Here's one thing we sort of lost during the Steroid Era: The jolly home run hitter. Remember? Baseball used to be filled with them -- gentle giants, country strong men who would swing hard, tromp around the bases, maybe wink to a kid in the crowd as they crossed home plate. Heck, the home run was practically invented by one of those men, by a manchild they called Babe, who promised sick children in hospitals across America he'd hit home runs for them.
The home run lists used to be filled with genial men -- Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Frank Howard, Dale Murphy, Beltin' Bill Melton, Hank Greenberg, on and on. Johnny Bench sang in night clubs. Jimmie Foxx was so admired and beloved, he wasn't hit by a single pitch the year he hit 58 homers. George Foster didn't smoke or drink and later in life has longed to get on Dancing With The Stars. Big Klu -- Ted Kluszewski -- wore his sleeves rolled up to show off his arms and make a fist, smile, and say: "You know what that is? A Polish joke stopper." They called Willie Stargell "Pops." They called George Scott ""Boomer." They called Jimmy Wynn "The Toy Cannon."
This is not to say there were no surly home run hitters -- of course there were, feared men, Jim Rice and Ralph Kiner and Dick Allen and Dave Kingman and many others. But, surprisingly often, those powerful home run hitters were lovable lugs. The home run itself was childlike fun, constantly surprising, overwhelming to the senses, not unlike cotton candy or a Jack in the Box.
Well … the Steroid Era screwed all that up, didn't it? I don't know how much steroids had to do with the enormous jump in home runs in the 1990s and 2000s -- and I suspect neither do you -- but we can all count. Cherished numbers: Smashed. Exclusive clubs: Crashed. From 1993-2002, there were six different seasons of 60-plus homers; two of them at 70 or more. Ten different players hit 50 home runs in a season. Forty three different players hit 40. One hundred twelve different players hit 30.
Madness. Insanity. It used to be you knew exactly who was in the 600 home run club -- Aaron, Ruth, Mays. That's it. Three people. Three titans. Now … add Barry Bonds, who then hit his 700th homer, then passed Ruth, then passed Aaron, all to the background music of boos. Add Sammy Sosa, who hit 60 home runs three times. Add Ken Griffey. Add Alex Rodriguez. The 600 homer tree house was suddenly overflowing … it wasn't much of a club anymore.
The home run was no longer innocent. It was no longer childlike. Players who hit a slew of home runs over a stretch became suspects. Players who hit those even number marks that used to stretch the imagination -- 300 homers, 400 homers, 500 homers -- found that they needed defense attorneys when they reached home plate. It has almost reached a point where players find themselves APOLOGIZING for hitting too many home runs.
Well, we know all that. We still love watching home runs. We just watch them with more jaded eyes, I suppose. It's like this: When I was young, I loved watching the Harlem Globetrotters because I thought they were the best basketball team in the world. Now that I'm older, I still love watching the Harlem Globetrotters. But I know they're not the best basketball team in the world.
I wish Jim Thome had hit his 600th home run back when we all still believed in lovable lugs.
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Thome hit his 599th and 600th home run Monday night in Detroit -- the 48th time in his remarkable career that he hit multiple homers in a game -- and I immediately remembered his first homer in the big leagues. That was in 1991. He was playing for Cleveland then, my childhood team, and I was listening to the game through static in a dented red Nissan Sentra in a North Augusta, S.C. parking lot. I had to look up who he hit it against (Steve Farr) but I remembered that it beat the Yankees. And it did, 3-2. The Indians lost 105 games that year. But, hey, the Yankees lost 90. It was another time.
I had my eye on Thome for some time. He was an intriguing prospect. The Indians were supposedly building a promising future (how many times had we Cleveland fans heard that?). They had a hard-hitting second baseman named Carlos Baerga. They had a young outfielder then called Joey Belle. That year of Thome's first homer -- 1991 -- they drafted a high school outfielder from New York named Manny Ramirez. And, later that year, they traded for a former college basketball player who everyone said could run like the wind, Kenny Lofton.
In 1992, I went up to Cleveland to see the Indians play a couple of games. Thome made errors in both games. He was awkward at third base, but I thought even then that he played the position with gusto. He did everything with gusto. The Indians sent him back to the minor leagues. I went to see him play in Charlotte. He made an error that night too … but Thome found his destiny in Charlotte. The Charlotte Knights manager was a folksy hitting savant named Charlie Manuel -- you may have heard of him -- and Manuel had Thome watch video from the movie "The Natural." He specifically had Thome watch something that Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs did before the pitch.
"See how he points his bat at the pitcher?" Manuel said, or some such thing.
"Yup," Thome replied.
"Let's do that," Manuel said.
"OK," Thome said, because he's an amiable type, and loved Charlie Manuel. He pointed bats at pitchers, and he mashed 25 homers in Charlotte and drove in 102 runs, then he went up to Cleveland and hit seven more homers. The next year he hit all 20 of his home runs for Cleveland before the strike, and the next year he hit 25 and the Indians went to the World Series. The next year, he hit 38, then 40, and so on.
Later -- from 2001-to-2003 -- he would hit 49-52-47 in back-to-back-to-back years. At the time, he was only the sixth guy in baseball history to hit 47 or more homers three straight years, but already the home run was beginning to lose its magic, and Alex Rodriguez did it at exactly the same time, and so nobody really cared. Thome hit home runs like few ever had, but it was almost like he had come along too late, like he was Elvis after the Beatles landed.
Not that Thome minded. He has never seemed to mind much of anything. He always wore this big grin, and he made everybody around him feel like a million bucks. There are a million, "Jim Thome is the greatest guy" stories. He's won the Clemente Award. He's won the Gehrig Award. He's been voted the nicest guy in baseball. And all that. My wife and I once ended up at a dinner with him and his beautiful wife Andrea. They didn't know us. Before desert even came around, they were inviting her to come up to Cleveland to watch a game, and they were talking baby names.
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Jim Thome has been a great hitter. Not a good hitter. Not a very good hitter. He has been a slam-dunk, first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer hitter. People have missed this because, well, people have missed a lot about Jim Thome. The man has a .403 lifetime on-base percentage, 25th all-time for players with 7,500 plate appearances, higher than DiMaggio, higher than Wagner, higher than Mays or Yaz or Rose or Ichiro. Many people will never respect on-base percentage the way they should because many people just don't like walks. But walking is an art. And Thome is Picasso.
Anyway, his on-base percentage is not all the 1,700-plus walks he's earned. He's a .277 lifetime hitter, which doesn't sound great, but it's better than many of the other big home run hitters -- Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, Eddie Matthews, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew among them. Heck, Thome hit .300 three times. He, of course, has struck out more often than any player except Reggie Jackson (and it doesn't look like he will quite catch Reggie). But when he hit baseballs, he hit them hard.
Thome crushed fastballs in his prime. Crushed them. Annihilated them. In 1998, the Indians were playing the Angels in Cleveland, and it was the bottom of the 10th, and the score was tied. The Angels pitcher was Troy Percival, who in those days could throw about 294 mph. But those Indians destroyed fastball pitchers, and sure enough MannyBManny singled, and Brian Giles walked, and with two outs Jim Thome stepped to the plate.
There was never any doubt what was going to happen. Never any doubt. Thome pulverized a fastball for a three-run homer and the Indians won the game.
Here's the thing: Two years later, on an August Friday night in Cleveland, Troy Percival again faced Jim Thome with the game on the line. By now, Percival was only throwing 273 mph. This time, the Angels were up a run. The Indians had a man on base. And there was never any doubt what was going to happen. Never any doubt. Thome pulverized a fastball for a two-run homer, and the Indians won a game. From 1995-2002, Jim Thome struck out more than 1,200 times. But I doubt he missed too many 100 mph fastballs then. You couldn't throw the ball fast enough to get him out in those days.
Another memory: In 2004, when Zack Greinke was a rookie, he liked to fool around a lot. That year, he threw a bunch of 55 mph curveballs and he quick pitched a time or two and so on. And I remember a game when he struck out Thome on one of those Bugs Bunny slow curveballs. Thome swung hard, missed by about a foot, looked pretty bad, though as usual Thome seemed chipper enough after the strikeout. Way to go, kid! Heck of a pitch!
Next time up, Greinke threw another slow curve to Jim Thome. And Thome blasted the ball about 900 feet.
"He's just a smart hitter, I guess," Greinke muttered afterward.
* * *
Jim Thome grew up in Peoria idolizing Dave Kingman. That's seems a funny thing in retrospect since Thome could not be more different from the surly Kingman, but I suspect it's not funny at all. See, Jim Thome really grew up idolizing the home run. That's what Kingman did. He hit home runs. Thome, like so many kids, idolized baseballs that sounded like fireworks as they cracked off baseball bats. He idolized that amazing still-life -- the ball in the air, the pitcher with his neck wrenched, the outfielder facing the wall. Thome, like so many kids, wanted to be a home run hitter.
He became one, like few who have ever played the game. And the world should view him as one, view him in the same frame with those other lovable lugs in the Hall of Fame. But Thome hit home runs in the wrong era. He hit home runs at the time when muscle-bound men hit so many that Congress got involved. When he hit his 600th home run, someone sent me a Twitter question: "Is Thome a Hall of Famer?" I thought: Really? There's a question?
Maybe there is. People just don't love home run hitters like they once did. I asked Thome once how he wanted to be remembered. That's not really the sort of question that Jim Thome likes to answer. He's not the philosophical type. But since I asked, he wanted to answer. He kind of looked at me, then looked at the ground, then looked back at me. He thought for a minute. He put his hand on my shoulder, and he said: "You know, I'd kind of like to be remembered as a pretty good guy. Isn't that how you would want to be remembered?"
I said something then about being remembered as a great baseball player. His eyes lit up.
"Sure," he said happily. "Why not? That would be great too!"