So what does Jim hear Joyce say when he talks to her about retirement? "She wants me to keep playing for as long as I love playing," he says. "Or as long as my body lets me play."
Thome shrugs and looks around the Twins' clubhouse. "I think I'll love this game long after my body gives out, you know?" he says.
Matt Thornton is pitching for the White Sox, and he's a serious badass. Six-foot-six. Lefthanded. Fastball in the upper 90s. He's the kind of lefthanded badass who makes lefthanded hitters like Jim Thome crumble. In his career Thome has hit less than .240 against lefties. Lefthanded power pitching is Thome's Kryptonite, and there isn't a lefthanded reliever in the league who throws harder than Thornton. If Gardenhire had a viable choice, Thome would not be going to the plate.
But this is the gambler's moment. It's Aug. 17, and Minnesota and Chicago have been trading places atop the division all year. Right now the Twins are in first, but they trail 6--5 in the bottom of the 10th inning, and if they lose this game at Target Field, the White Sox will pull to within two games. There's a man on first base, and Gardenhire wants the home run. And in the long and fascinating history of baseball, if you want a home run, there are only a handful of men you would send up before Jim Thome.
"He told me his charisma's good," Slowey announces in the dugout as Thome walks to the plate. The high-pitched cheers of 40,000 or so Twins fans echo in his ears.
There was no other route for a kid who grew up loving Dave Kingman. The Thomes of Peoria had lived for baseball for two generations. Jim's father, Chuck, hit line drives; teams paid Chuck a few bucks under the table to smack liner after liner in the old fast-pitch softball Outlaw League. The Thomes were avowed Cubs fans (in Peoria it was Cubs or Cardinals), and Chuck was strictly a Bill Buckner man. Buckner almost never struck out and he almost never hit home runs—he cracked line drives that split outfielders and rolled into the ivy walls. "Watch Billy Buck," Chuck would tell his youngest son when they made the trip to Wrigley Field. "That's a hitter."
But the youngest son did not want to watch Billy Buck, not when King Kong was out there. Dave Kingman was everything that Bill Buckner was not. He was enormous (6'6", 210 pounds) and he struck out unapologetically, and he almost never hit line drives. Instead he hit towering home runs that were like tourist attractions. "I don't know," Jim says when asked why Kingman was his favorite player. "I didn't really hit home runs back then. I wasn't really all that big then. I mean, it was just cool to watch the way he hit those long home runs out onto Waveland Avenue. That's all. I guess I didn't think about it too much."
There's an oft-told Thome parable, about the time his family took him to a Cubs game, and he wanted only to get Kingman's autograph. Kingman was not available—he seemed to take pride in his rare talent for not being available when little kids wanted his autograph—but eight-year-old Jim was not the sort to give up easily. He somehow wandered into the clubhouse in search of Kong. A few minutes later Cubs catcher Barry Foote carried Jim out of the clubhouse and back to his parents. "Is this yours?" he asked.
The story is usually told with the obvious lesson—Thome has been one of the most accommodating of players throughout his career. He signs autographs, and he is endlessly patient with requests and always has time for teammates. But Thome insists that his brush with Kingman didn't teach him to treat people the way you would want to be treated; he learned that from his family and from the people in Peoria. Watching Kingman taught him something simpler. Swing hard. Don't overthink. Don't fill your brain up with stuff. Jim Thome learned from Dave Kingman that it must be a lot of fun to hit long home runs.
Jim Thome holds out his left hand toward the umpire as he asks for a second to gather himself. He digs his cleats into the dirt, steadies himself. And then, like Robert Redford in The Natural, he points his bat past Thornton, toward the centerfield bleachers.