HE STOOD on the painted baseball that marked his 400th home run the other day, chatting up fans as part of the Phillies' On-Deck Series of games designed to add a little revenue for a payroll that is now beyond anyone's imagination, a payroll absorbing another $1.25 million so that the man who started it all could have one last stab at the ultimate prize.
Jim Thome smiled and shook a hundred or so hands and told and listened to stories as more of the early crowd wandering around Citizens Bank Park found him and flocked toward him. I told him later it was like watching a family greet a beloved relative they rarely see, which is kind of what Thome has been since leaving Philadelphia after the 2005 season.
"I had a moment here that nobody can take away," he said of the milestone home run he hit in 2004 that is now marked in the left-centerfield seats.
Thome has opened three parks in his career - in Cleveland, here and in Minnesota. The first walkoff hit of the Twins' new Target Field in 2010 was his 10th-inning, two-run home run. When he hit his 500th home run as a White Sox player in 2007, it was Jim Thome bobblehead day at U.S. Cellular Field and 25 relatives, including his wife and dad, were there to see it.
Just last July he hit what is believed to be the longest home run in Target Field history, a 490-foot rocket into the right-centerfield upper deck. Two months later, after being traded back to Cleveland, the Indians announced in a pregame ceremony plans to erect a statue of him in the Heritage Park section of Jacobs Field.
A few innings later, Thome hit a home run that bounced through the spot where the statue was to be built.
The man has some serious timing, no?
"It's the moments," he said as we walked from the Phillies clubhouse to their dugout Wednesday. "The one thing about baseball . . . "
He stopped in the corridor and turned to a huge photo on the wall. It was taken moments after the final out in 2008, Brad Lidge already covered with humanity, the Phanatic running across the infield with the world-championship banner as if his PETA-friendly fur was on fire.
"This, right here," Thome said. "This picture. That's a moment nobody can take away. You appreciate moments in the game. As you appreciate the opportunities to come back and do this."
He is back to . . . well, who knows what anymore? When he signed in December, it was to be a bench player, a pinch-hitter who could maybe play the field in a pinch. Now, as the Phillies open their season Thursday in Pittsburgh, there is talk of him starting at first base twice a week, maybe even as part of some integrated platoon based on career numbers against pitchers as much as lefty-righty matchups.
Thome has surprised even himself this spring with his dexterity, which he attributes to yoga and kinesiology and a whole lot of things that were not in baseball's lexicon when his back first got cranky almost a decade ago.
Could he be a platoon player at age 41? Nothing seems impossible.
He's here again, isn't he?
The day after he dressed in the Phillies clubhouse again for the first time, I asked if it felt any different than dressing and playing during spring training, or doing those meet-and-greets this winter.
"I think coming to the park again," he said. "My wife and I talked about it the other night. It's amazing when you've been to a place and then you step back and you see all the great things that have come about over the 6- or 7-year period. You appreciate the opportunity to come back."
Similar to when he went back to Cleveland?
"Very similar," he said. "And that is showing me that my career is coming to an end, to have those feelings. It's weird."
He was asked if the finality of it all was scary. "That don't scare me at all. I don't look at the end as a scary thing. I look at it as a great thing because I have the next chapter with my family. That means a lot to me."
He is giving it this one last year to win a World Series. Back here, where he changed the culture nearly a decade ago. There are 20-year-old men, my two sons for example, who have grown up with the perception of the Phillies as a winning franchise, a willing franchise, a club worthy of investing time, money, and most of all, hearts in. For many, their first Phillies jersey or T-shirt had "Thome" written across the back. Now they are buying those shirts again.
We had reached the dugout now, a sun-splashed day, warmer than expected, the banners marking five straight division titles, two National League pennants and that World Series flag flapping in the horizon.
"People say that you weren't there to reap the benefits, but you started it all," I tell him. "Do you feel that?"
"I just think that's a nice thing to say," Thome said. "I mean, I for sure respect that, and I appreciate that and the people who say that. But ultimately you're talking about other guys who accomplished that."
"Maybe yours will come this year," he is told. "Maybe the Phanatic will be running by you this time."
"That would be awesome," Thome said, breaking into a wide smile. "Awesome."
Contact Sam Donnellon at firstname.lastname@example.org