The Thome family has been playing ball in Peoria, an old factory town in central Illinois, for about as long as any living person there can remember. In the stands of the little ballparks that are scattered throughout the city, grown men with good memories argue nightly about which Thome was the best ballplayer Peoria has ever raised. There's Jimmy, the first baseman for the Cleveland Indians, a starter in the All-Star Game this week. Nice player, though maybe not in the class of his older brothers, Chuckie and Randy, both high school legends. There's the father, Chuck Jr., who was paid big bucks to play "amateur" ball in a now-defunct softball circuit locals still refer to as the Outlaw League. No speed, no glove, tremendous bat. Then there's Junior's father, Chuck Sr., the grand old man of Peoria baseball. And of course there was Junior's late sister, Carolyn Thome Hart. When she was 15, Caterpillar Tractor created a mail-room job for her so she could play with the grown women on the company softball team, the Dieselettes. "Jimmy's a good young player," one Peoria native, Chuck Siebel, says. "But his aunt could rip it."
Still, the kid's all right. Jim Thome (rhymes with homey) is 27 years old, and at the All-Star break he was batting .326 with 23 home runs and 73 runs batted in. Those numbers, like the player who produced them, do not come out of nowhere. Thome was drafted by the Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 draft, after a year of junior college. He was called up to the bigs in '91, then again in '92 and was called up for good in '93. He has increased his homer total annually, and in the past four seasons his dinger numbers look like a fantasy stock pick—from 20 to 25 to 38 to 40.
Thome came up as a third baseman—he bats left but throws right—and switched to first last year to accommodate the newly acquired Matt Williams. Williams was traded by Cleveland after last season, but Thome has stayed put. When he was initially asked to migrate across the diamond, he became neither cagey nor petulant. He said, "Well, it wouldn't be my first choice, but if it's for the good of the team, then fine."
Evidently Thome is not schooled in the ways of the modern ballplayer. In spirit he is not a modern ballplayer. He's the player his grandfather would have been, had Chuck Sr. had the chance to pursue his dream instead of hiring on at the Hiram Walker Distillery in his early 20s, taking steady work to feed his family.
Now the Thomes, all of them, are making up for lost time and lost chances. When the Indians are in Cleveland, which is a 10-hour drive from Peoria, a Thome, more often than not, is in the stands. When the Tribe is in Chicago or St. Louis or Minneapolis or Kansas City or Detroit, the same. Last week Cleveland had a three-game series in Milwaukee, a mere four hours by car from Peoria, and Jimmy's parents, Chuck and Joyce, were there in the second row of Milwaukee County Stadium, so close to the visitors' dugout they could almost touch the youngest of their five children.
You could say the Thomes get into the game, the whole clan. When Jim ambles into the on-deck circle, wearing a helmet covered with pine tar and his pant legs just below the knee, like guys in the '50s, his father clasps his meaty hands together and gets loud. The son is 6'4" and 225 pounds—all beef, no filler—and his father is about the same. They do things big, father and son. When Chuck yells, "Oh-key now, Jimmy, bang one!" he can be heard in the upper deck. On June 30 in Milwaukee, the home plate umpire, Mark Hirschbeck, ejected Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove for arguing a balk call. From his perch in the dugout, Hargrove invited Hirschbeck to kiss his butt. The quick ring-up got Chuck going, big-time. "That'll make the highlight films!" he barked at the ump. Fans on the first base side, clear across the field from Thome's seat, were laughing. There was even a hint of a smile on his son's broad, earnest face.
In recent weeks the son has been batting cleanup, behind David Justice and in front of Manny Ramirez, a fearsome heart of the order that helps explain why the Indians are third in the American League in run production, 5.6 per game, and have a 10½-game lead in the American League Central. However, like his childhood baseball hero, Dave Kingman, Thome strikes out a lot—more than 100 times in each of the past three seasons, including a career-high 146 last year and 93 already this season.
Peoria is midway between St. Louis and Chicago, so there's no one team that the citizenry roots for, but the Thomes have always been aligned with the Chicago Cubs, for whom Kingman played from 1978 through '80. As a kid Thome would be glued to the tube whenever the Cubs were on, and he waited eagerly for his inaugural journey to Wrigley Field. That trip came in May 1979, when Jimmy was eight. He was pulled out of school for a day, and the trek to Mecca was made.
Buzzing down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, Jimmy gaped at the boats on Lake Michigan and asked his mother, "Maw, which boat do you suppose is Dave Kingman's?"
"Probably the biggest and most beautiful boat out there," Joyce responded.