need to know about Jim Thome.
This is what he did: He punished baseballs with such ferocity that 20 years later the memory remained singed into a pitcher’s mind. He robbed their self-esteem and purloined their sense of humor. And he did it with an aw-shucks approach, an earnestness that was so real it was almost infuriating.
Thome stood 6-foot-4, loped around with a goofy grin plastered to his face and spoke as if his words were made of molasses and just wanted to take their sweet old time pouring out of his mouth. A proud and unabashed country boy, a lumberjack in a baseball uniform, Thome looked and sounded like someone from the past, which made the truth about him such a fascinating contradiction: He foretold baseball’s future.
More than one-third of plate appearances today end in a home run, walk or strikeout, the highest ratio in the game’s history. Long before baseball turned into a playground for the so-called Three True Outcomes, Thome was making a career out of them. Only Reggie Jackson struck out more times than Thome’s 2,548. He walked in 1,747 plate appearances, more than anyone but Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe Morgan and Carl Yastrzemski. The seven who hit more home runs than his 612 are equally impressive: Bonds, Henry Aaron, Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols and Ken Griffey Jr.
Altogether, Thome’s 4,907 homers, walks and strikeouts comprise 47.58 percent of his plate appearances. The appreciation for his skills never materialized in MVP voting (Thome’s best finish was fourth) or All-Star Game appearances (just five). Even though the strikeouts were the collateral damage of an approach that allowed Thome to draw copious walks and shame pitchers with tape-measure homers, the stain of them was palpable during his prime. Strikeouts for hitters were bad.
They still are, of course, and yet now the game appreciates that a strikeout machine can be a legitimate MVP candidate or a perennial All-Star. It also has evolved to deal with those who aspire to be like Thome, left-handed power hitters predisposed to pulling the ball. If Thome were playing today, with an extreme shift greeting him before every plate appearance, perhaps the trajectory of his career would have changed.
Instead, the full breadth of Thome was on display, and it was a magnificent tableau of brute strength. He arrived in Cleveland just after his 21st birthday, a skinny third baseman with the ability to leverage a herculean swing. His body filled out, he moved across the diamond, but Thome never really changed, his eye keen, his propensity to loose balls to all fields palpable, his insouciance defining.
Kids all around Cleveland wore their socks high because Thome did. When he left for Philadelphia, he was the last vestige of those incredible 1990s Indians, the most talented group never to win a World Series. Him and Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga – there was an unmatched dynamism to those teams, a sense that they, too, were the archetypal homegrown core that so many others in the next two decades would try to emulate.
Thome made his mark in Philadelphia, continued crushing in Chicago, had a renaissance in Minnesota and through his 42nd birthday remained productive, ever capable of taking a walk and mashing a tater. He retired before the hallmarks of his game led to something of an existential crisis in the sport, where the powers that be wonder if there are too many strikeouts, too few balls in play, too languid a pace to capture the casual fan. It’s a reasonable concern. Plummeting attendance may not be entirely attributable to it, but denying it’s a part of the problem would be foolish.
The future that Jim Thome’s success prophesied is now the present, and that Thome emerges from it still sparkling speaks to his wonder. For the all-around splendor of Chipper Jones, the fast-twitch mastery of Vladimir Guerrero and the dead-bird changeup of Trevor Hoffman – his Hall classmates – Jim Thome’s greatest feat was imbuing a sense of enormity into all he did.
He smiled big. He laughed big. He swung big. He missed big. And when he hit big, as Don Wengert and plenty of his ilk can attest, the ball flew so big it would make you want to capitalize the letters in Home Run.
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