CLEARWATER, Fla. - They stood side by side again yesterday, the Big Piece and the man who 9 years ago kick-started the drastic change this once-downtrodden franchise has undergone. Once, Ryan Howard's promise ushered an aging Jim Thome out the door. Now, doubts about Howard's balky Achilles' has added weight to the offseason signing of his predecessor at first base, has once again laced their fates together.
And so, as they stood next to each other this week, taking grounders at first one day, hitting in the batting cage yesterday, one man looking a little heavier than when the season ended and another looking slightly slimmer, well, it was just impossible not to think how this could all play out - how "cool" it might turn out to be, as Howard said yesterday when asked about being reunited with the man he replaced in 2005.
"It's funny because when I heard we had signed him back this offseason, I was like, 'Man, everything kind of comes around full circle,' " Howard was saying. "I was excited for it."
"It's a heartwarming thing," Thome said as he rocked back in his clubhouse chair. "And I take it as that. I know where I'm at. I know where I'm at in my career. And as much as I think there are things I can help him with, there are things he can help me with, too."
It sounded like polite talk until Thome, who will turn 42 this summer, reminded you that he has played just 28 innings at first base since the Phillies traded him to the Chicago White Sox, that the way National League pitchers approach him will be similar to how they approach Howard, and that Howard probably has some tips on what to do against them as well.
Still noticeably gimping from his operation, Howard is in no position to be a tutor right now. Indeed, Thome, his body lighter from a winter of careful eating, his body more limber through Pilates, looked smoother when both were fielding the other day, and farther ahead when they rolled in and out of the batting cage yesterday at Bright House Field.
That's not to say Howard has not impressed. His optimistic manager has even predicted an earlier return to the lineup than anticipated, even amid talk of taking their time with him, of not rushing, of playing this carefully. The Phillies have options at first base, and Thome is just one of them. If it was simply a matter of defense, they might not even risk him there at all. Lower-back issues, the kind that have haunted Thome throughout his career, do not improve with usage and often get crankier with age.
"Yeah, I'd love to say I can play three, four, five times a week," Thome said. "But I don't know that. It's unfair to say that."
There is another risk, the one often ignored by those lobbying against Thome's appearance in the field at all. The Phillies have just three interleague games before a nine-game stretch in mid-June, which is a long chunk of season to sync a hitter with his streaky hitting history. Those who make the point that he has played little at first over the last six seasons often ignore that he played the pinch-hitter role only briefly over that stretch as well. Thome had four singles in 17 pinch-hit at-bats after the White Sox traded him to the Dodgers in 2009.
Other than that, he has been a regular or semi-regular in some American League team's lineup, as a designated hitter. So although he says, "This is not about my at-bats, this is not about my home runs," a piece of this really is. The Phillies are not paying $1.25 million for him to hit singles, and as Matt Stairs underlined here from 2008 to 2009, it's a whole lot easier to pinch-hit in the postseason if you've been hitting regularly during the regular season than if you've spent it riding the pine.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has vowed to find him at-bats. Thome has vowed to do things that will keep him sharp in case Manuel can't, at times.
"It's up to the player to get yourself ready for anything," he said. "When you're given that opportunity to come, you want to fit what these guys have done. You want to fit into their system. Into what they've done and try to contribute the best you can. If this doesn't work and we don't win a World Series, I still feel as though I put myself in the best position for 1 more year of this."
And if it does work? If Howard recovers to have a nice year and Thome brings some pop off the bench, and the two men resume that bond forged nearly a decade ago?
"It is a romance," Thome said. "A great story. And I hope at the end of that romance, we're giving each other a big hug."
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