Old-old school ways plus 600 homers make Thome worthy of praise

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2011 - 6:29 AM

We should appreciate Jim Thome's 600th home run almost as much for what it wasn't as for what it was, and what it was was one of the rarest feats in sports history, celebrated with a tastefulness and reserve as unique as the achievement itself.

Fewer men have hit 600 home runs in the big leagues than have walked on the moon. Of the eight men who have hit 600, only five have done so absent steroid accusations. Thome now belongs to a subset of ballplayers almost as small and elite as the cast of the original Beatles.

He joins Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. as one of the five to reach 600 without hearing so much as a rumor about cheating and he is the only player to hit his 599th and 600th home runs in consecutive at-bats, and yet his celebration proved short and simple as his haircut and swing.

Modern sports are run by marketing departments. No accomplishments are too trivial to escape the cycle of self-congratulation and overexposure.

In a world in which the Timberwolves, while seeking their 16th victory in April, are introduced with more grandiosity than Muhammad Ali in his prime, Thome chased 600 without a hint of complaint or artifice, scandal or recrimination, hype or self-promotion. You keep expecting him to wear flannels and travel by train.

Compare Thome reaching home plate after his 600th home run with any Twin reaching home plate after hitting a game-winning home run at Target Field.

When a Twins player hits a "walk-off'' homer, even against the Royals in April, they are mobbed and chased, pummeled by fists and then the ubiquitous shaving-cream pie.

When Thome reached home plate Monday night after achieving the most unique statistical milestone in franchise history, he gently hugged Michael Cuddyer, then every other Twin, before turning to his father and wife.

Thome isn't from the old school. He's from the school they torn down to build the old school.

He grew up in the Cleveland Indians system, arriving in the majors to play with one of the surliest groups of ballplayers ever assembled. He played alongside Albert Belle, Roberto Alomar, Eddie Murray and Kenny Lofton, and yet earned a reputation as the nicest man in baseball. He identified more with hitting coach Charlie Manuel, a journeyman slugger with a backwoods Virginia drawl that disguised a keen baseball intellect.

Manuel and Thome would graduate to bigger things, Manuel to winning a World Series as the Phillies manager, Thome to stalking home run milestones while relocating to Philadelphia, then Chicago, then briefly to Los Angeles before choosing to grace Target Field for two seasons.

There are few untainted stars in modern sports. It is the rare human who shines under scrutiny. Somehow, Thome has become more beloved with every move.

Baseball provides poetry. Paul Molitor reached 3,000 hits by sliding face first into third base in a Midwestern city while wearing the uniform of his hometown team. Derek Jeter reached 3,000 hits with a home run at Yankee Stadium. Jack Morris, the snarling kid from St. Paul, won his biggest game on the Metrodome mound in his only season as a Twin.

Thome hit his 600th homer on a Monday night in Detroit, as if subconsciously choosing a time and place that would cause the least fuss, like a shy prodigy who practices the piano only when alone in the house.

It is typical of Thome that my favorite memory of him would have remained unknown if Cuddyer hadn't shared it with me.

Thome and Cuddyer were swinging bats in the on-deck circle early in a game last August.

"Jim turned to me and said, 'You think this is what Gehrig and Ruth felt like on a Sunday afternoon in Cleveland?'" Cuddyer said. "I said, 'I don't know. We're about to find out.'

"I walked. He hit a homer. When he came around and touched home plate, I said, 'That's exactly how they felt.' So he gave me the bat he hit that homer with and wrote on there, 'This must have been how Gehrig and Ruth felt.'"

He would know.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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