BOSTON — Paul Molitor is absent again today in order to be in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Hall of Fame inductions. Another manager in the Twins organization is not, but probably wishes he could be.
Joel Skinner, the Twins’ manager at Class AAA Rochester, is a former teammate, confidante, coach and even manager to Jim Thome, one of six players being inducted Sunday afternoon. “He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met, in baseball or out of it,” Thome said of Skinner. “I owe him so much.”
Included in that tab: One bat. Thome loves giving credit to Skinner for his first career home run, because he used a Joel Skinner model to hit it.
“I was just a young kid, a September call-up, and it was the last weekend of the season. In those days, rookies didn’t get very many bats, and I was getting low,” Thome, then a 21-year-old Indians third-base prospect, said of that game in Yankee Stadium, on Oct. 4, 1991. “It was the ninth inning, we were down a run, and they had their closer, breaking-ball specialist Steve Farr, on the mound. I had broken a bat that day, and Joel came over and said, ‘Hey, kid, use this one.’ When a veteran offers, you use it.”
Recalls Skinner with a laugh, “You could see he didn’t have any bats. And mine had plenty of hits left in them.”
But the bat came with something just as valuable, Thome said: Advice. Skinner was a 30-year-old veteran catcher, the son of a former big-leaguer, too, and passed along a tip to the rookie who, in his first 25 games had yet to hit a home run.
“He said, ‘He’s going to throw you a fastball here. Don’t miss it,’ “ Thome said. “Sure enough, I get up there and here comes the fastball.”
It landed in the upper deck, and won the game, the first of 612 home runs, now eighth-most in major-league history, that Thome would hit over 22 seasons. Though it wasn’t a walk-off winner, Thome belted plenty of those, too, 13 in all. It was also the beginning of a close friendship that endures more than 25 years later.
“Even better than his baseball talent, he’s a Hall of Fame guy. Just like [fellow inductee] Alan Trammel, who I grew up with in San Diego — they’re tremendous people,” Skinner said. “Jim was about as consistent as they come in preparing to play. The joy of playing just came out of him. You could tell he enjoyed mastering his craft.”
Skinner, whose career was cut short by injury, went on to become an Indians coach during Thome’s years there, and when Charlie Manuel was fired midway through the 2002 season, Skinner was appointed as interim manager for the final three months.
And while he wishes he could say he knew Thome would become one of the greatest power hitters in history, “he was a line-drive guy when he came up. He hit for high averages in the minors, and you think he’s a middle-of-the-field hitter,” Skinner said. “Then he grew into his body, opened up his stance and started pulling the ball, and boom, he’s got the strength to hit it out in any direction.”
Still, a future Hall of Famer?
“He’s a good player, a big part of some really good teams. And then all of a sudden, you look up and it’s Year 15 and he’s having a wonderful career. And the numbers just jump out at you,” Skinner said. “And you realize, that young kid all those years ago really turned into something tremendous. I’m just so happy for him.”