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Jim Thome stands in the underground batting cage deep inside Minnesota's Target Field, and he swings the bat very slowly, and it looks as if he is underwater. People would call what he's doing visualization, but Thome has little use for big words when it comes to hitting. "I don't really like filling my brain with a lot of stuff," he will say. He's just, you know, getting loose for his next at bat, thinking about hitting a baseball really hard. That's his job—his only job these days as the Twins' designated hitter. The man doesn't even have a glove in his locker.
"How's your charisma?" a teammate, pitcher Kevin Slowey, asks him. It's the seventh inning outside, it's August warm, the Twins and the White Sox are playing a huge game in the American League Central, and it is close.
With this, Thome breaks away from his hit-the-ball-hard thinking, grins his big grin and shouts, "Charisma's good! Charisma's real good! Something special going to happen! Going to do something special tonight!"
This is the answer Thome always gives.
"You going to hit your 900th home run tonight?" another teammate, reliever Glen Perkins, asks.
"Maybe," Thome says, and the grin gets wider. "Anything's possible."
Jim Thome still talks to his mother sometimes. Joyce Thome died five years ago, lung cancer, a horrible and yet also tender final couple of years. "It was so hard to see her in pain," he says, "but we also got to talk about so many things."
He still talks to her about things, the day-to-day stuff mostly. Lately Jim has been talking to his mother about how much longer he wants to play baseball. Though he turned 40 last month and is finishing up his 20th major league season, he's having one heck of a year, one of the most memorable of his memorable career. He has passed Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson to reach eighth on the alltime home run list: He was at 588 at week's end. More, he has been a difference maker in the AL Central race—maybe the difference maker. The White Sox had Thome in their lineup last year; they traded him to the Dodgers with four weeks to go but had a chance to bring him back as a free agent over the winter. They didn't, and instead Thome signed with Minnesota, where he has an absurdly small contract ($1.5 million for one year) and absurdly large numbers. In just 327 plate appearances through Sunday, Thome had 24 home runs and a 1.031 OPS (which would place second in the AL if he had enough at bats to qualify for the race). That production has been crucial to the Twins' building a 10-game lead at week's end with 13 games to play.
All this while Chicago, which had no use for Thome, has watched its designated hitters hit .242 and slug less than .400. And all this while Minnesota has been without star first baseman Justin Morneau, who has been out with a concussion since July. "I don't even think I need to say anything," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire says. "I think it's obvious how much Jim has meant to us."
So ... how much longer should he play? Thome's wife and young son and daughter live back in Chicago, and he misses them. His body—well, there are good days and bad days. He wonders how much longer it makes sense to keep playing, and so he asks Joyce. She knew how much he loves baseball. She would tell reporters the story of little Jim pulling white rocks from their driveway in Peoria, Ill., and pounding them, one after another, into the woods with his aluminum bat. Joyce understood that Jim never really changed, and why even now, after playing more than 2,300 games, with 1,676 walks behind him (most, by far, among active players) and with 2,394 strikeouts to forget (only Reggie Jackson had more), he still has the same urge to go out to a driveway and hit rocks.