No, really, like Redford. Roy Hobbs was his inspiration. When Thome was a minor leaguer, he could not quite open up his hips when he swung. He was a 13th-round pick of the Indians in 1989; nobody saw all that much in him. His first year in the minors he batted .237 in rookie ball, and he did not hit a single home run. Then—"because I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he says—he happened to run into a hitting guru named Charlie Manuel. Manuel, who was Thome's manager in Triple A, told the kid that he had to open up his hips to power the ball to all fields. Thome tried, but he didn't really know how to do it.
"He saw something in me I didn't," Thome says. Manuel kept hammering away at him—open those hips, open 'em up—until finally they were in the clubhouse in Charlotte one day, and they were watching The Natural, and they saw Roy Hobbs point the bat toward the pitcher. "Let's do that," Manuel said.
Life is not often like the movies, but the Roy Hobbs gesture worked. It reminded Thome to keep his stance open and to drive the ball to left center. His power emerged. His strikeouts emerged. Jim Thome the slugger emerged.
So Thome points his bat, and he clears his mind. "Home run, Jim!" someone shouts from the crowd. Thornton fires a 95-mph fastball down and away, and Thome swings ferociously.
Ooooooooh! the crowd moans. It's a familiar sound when Thome is at the plate.
"It's tough to strike out," Thome is saying, as he sits on the edge of the bench in the Minnesota dugout. "Believe me. I hate striking out. It's no fun. It's embarrassing."
He shrugs. "But there really isn't anything I can do. It's just a part of my game."
His hero, Kingman, struck out an astonishing 1,816 times—when he retired in 1986, that was fourth most in baseball history. Thome passed Kingman in strikeouts back in 2006. The thing about Thome is that he does not especially enjoy the all-or-nothing nature of being a big-time slugger. He has learned to accept the strikeouts because he does not know how to be a great home run hitter without them.
"Well," he says, almost apologetically, "I do walk a lot."