Jim Thome did not want to retire from playing Major League baseball. But after waiting for the phone to ring for about 10 months and staring at its silence, he accepted a front office job with the Chicago White Sox.
Even as Thome was appointed as a special assistant to the general manager a few days ago, you got the feeling that he might chuck it in an instant if a contending American League team suddenly rediscovered him on its radar and wanted to borrow his bat for the stretch run of the 2013 season. If not he may have actually addressed leaving the game as a player. Instead, Thome, who has never announced his retirement, once again chose not to deal with that issue even as he was accepting a position in an organization that required wearing a suit rather than a uniform.
The left-handed slugger is 42 and he has a birthday in August, but you can’t convince him that he doesn’t have a few more big swings in his repertoire before holstering his bat for good.
Thome has played 22 years in the big leagues, was a big star with the Cleveland Indians, and spent four very productive years with the White Sox. Playing for a Chicago team was an exciting time for Thome, who is from Peoria, Illinois. Plagued by nagging back pain and the occasional pulled muscle over the last couple of seasons, Thome really wanted to coax one more season out of his aging body, but could find no taker.
This despite being one of the all-time most popular clubhouse guys. More than once, in more than one poll, Thome has been voted the nicest player in the sport. No one ever suggested that Thome wasn’t a great person to have around and his booming bat was a pretty solid reason to keep him handy as a designated hitter or pinch-hitter once the fielding range of the 6-foot-4, 250-pound slugger diminished around first base.
As it stands now, even if Thome never takes another official swing in a Major League game (as is likely), he should easily be elected to the Hall of Fame. A five-time All-Star, Thome is one of the most prolific home-run hitters in history with 612 round-trippers. He ranks only behind Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. and just ahead of Sammy Sosa. That puts Thome seventh on the career list.
The most homers Thome ever hit in a season was 52 in 2002, but he also led his league in RBIs three times. He has 1,699 RBIs for his career. Although he struck out a lot, Thome also walked a lot. His hits and walks combined put him on-base safely 4,075 times and his lifetime on-base percentage is .402.
Overall, Thome is in pretty good company with the major bashers of all-time, and he has not been tainted by suggestions that he used performance-enhancing drugs the way some players on that list have been.
Few players get to go out on their own terms, something Thome clearly wanted, but was denied as little injuries added up and hampered him in 2012 when he began the season with the Philadelphia Phillies, ended it with the Baltimore Orioles, but only appeared in 58 games total.
Thome is surely itching for a few final at-bats in the heat of a pennant race, but for now he is going to work for White Sox general manager Rick Hahn. He will work in player development evaluation for the time being and said for him this is a step towards a front office career in some capacity, a way to stay involved in the sport he loves.
“I don’t think you ever really leave baseball,” Thome said. “You’re always around it, it’s always instilled in you.”
Thome did not want to admit that his body was facing athletic old age and he fought off the signs as long as he could. For now, at least, this is the perfect way for him to transition from player to team official, working with a team from the state where he lives and with a team that gave him so many good memories between 2006 and 2009.