Thome back with Twins to continue march toward 600 home runs
Jim Thome, 40, has hit 589 home runs; only seven players have hit 600
Thome had a chance to join the Texas Rangers but chose to stay with Minnesota
Thome hit 25 home runs in just 276 at-bats as a desingated hitter last year
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Watching Jim Thome play in a minor league game is one of spring training's most surreal experiences. The 40-year-old designated hitter, preparing for his second season with the Minnesota Twins and taking aim at becoming the eighth player to reach 600 career home runs, towers over prospects half his age as he settles into the batter's box with his familiar pose: extending his right arm and pointing his 34-inch, 32-ounce bat toward the pitcher's mound.
He lets the first pitch go by. Then, on the second pitch, he swings ferociously and sends a screaming line drive into a tree beyond the rightfield fence. Two at-bats later, the lefty with the Paul Bunyan physique sends a high drive that clanks off the green batter's eye in centerfield.
By the time Thome finishes his home-run trot, his dad, Chuck, wearing a Twins cap and sitting in the bleachers next to the third-base dugout, is so excited, he's on his cell phone describing the home runs to family members.
"It's just unbelievable, I can't even fathom what Jim is doing,'' Chuck says. "I remember when Jim hit his first home run, I said it'd be great if he hit 50. I can't believe that he's approaching 600. I am so excited, I could talk about it all day.''
Thome, who came "very close'' to signing over the winter with the Texas Rangers after a visit with team owner and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, will instead pursue the 11 home runs he needs for 600 and his first World Series championship as a part-time DH and game-altering pinch-hitter for the Twins, the same role he performed so capably last year for Minnesota.
"The Rangers and Nolan Ryan were first class all the way, but I enjoyed my time in Minnesota,'' Thome says. "We won the division and we have a good chance to get into the postseason again. We have unfinished business.
"We have a bunch of good guys and I respect the way this organization goes about playing baseball. They know how to play and they do things right. You really notice the little things they do, and that's to their credit. And, they've got greats like Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Paul Molitor around here. It's a good place.''
Last season, Thome started with the Twins as a bench player, but when Justin Morneau went out with a season-ending concussion, Thome became the regular DH. In 276 at-bats he hit 25 home runs and had a .627 slugging percentage, his highest since posting a .677 mark with the Indians in 2002, a year in which he hit 52 homers.
Thome's performance during his 20th major league season last year was all the more impressive because he had to have treatment six days a week for a chronic lower back problem. This spring, Thome arrives in camp at 7 a.m. every day for weight lifting and stretching to get his back ready to play.
"As you get older, your body feels different,'' Thome says. "My back feels good. It's important to do you core work, and that really helps.''
The Twins are familiar with Thome's home runs. He has hit 57 of them against the Twins, most by an opponent he's played against. The most significant came in a one-game playoff to decide the AL Central champion in 2008, when Thome's solo blast for the White Sox was the only run in a 1-0 win against the Twins.
As a Twin, Thome made the team's new Target Field, known as a pitcher's park, seem like a slugger's delight. He hit 15 of his 25 home runs at home, including the longest in the ballpark's debut season, one that went 480 feet against the Kansas City Royals. He also hit a 466-foot shot in Philadelphia, making him the 33rd player in history to have a home run vs. all 30 big-league teams.
This season, the Twins are top-heavy with lefthanded batters, but Thome, who turns 41 in August, is insurance, depending on the health of Morneau, who is recovering from a concussion and may or may not be ready at the start of the season. When Morneau plays, Thome is a threat off the bench.
No matter how he's used, Thome is likely to become just the eighth player to reach 600 home runs. Last season, he passed Rafael Palmeiro, Killebrew, Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson on the all-time list. Thome is 21 short of passing Sammy Sosa's 609.
"Watching him go for 600 is going to be fun,'' Twins' outfielder Jason Kubel says. "I enjoy the history. He's a great guy and he was one of my favorite players back when I was in high school. I told him that, but I didn't want to make him feel old.''
Kubel, a left-handed batter who hit 20, 28 and 21 home runs in each of his last three seasons, modeled his swing after Thome: "He had the swing I always wanted, the stance I always wanted. As a fan, 600 is going to be special. It is even more special being his teammate.''
Thome says the chase for 600 becomes "surreal'' when he sees the names in the elite club, but he says he's not going to get wrapped up going for the milestone. He's not worried about high expectations after last season and that he's having fun, and that's the most important thing.
"It's not about one guy, and that's why the Twins are a good fit for me,'' Thome says. "Let's face it. Home runs are hard to hit. Home runs come by just doing the right thing and playing the game the right way.''
Three of the seven players with 600 home runs -- Barry Bonds, Sosa and Alex Rodriguez -- are entangled in steroids controversy. Like Ken Griffey Jr., who has 630 home runs, Thome's legacy is that he's never been suspected of taking performance-enhancing drugs, even though most of his home runs have come during the steroids era. He said that he's never been approached about taking steroids.
"No, never, I've never been approached or anything like that,'' says Thome, who is 6'3", 250 pounds. "I know what I've done. You have to remember that not everybody did it during that era. There were guys who did it the right way. I feel good about what I've done. I'm proud of my career.''
A World Series ring, however, is missing.
Thome went to the World Series twice with Cleveland. In 1995, the Indians lost to the Atlanta Braves. In 1997, Thome was Cleveland's first baseman in Florida when Edgar Renteria's RBI single ended Game 7 for the Marlins.
"I remember Atlanta's pitching, and how that staff pin-pointed every pitch they threw,'' Thome says. "It was tough to lose the seventh game (in 1997). I can still see that hit.''
Thome can also visualize his first big league home run, in 1991, for Cleveland against pitcher Steve Farr in Yankee Stadium. "I can see the flight of the ball going out to right field.''
Back then, he had no idea that he was on his way to membership in an elite club with guys like Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays.
"They are icons in the game,'' Thome says. "How could you ever imagine something like this?''
No doubt, his dad agrees.
Mel Antonen lives in Washington, D.C., and is a baseball analyst for Sirius-XM.