|Thome celebrates becoming only the eighth player in MLB history to hit at least 600 home runs. (US Presswire)|
His eyes blazed. His brow furrowed.
Charlie Manuel had something on his mind when we talked last week in Los Angeles, and for those few minutes, it wasn't his first-place Phillies.
"How come," he demanded, "more people aren't talking about Thome and 600?"
What Jim Thome did on a summer's evening Monday in Detroit was absolutely astounding. Not just becoming only the eighth man in more than 100 years of major-league hardball to crack the 600-homers club, but to do it with such style, such flair.
Back-to-back at-bats, there goes No. 599 and then, look! Six hundred!
There was a time when home runs sent our imaginations soaring, when sheer power awed us. That time, apparently, left the building with Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.
Are you still awed?
Only seven men before Thome had reached 600: Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa.
Of those, only four have not been tied to steroids: Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Griffey.
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Why haven't more people been talking about him?
There is nobody in the game more genuine and more beloved than Gentleman Jim. Just check out this tweet from Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer (@mcuddy5) moments after the Twins polished off Detroit 9-6 on Tuesday: "Jim Thome is the definition of class, talent, work ethic, and longevity. Congrats to a true superstar, one I will always look up to!"
And another from Monday night, from Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins (@JimmyRollins11): "Congrats to my big homie, Jim Thome on his 600th home run!!! Could not have happened to a nicer man."
What we have in Thome is a salt-of-the-earth, country strong man from the heartland (Peoria, Ill.) who has done everything right, was a postseason regular in Cleveland in the 1990s, played with the Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers and Twins, made friends everywhere he went, gave something back through countless charitable acts and respected fans all the way through.
We have one of the greatest pure hitters the game has ever seen celebrating one of the greatest feats any slugger could ever accomplish.
This is one man you cannot say enough about.
"I'll be really proud of him," Manuel told me, anticipating No. 600. "I'm going to call him when he hits it.
"Thome is like my son. We were together a long, long time. I grab his box score every day to see if he played, how he did."
You see, few people know Thome like Manuel knows him. Manuel managed a 20-year-old Thome at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 1991. Then the two were together in Cleveland from 1994-2002, Manuel as Thome's hitting coach from '94-'99, then as his manager from 2000 through '02.
It's not a stretch to say that, if not for Thome, Manuel probably would not be managing the Phillies today. Manuel essentially forced his firing from Cleveland in '02 with a contract demand. Thome signed with the Phillies as a free agent before the '03 season.
A free agent himself that winter, Manuel, Thome's hitting guru, was brought to the Phillies as a "special assistant." You could say that about 98 percent of that role involved watching Thome's swing, making sure that Thome adjusted, ensuring that he was comfortable in Philly.
|1. Barry Bonds||762|
|2. Hank Aaron||755|
|3. Babe Ruth||714|
|4. Willie Mays||660|
|5. Ken Griffey Jr.||630|
|6. Alex Rodriguez-y||626|
|7. Sammy Sosa||609|
|8. Jim Thome-y||601|
|9. Frank Robinson||586|
|10. Mark McGwire||583|
Thome wound up leaving after three seasons, traded to the White Sox in the Aaron Rowand deal following the '05 campaign, a swap that Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick still points to as the deal that kick-started the current Phillies' run. Manuel wound up staying, replacing Larry Bowa in the manager's seat.
The ties between Thome and his beloved hitting guru remained unbroken. When Manuel managed the Phillies to only the second World Series title in franchise history in 2008 Thome flew back and was in the park for the clinching game. No way was he going to miss that.
"When he hits one, he'll call me," Manuel said last week with no small degree of what could best be described as a mixture of pride and love.
Thome has been phoning Manuel regularly since last summer as he inched closer and closer to 600.
When he cracked No. 596 against Oakland on July 31 in Minnesota, it was a monstrous blow, and an excited Thome started to describe it over the phone when Manuel cut him off.
"I saw how far it went," Manuel told him, teasing: "That wind must have really been blowing in Minnesota!"
"Aw, Chuck," Thome said back. "The wind was blowing ... but I hit it good."
He's hit hundreds of them good, fueled by strength built on the farm, tips from one of the most knowledgeable hitting experts walking the face of the earth and a work ethic surpassed by few others.
And how appropriate that he slammed No. 600 in a Twins-Tigers series: Playing for Cleveland all those years and then the White Sox ('06-'09), Thome has crushed more homers against Detroit (65, now, in 211 games) than any other team. Minnesota (57, in 186 games) is second.
But it's like the guy swings a velvet hammer. Even those he's vanquished stand and applaud: "Congrats to Jim Thome on #600," tweeted Tigers ace Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander). "Give credit where credit is due. One of the game's best hitters - and an even better person."
One more quick story. I was talking to a friend Monday evening who not long ago visited the owner of the Class A Peoria Chiefs in the hospital and was teasing him about all the construction.
"They waited to get you in here so they could afford to start expanding," my friend kidded the owner.
"Not me," the guy responded. "Thome. He donated $1 million to build a children's wing."
Looking for something to do during the 1994 strike, Thome used his down time to organize a softball tournament for the hospital. From that grew an annual event in his hometown that has raised a couple of million dollars for the Children's Hospital of Illinois.
That's the kind of guy Jim Thome is. Not only one of the most elite sluggers of all time, but also a guy who could squeeze good things from one of the darkest chapters in baseball history.
"It is an honor and a privilege to welcome another member to the 600 Home Run Club, especially someone like Jim Thome, who is not just a great baseball player, but a great person as well," Griffey said in a statement Monday night. "While it was only for a short period of time, I was glad to have the honor of being his teammate [with the White Sox]. I offer Jim my heartfelt congratulations."
Six hundred ... does it still mean the same as it did before men like Bonds, Sosa and A-Rod slithered into the group, juice-aided?
Why aren't you talking about it?
"Five hundred used to be the milestone," Manuel said. "But 600, that's tremendous."