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The Baseball Hall of Fame honors the all-time greats of the game. For over 80 years, the best of the best (and some not so best) have been enshrined into the highest honor of the game. Players from the all-time greats of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Cy Young, to those of “lesser” pedigree, as Phil Rizzuto, Bill Mazeroski, and Dave Bancroft have all found their way into the doors of the Hall. In all, 319 people have called the Baseball Hall of Fame home. Although the qualifications and requirements for enshrinement can be subjective at times, there is no doubt that being called into the Hall of Fame is a truly high honor for any person. There has been resistance to those persons who have been proven or accused of “cheating the game,” with stars ranging from ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson & Pete Rose to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa. With a glut of worthy candidates on the way in the future ballots, one name that stands out as truly worthy, and hopefully is rewarded with a first-ballot enshrinement when the results of the upcoming 2018 are announced, is Jim Thome.
If there is ever a Hall of Fame player, for their performance on the field as well as for their character off the field, it is Jim Thome. Despite his immense size (6’4'' and playing weight of 250), he is an even bigger person when it comes to his personality and quality of his character. Hailing from Illinois, his midwestern charm and ‘awe-shucks’ attitude quickly endeared himself in whatever city he was playing in. He got his start playing for the Cleveland Indians in the 90s, and it just so happened the team went through a resurgence in that decade. Since their last World Series appearance in 1954, the Indians were a doormat, never even getting a whiff of a chance at postseason glory. It was even immortalized in the movie Major League, which played on the hopelessness that was Indians baseball for almost three decades. Ironically enough, not soon after the release of that movie in 1989, the Indians turned the corner and became a competitive franchise during the players strike shortened season of 1994, which happened to be Jim Thome’s first full season in the majors. For the next eight seasons (1995-2002), the Indians played in what can be called their glory days. In that span, they finished in first place six times and made it to the World Series twice. Of course, they were loaded with talented players, from Kenny Lofton to Albert Belle. The one constant player in that time frame, however, was Jim Thome. In that time frame, Thome averaged 38 home runs, 104 RBI’s, 102 runs scored, 113 walks, a .293 average, .426 OB%, and a .588 SLG%. In other words, he was one of the top players in the game for one of the best teams in the league for an extended period.
For all his accomplishments on the field, he was an even better person off the field. He had a tremendously jovial disposition, which went hand-in-hand with his enthusiasm for the game itself. One can be hard-pressed to find anyone that disliked him, much less couldn’t get along with him. His boyish joy of playing a childhood game was infectious, and it wasn’t hard to see that he was an immensely popular person in the clubhouse and a team leader on the field. Like all things in life, though, it was time to move on for Thome. The Indians were in transition (i.e. rebuilding) from their heyday in the 90s, and Thome, still at the peak of his career, decided it was time to move on. The city of Cleveland’s lost was Philadelphia’s gain. And boy, did they ever gain.
In the winter of 2002, there was honest-to-god enthusiasm for baseball in the city of brotherly love. Just like the Indians before them, the Phillies were coming off a rough stretch with just one playoff appearance from 1984-2002. But they were gaining momentum. They finished in second place in 2001 with a winning record for the first time since their pennant winning season of ’93. They slipped a game below .500 in 2002, but the city was brimming with excitement for their boys of summer. A brand new, baseball-only retro stadium was due to open in 2003. In the winter of 2002, the Phillies ownership decided to do something they have not considered to do in a long time: spend money on quality players to build a contending team. The crown jewel of that plan was Jim Thome. Thirty-two years old at the time of the signing, he inked a six-year, $85 million contract with the Phillies in December of 2002. And just like that, there was optimism for a Phillies team that was barren for almost two decades. And did the fans ever benefit from that signing. We knew what all of baseball knew. The Phillies were getting a prime, quality, top-of-the line free agent. One that honestly wanted to sign with the team, part in thanks to his pal and mentor Charlie Manuel working in the front office. What the city didn’t know was the quality of Thome’s character. The man almost became a legend in the city overnight. He delivered immensely in his first season, leading the National League with 47 home runs, while knocking in 131 runs and finishing fourth in league MVP voting. More importantly, he endeared himself to a city that is notorious for its treatment of star players. Being born and raised in the city, I can first-hand attest to that reputation. But what the city loves is a hard-working player they can relate to on a personal level. And Thome was their guy. He made the All-Star team in 2004, and played through an injury plagued 2005. When he hit his 400th career home run at the Phillies new ballpark, Citizens Bank Park, everyone was thrilled and joyed at his career accomplishment. Not just for the professional goal, but thrilled for the man himself. At the end of the 2005 season, although the team had finished in 2nd or 3rd place each season, they had a superstar in waiting in Ryan Howard. The Phillies traded Thome in the winter of 2005 (with three years left on his contract) to the Chicago White Sox, and Thome didn’t enjoy the fruits of his labor when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.
Thome was far from done when he left Philadelphia, making the All-Star team in 2006 and hitting another 182 home runs in his final seven years (including a brief return to Cleveland in 2011 and to the Phillies in 2012) before retiring. He finished his career with 612 home runs (8th all-time), 1,699 RBI’s (26th all-time), a .401 OB% (51st all-time), and a .554 SLG% (23rd all-time). More importantly, he finished his career as one of the most beloved baseball figures in the past 30 years, in multiple cities. His charisma and ‘take nothing for granted’ attitude was a blessing, and his down-to-earth, normal guy persona was heartening to embrace. One couldn’t help but root for the guy, no matter what city or uniform he had on. He was the type of guy baseball needed in an age when Albert Belle, and later Barry Bonds, acted stand-offish and surly with their teammates and the fans.
Being enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and on the first ballot no less, is not easy task. It is estimated three percent of all players in baseball make it into the Hall of Fame. It is tough, without a doubt. Also, and unfortunately, Thome played in the ‘steroid era,’ where seemingly half the players where juicing up to improve their performance. Some were busted with testing. Some were named in reports and legal documents. Many were suspected. Some were ‘guilty by association’ for simply achieving remarkable feats in a tainted era. Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell were victims of that suspicion, despite never having been associated with steroids in any way throughout their playing careers. And it cost those two players, as they had to wait more than necessary for their induction into Cooperstown.
When the results of the 2018 balloting are announced on January 24, the voters should realize what a special player Jim Thome was throughout his career. In an era that was filled with scandal and bad character players, he was the antitheses and ambassador for the game he, and so many, loved. He ranks as one of the top sluggers of all time, while doing it with old fashioned, arduous work-ethic and the desire to succeed in his craft. His character and personality were already Hall of Fame caliber. Here is hoping he receives the honor of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer for his contributions both on, and equally importantly off, the field of baseball.