The first home run that day was unusual, a screaming opposite-field line drive that barely sneaked over the wall next to the left-field foul pole, the shortest home run possible in Target Field. But when he connected on his very next swing, two innings later, the result was a classic Jim Thome home run: towering, majestic and deep, landing in the bullpens in center field.
That game, an 8-6 Twins’ loss to the Rays on July 3, 2010, held more significance than just Thome’s personal Home Run Derby. The homers were Nos. 573 and 574 of his career, allowing him to tie and then pass Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew on baseball’s career list. And it cemented a bond between a player and a city that grew remarkably strong despite a short time together — perhaps in part because Thome seemingly so mirrored the Hall of Famer who came before him.
“It was a humbling day. I’ll never forget it,” Thome said. “All of Minnesota knows the man that Harmon Killebrew was, and for those fans to stand and cheer that way, to treat me so special, it made me love that place even more.”
It’s a remarkable kinship that will play out again Sunday, when Thome is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The cap on Thome’s plaque will display a “C” for Cleveland, where he played more than half of his 2,543 career games. But just like Jack Morris, to be inducted the same day as a Detroit Tiger, Thome has such a bond with the Twin Cities, and vice versa, that Minnesotans can just as easily picture them wearing Twins hats.
“It’s so ironic that they go in together, because they have that in common,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “I’m not sure any other players have had a greater impact on this franchise in such relatively limited windows of their careers in Minnesota.”
They have this in common, too: Few players have been as instrumental in beating the Twins as Morris and Thome — Morris’ 23 career victories against Minnesota are third-most in history, and no player has hit as many home runs against the Twins (61), including a game-winning blast for the White Sox in a one-game playoff in 2008, as Thome — yet are as adored for their contributions here.
“Twins fans had seen him beat our brains in for 15 years. This guy killed us,” said Bill Smith, the then-Twins general manager who pursued, and ultimately signed, Thome. “Yet our fans were elated when we got him. There was no doubt about his character.”
Nor about his devotion to his new, if temporary, home. Thome is an outdoorsman who would spend off days visiting lakes around the state, who treated his father to a five-day fishing trip to International Falls between his first Minnesota season and his second.
“I love being outside. That’s why I connected so well with Minnesotans,” Thome said. “And I was never treated better, anywhere.”
Thome is forever linked to the city’s ballpark, largely because of a panoramic photograph of him hitting a home run at Target Field that wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated in September 2010, with the headline “Prairie Homer Companion — Jim Thome has the power to bring October magic to Minnesota.”
He served as a personal Chamber of Commerce for the new park, and also as a counterpoint to critics who said the ballpark favored pitchers. Thome demonstrated that the park would play fair, a characteristic borne out over the seasons since.
“That SI cover is still like a postcard for the ballpark to this day,” St. Peter said. “It’s funny — it’s hard to think of the Metrodome without remembering some of the titanic blasts Jim would hit into the upper reaches there. And at the same time, he was a big part of the goodwill that the fans felt surrounding the successful opening of Target Field.”
That’s why, as he passed Killebrew that day — the Twins’ career home run leader overtaken by the Twins’ career home run nemesis — it meant so much to Thome that he was playing for Killebrew’s team. And after he took a curtain call from fans, the team surprised him by playing a video on the scoreboard of Killebrew congratulating him.
“I’m glad you were able to hit it in a Twins uniform. I only wish I would have been there to see it,” Killebrew said in the video, which the Twins had scrambled to produce as the historic homer drew near. “Congratulations, Jim. You’re a wonderful guy, and a credit to yourself and everybody that you’ve played with.”
Short stint, long memories
The emotion of that afternoon, the sense of history around his home runs, overwhelmed Thome, who had bonded with the Twins’ greatest star during spring training.
“To have someone compare you to Harmon, to be put in that same class, it’s the greatest honor you can think of,” he said. “And to have it come from the man himself, that’s something I’ll always treasure. I only wish he could be here now to be a part of [the Hall of Fame induction] with me.”
The Twins and Thome have plenty of other memories to treasure about their 18-month partnership, particularly that first season. He hit 25 home runs, and his .627 slugging percentage was the second highest of his career. With a two-homer game at Detroit, he became the seventh member of the 600-home run club on Aug. 15, 2011, in his final weeks with the club before he was traded back to Cleveland. That came nearly a year to the day after Thome crushed a 10th-inning Matt Thornton pitch into the right field stands to turn a one-run deficit against the White Sox, one of his former teams, into a walkoff 7-6 victory.
“That was the defining moment of that season,” St. Peter said of the celebration, photos of which ordain the walls at Target Field. “It was such an exciting year, with the new ballpark and signing one of the all-time greats. We were blessed to have that day as part of our franchise.”
Yet it’s easy to forget that Thome’s stint in Minnesota nearly didn’t happen. The Twins had scouted Thome for more than two decades, including in-person reports from legendary scout Ellsworth Brown while Thome was a high schooler in the Peoria, Ill., suburb of Bartonville. They had occasionally tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a trade for him during his tenure with the Indians.
And when the path to signing Thome was finally clear, once he was a 39-year-old fading former star, the Bunyanesque slugger was battling chronic back pain that left him essentially unable to field a position.
Word had gotten out about Thome’s health by the time that winter of 2009 arrived, but Smith made an incentive-laden, bargain-priced offer anyway. To the Twins’ surprise, Thome eventually signed for a mere $1.5 million base salary, just in time to meet his new fans at TwinsFest 2010.
“He wanted to be there. He understood the salesmanship of it,” St. Peter said. “I give Bill Smith credit for pushing for it. He knew Jim could be an impactful guy.”
What they didn’t realize was Thome’s back pain was a much bigger problem than was widely known. But somehow, Thome turned that into a positive, too, mostly by using his own case as an example of perseverance.
“Every machine he needed for his back, he bought. Every day before batting practice, he would stretch. He educated himself about his condition,” said Perry Castellano, the Twins strength and conditioning coach. “For 45-90 minutes before batting practice, he would go through his own program, just to be healthy enough to be stretched. Every single day. Some days, we would stretch him between at-bats.”
That example galvanized the Twins’ clubhouse, already unified in pursuit of the team’s sixth division championship in nine years. “To him, it was a labor of love. Other players saw him do it, day after day, and that had an impact,” Castellano said. “He was such a little kid at heart. The guy just loved coming to the ballpark, even though it meant going through so much just to be ready to play.”
It got noticed. Reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer was inspired by Thome’s tenacity. “I played against him for a long time before he got here. You could tell what kind of guy he was, but also what a competitor he was,” Mauer said. “When he gets between the lines, he gets pretty fired up. You could tell how much it meant to him.”
‘The nicest guy’
Ultimately, though, playing with Thome meant even more to Mauer, to Justin Morneau, to all his Twins teammates.
“I always say I’m fortunate to have known three superstars: Harmon Killebrew, Joe Mauer and Jim Thome. They all were humble, incredibly hardworking, and kind. They let their bats do the talking,” said Morneau, AL MVP in 2006. “I was only a teammate of Jim Thome for a short time. It felt like so much longer. I learned a lot from him. The incredible amount of time he put into his craft, the amount of work he put in to prepare his body to play every day, was amazing.”
For a guy whose 612 home runs are eighth most in baseball history, a hitter who drew the seventh-most walks ever, who ranks in the top 30 in career RBI, however, it’s remarkable that most people’s highest compliments about him don’t involve baseball. Morneau, for instance, marvels that Thome answered his congratulatory text about his Hall election within an hour of learning of the honor, “just one of the many examples of a man who lives the example: Just because you’re great at something, it doesn’t make you better than anyone.”
“Jim is one of the nicest guys ever to play the game,” agreed Brian Dozier, a minor league invitee to training camp during Thome’s tenure with the Twins. “He took the time to talk to me, to watch me hit, and to give me his impressions. He’s a giant of a man, and I mean that in more ways than one.”
Thome also gave Dozier some advice that still resonates with the infielder-turned-power hitter. “He always tells me, ‘Go bananas,’ ” Dozier said. “That’s because home runs come in bunches. … Home runs aren’t spread evenly during the season. He told me that six or seven years ago, and I still carry that with me to this day. He’s a Hall of Famer even more as a person than as a ballplayer, and we’re just lucky that he was a Twin.”