Earlier this year, I wrote that I could really care less about A-Rod’s 600th home run beyond what it would mean for the Yankees as a team trying to win its division.
With Jim Thome, it’s different.
Thome passed McGwire on the all-time home run list Saturday when he slugged two — nos. 583 and 584 — against the Rangers. (He’s since hit two more, tying him with Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson at 8th on the all-time list.)
To me, Thome is always an Indian, even though it’s been eight years since he played for the Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle Cleveland teams that scared the shit out of American League pitching in the mid-’90s.
I could be idealizing here because Thome is among the last of a generation of players who I saw as a kid, but he always seemed to me to be the kind of classic slugger it’s tough to dislike or root against. Like Frank Thomas.
Thome’s a big guy. Really big. And country strong. A first baseman who looked like he could hit the ball a ton and usually did, even though he’s never won an MVP award and only led his league in homers once (47 in 2003 for the Phillies).
But after the mid-90s, baseball became confusing. With the help of training (and, in some cases, performance-enhancing drugs) little guys started to hit lots and lots of home runs.
Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson — listed at a slender 6’1″ and 170lbs — launched 50 in 1996 after never having hit more than 21.
If a fleet-footed, slick-fielding outfielder like Anderson can hit 50, who needs a lumbering first baseman who’s molasses on the basepaths and an average-to-below-average fielder?
Well, the answer now is obvious: Many people strongly suspect that what Anderson did — like McGwire — was not real. Yet Anderson has never been formally linked to performance-enhancing drugs. And that sucks for Jim Thome.
What Thome has accomplished will inevitably be viewed through the lens of the Steroid Era.
We’ll probably never know whether he took them or not (he says he didn’t) — much like, say, Jorge Posada (disclosure: my favorite player), who’s offensive exploits as catcher would probably make him a contender for Cooperstown had he not played when he did.
Thome and Posada can, in part, thank Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez for that.
Unlike Anderson, however, Thome’s home run totals have followed a fairly steady arc, peaking in his early 30s, which unlike Barry Bonds’ late-career surge, is not surprising. Thome’s early 30s, however, coincide with the home-run (and steroid) happy early-2000s.
So what’s a fan to believe? I’m going to choose to believe that Thome did this clean. And when he hits no. 600 next year, I’m going to be rooting for him. Mostly because a world with only villains is a sad, sad place. And Thome seems like too decent a guy to be one of them.
But fool me twice…
Fact: As of today, no team has felt the pain of Thome’s thunderous bat more than the Tigers, whose pitchers have yielded 63 homers to Big Jim. Thome’s current team, the Twins, are second at 57. Thome, who has never played in for an AL East team, has hit 26 of Yankees pitching, good enough for 10th.