"Gee," said the boy.
"And one day," his mother said, "you'll have the biggest and most beautiful boat out there, right beside his."
"Do you think?"
You might say this is the family that time forgot.
At Wrigley, young Jimmy was determined to get Kingman's autograph. When the usual methods failed, the boy tried a bolder approach. At the conclusion of batting practice he slipped away from his family, hopped over the little wall that separates the seats from the field and searched for his man. His parents, in a panic, were looking under the seats and in the aisles for their missing boy when a man in a Cubs uniform suddenly appeared, carrying an eight-year-old kid. "Is this yours?" Barry Foote, a Cubs catcher, asked Joyce and Chuck. "We found him in the clubhouse." Jimmy, beaming, was clutching a baseball covered with Cubs signatures, though the one he wanted most continued to elude him. Nearly two decades later, Thome finds it hard to turn down a polite request for a signature.
Not that he is overburdened by such requests. Given his numbers, and the fact that he's been to the last two All Star Games and two of the last three World Series, you would think Thome's fame would extend far beyond Cleveland and Peoria. (His fiancée, Andrea Pascione, has an Ohio following, too; she worked as a TV reporter in Cleveland.) But on the national sports landscape, Thome is, at best, only faintly famous. "You can't really say he's underrated, because everybody considers him one of the top hitters in the American League," says Jeromy Burnitz, a former teammate who is now with the Brewers. "But he's surrounded by so many good players, it's hard to stand out on that team."
For a while, it didn't appear that Thome would stand out at anything. It looked as if he would follow the pattern set by his grandfather and father and brothers: graduate from high school, take a job in town, become a local legend in Peoria's Sunday Morning League. At Limestone High, Thome was as good at basketball (his nickname was Bird) as he was at baseball—an all-state player in both. But he was twig-thin and not fast, and no four-year colleges showed serious interest in him for either sport. In his first season in pro ball, playing for the Indians' Rookie League Gulf Coast team in '89, Thome batted a sickly .237 with no homers in 186 at bats.
But something significant happened that year. Thome fell under the spell of Charlie Manuel, a hitting instructor, coach and manager in the Cleveland organization, who over the years has taught Thome how to be a player. Today, Manuel is the Indians' hitting instructor again, and he typically works with Thome three times a day. In mid-afternoon he watches Thome hit in an indoor cage. Around 6 p.m. he watches Thome take batting practice. After BP he tosses underhand pitches to his pupil, who smashes them into a net. Manuel believes Thome's immense strength is inherited. But, says Manuel, Thome's talent in the batter's box and in the field (where he is reliable and improving) has been painstakingly cultivated.
"All the credit goes to Jimmy, because he works so hard and he's real coachable," says Manuel, leaning against the batting cage in Milwaukee, watching Thome with considerable care. "One thing we came up with together. I was managing him at Charlotte in '93, on the AAA team, and we were in the clubhouse and the movie The Natural was on the TV. Robert Redford steps in, batting left, just like Jimmy. We were looking for a swing key, something that would open Jimmy up, let him hit to all fields. Redford steps in there and holds the bat with his right hand, way out in front of him, shoulder high. We both said, 'Let's try that.' Right away, it worked."
Since he got to the majors, Thome has been influenced the most by Eddie Murray, who was his teammate for nearly three seasons beginning in '94. "Eddie taught me to play the game exactly the same when you fail and when you succeed," Thome says. He has bright eyes, a loud speaking voice and a simple, direct manner. When he wants to make a point he taps you on the knee with the back of his hand. "Hit a home run, hey, enjoy the moment, but then let it go. If you strike out with the bases loaded, same thing, let it go. Eddie was always real relaxed, the same guy no matter what happened. You've got to be that way in this game, because there's no perfect player. You're going to have your good streaks and your slumps. I don't smash helmets when I strike out, because it's not the helmet's fault, it's my fault."