CLEARWATER, Fla. - Jim Thome still has the hat.
"Yes I do," the aging slugger said during a visit to the Phillies' spring-training home a few weeks ago. "I saved it. That was neat. They really opened their arms to me and my family."
The white hat with red lettering relayed the message that "Philadelphia wants Jim Thome." It was presented to the first baseman by the electricians from the Local 98 union during his recruiting visit to Philadelphia in November 2002.
The Phillies, a little more than a year away from moving into Citizens Bank Park, finally had some money to spend, and Thome was targeted as the grand prize among the free-agent field. The electricians, who were working on the construction of the Phillies' new ballpark, welcomed Thome because his acquisition signaled a rebirth of baseball in a city that had soured on the sport since the strike that wiped away the 1994 World Series.
Thome took the hat and the lucrative contract from the Phillies, creating the kind of buzz that had previously been reserved for the team in green playing football across the street.
"Jim reignited the passion of the fans," said former Phillies general manager Ed Wade, the man responsible for signing Thome. "We signed Captain America, the blue-collar guy who was one of us. He had a big impact on what happened on the field and also the overall climate that was created."
Thome, now 39 and playing for Minnesota, said the impromptu meeting with the electricians outside the Phillies' preview center for the new ballpark was a factor in his decision to come to Philadelphia.
"Looking back, it was something I'll never forget," Thome said. "You have to remember I had played in Cleveland a long time, so it was a little bit weird for me to step out of that comfort zone that I had. But the people in Philadelphia really welcomed me. The thing with the electricians was awesome. . . . As a player, you step back and say, 'Wow, they're doing that for me.' "
Prying Thome from the Indians wasn't the first step in creating the winning atmosphere that now is almost taken for granted in Philadelphia, but it was the first visible sign of things to come. "That signing was the signal to everybody in baseball that we were at the point where we were ready to win," former Phillies assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle said. "We had been building, building, building, and when we managed to sign Jim, we were ready to contend, if not win it all."
Thome lived up to the hype of his signing by hitting a league-leading 47 home runs in his first season in Philadelphia and 42 more in his second. By the time the Phillies hoisted the World Series trophy, however, the power-hitting first baseman was long gone.
As much as he would have loved to have been around the last two years, Thome completely understood when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox after the 2005 season to make room at first base for Ryan Howard.
"Let's face it, Ryan Howard was a star," Thome said. "He was ready to go. I would have loved to win a World Series there, but it's OK. It just didn't work out."
Thome, despite being gone, continued to watch the Phillies closely, mostly because he credits manager Charlie Manuel for his successful career.
"When you look back at that contract I signed, I just finished it last year and they went to two World Series during the life of that contract," Thome said.
"Credit Charlie . . . I know what his work ethic is, and I know how his vibe and energy rubs off on people."