The Unappreciated Career of Jim Thome

Yesterday, the Philadelphia Phillies traded Jim Thome to the Baltimore Orioles making him just the third player in baseball history to be traded with more than 600 home runs to his name.  That one sentence could be the entirety of this article and it would still hit home.  His skill and success have always been understated.  Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Jim Thome.  In any other context, being associated with those names would be a good thing.  Not here.  Not now.

Of the eight players to have hit 600 or more home runs, Thome has played for the most teams – by far.  When Thome makes his first appearance with the Orioles, he will have played for six different teams.  He’s been productive for all of them except the Dodgers, and he only played 17 games for the Dodgers.

I could go into his detailed, advanced numbers, but I want to explore the man and why he’s so fascinating.  Thome was drat fed in the 13th round of the draft back in 1989.  He was a high school kid looking to make it in the big leagues.  He bypassed college and signed with the Indians despite an uncertain future.  That uncertain future didn’t take long to come into shape.

Jim Thome will be starting the new chapter of his career in Baltimore. (Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

Thome played 55 games in 1989 but hit no home runs.  However, by 1990 he had found his power.  In 67 games combined between rookie league play and High-A, Thome hit 16 home runs.  In 1991, he was called up to the Indians.  He struggled in his first few seasons, but by 1994 Thome was becoming a presence.  In 1994, Thome hit .268/.359/.523 and clubbed 20 home runs – his first 20 homer seasons.  From there, he didn’t have another season with less than 25 home runs until his injury plagued season of 2005.

Despite his incredible home run totals and RBI totals, Thome has only been named to five All-Star teams in 22 Major League seasons (assuming he doesn’t somehow sneak into this year’s ASG).  The highest he ever made it was fourth in MVP voting.  No love for a man who has a career OPS 47% better than the rest of the league over that time.

At 41 years old, Thome is starting a new chapter in his career.  He will be returning to the American League, he will be able to play everyday, and he will have yet another shot at postseason success.  As an Oriole, Thome is getting one more shot to succeed.  I won’t say one final shot, because despite his age, he’s never been worse than 27% better than league average (based on OPS).  Thome has a lot to give, and not just in baseball.

Jim Thome is a philanthropist.  He cares about his community.  No matter where he’s played, Thome has helped the community around him.  In 2005, he was given the Lou Gehrig Award for exemplifying the character of giving.  He raised $1 million for the Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria.  He was names the Marvin Miller Man of the Year in 2001 for his community involvement.  He’s done so much, and won so many awards for his contributions to society, it would take an entirely separate article to list them all.

And he’s got one of he greatest smiles in baseball.  When he talks, people feel at home.  When he laughs, people laugh with him.  He gives, and he crushes baseballs.  What more could we want?

Yet, there are people out there like Ken Rosenthal who will simply vote no on the first ballot for a potential Hall of Famer because he played during the so-called “steroid era.”

As I’ve written before, I vote “no” on virtually every player from the steroid era as a way of distinguishing them from the greats of the past. Is that an unfair penalty for candidates thought to be non-users? Yes, but all of the players were part of a union that had the power to implement change.

This is the type of thinking that has kept Jeff Bagwell out of the Hall of Fame, and perhaps it’s what has kept the baseball community from truly embracing Jim Thome.  He’s big.  He hits a lot of home runs.  The cloud follows him everywhere he goes even though there has never been an accusation or shred of evidence to justify the skepticism.

For me, Jim Thome is one of the all-time greats.  He deserves to be recognized as such.  There are talks of a statute being built in his likeness in front of Progressive Field in Cleveland.  That’s a start, but it’s not enough until the rest of the baseball world embraces Thome’s legendary skill and performance.