Jim Thome hit only 101 of his 612 home runs in a Phillies uniform. He was with them for only 391 of his 2,543 career games and never played in a single postseason game here. Most players who spend that small amount of time in a place are franchise footnotes. Thome, of course, became something much more in Philadelphia.
Sure, the bronze plaque that awaits him Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., when he is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame will include a hat with a Cleveland Indians "C," and that's the way it should be. The bulk of his mythical baseball career was spent with the Indians, and he very nearly remained there when he became a free agent after the 2002 season.
It took a village — a highly motivated general manager and team president and a large gathering of unionized electricians — and a king's ransom — $85 million over six years — to persuade Thome to leave Cleveland and come to Philadelphia.
"I had been in Cleveland a long time," Thome said during a recent phone interview as he drove to Chicago. "There was a lot of emotion involved with that decision. Looking back as a retired player, I would not have changed a thing. My time with the Phillies was so special. I mean, the way the fans treated me and those electricians who wore those hats that said they wanted me."
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Thome, 47, still has the white hat with the red lettering, and it will return to a prominent location when renovations are completed at Lodge 25, his hunting ranch in Illinois. This summer, however, is all about his Cooperstown induction, and the Phillies, despite his short time with the organization, will likely get more than a passing nod during this gentle giant's acceptance speech.
"When I got there, you could tell the city was hungry," Thome said. "There was a passion and an urgency about putting a winner on the field. It really reminded me a lot of what we went through in Cleveland during the early and mid-'90s. They had a chance to have a winner moving into the new ballpark."
The plan to pursue Thome had started in the middle of the 2002 season. Ruben Amaro Jr., an assistant to general manager Ed Wade at the time, had been approached by John Middleton, who wanted to know what the plan for the offseason was going to be. Middleton, a silent ownership partner with a burning desire to win at the time, clearly loved the idea. Team president Dave Montgomery and Wade had long planned to pump up the payroll as the Phillies prepared to move out of Veterans Stadium and into Citizens Bank Park after the 2003 season.
Thome, it was decided, would be the offseason's primary target, but not the only one. Days before the Thome signing, the Phillies inked David Bell for four years and $17 million. They hotly pursued free agents Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer, and Paul Byrd before making a trade that brought Kevin Millwood from the Atlanta Braves.
That's a distinguished list of players, but Thome was the one they had to have. He was the premier free agent on the market and the bat that could be a difference maker in the middle of the order.
"In the time I was there, it was a rare instance when we could shop from the top shelf, so to speak," Wade said. "We were aggressive on trying to sign guys we thought would fit the profile, but they also had to fit the payroll. We had to legitimize in Jim's mind, aside from the economics, which they are probably still the driving force, what we were all about. There was a lot of pressure to do it."
Wade's greatest fear was that Thome's heart would not allow him to leave Cleveland. It was the hometown of his wife, Andrea, and he was the city's most beloved slugger in a lineup loaded with them. Thome, in fact, is the only member of the great Cleveland teams of the 1990s who has a statue outside Progressive Field. Wade's full-court press to get Thome included a long email he sent the slugger on Thanksgiving.
"I knew I was dealing with a guy I thought you could humanize the process without going over the head of [Thome's agent] Pat Rooney," Wade said. "It was an opportunity to speak from the heart with the guy. But it still dragged out for a while. There was one front-office guy in Cleveland who suggested we slow down our pursuit and let Jim make his decision. I let him know that we really want this guy. We were on the accelerator. I'm sure there was going to be a point where we couldn't go any higher financially and we probably were there with our last offer."
They did, however, have a wild card. Rooney also represented Charlie Manuel, who had been fired as Indians manager in the middle of the 2002 season. Manuel was Thome's hitting muse, a father-like figure who had been mentoring the slugger since his days in the Indians' lowest levels of the minor leagues. Now, Manuel needed a job and word leaked that the Phillies were going to give him one as a special assistant to the general manager.
"Charlie's hiring stood on its own merit," Wade said. "It didn't hurt that he was a second father to Jim, but Charlie alone was the right guy to bring on board. Despite how it was perceived at the time, Charlie was the right guy to be our manager, too. I don't think we tried to use him as a spokesman."
Thome said his decision to sign with the Phillies was ultimately a family one, but he did seek advice from Manuel, who was not particularly pleased with the Indians at that time.
"We corresponded quite a bit," Manuel said. "The Phillies' offer was definitely more attractive than the Indians', and I felt Cleveland was getting ready to go through a rebuilding process. When they let me go, they were getting rid of most of their players, and the players they were comparing Jim to when he was a free agent, I don't think they were even close to being as good as Jimmy."
Manuel received a call from Thome on a Sunday night to let him know he was signing with the Phillies. Wade got the call from the agent the next morning. The phones started ringing in the Phillies' ticket office that afternoon. Baseball was back on the map in Philadelphia. For the first time in a quarter-century, the Phillies had signed the premier free agent on the market, and they were hoping that the addition of Thome would bring the same result that Pete Rose provided for the 1980 Phillies.
Thome's first year was spectacular. The slugger's season alone was worth the price of admission as the Phillies closed Veterans Stadium. He led the National League with 47 home runs, the most by a Phillie since Mike Schmidt hit 48 in 1980. His 131 RBIs ranked fourth in baseball, but the Phillies finished five games behind the Florida Marlins for the National League wild card. The Marlins, of course, went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.
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On the final day of the season, as the Phillies staged a tribute to the Vet, Schmidt raised Thome's arm in the air as a unifying symbol of things from the past and something still to come.
The only way you could have been unhappy to have Jim Thome in Philadelphia was if you were an Indians fan or you were Ryan Howard, the young slugging first baseman who was rising rapidly through the Phillies' farm system. Howard, 24 at the time, had hit .304 with 23 home runs and 82 RBIs that season at high-A Clearwater.
"After we signed Jim, [Howard] changed agents and he wanted to be traded," Wade said. "Things were pushing in a lot of different directions. Ryan was a developing player in our organization. He had a chance to become a very good player. Our player development staff agreed he had a big hole on the inside and his defense at that point was improving, but it wasn't there yet."
The Phillies experimented briefly with Howard in left field during spring training. It was not going to work. Still, Wade did not want to trade Howard and he remembers initiating only one conversation with another team's general manager, a discussion that went nowhere fast.
"No, I wouldn't do anything like that," the other GM said when asked about one of his own young players. "Lots of guys hit home runs at double A. Have you ever heard of Sam Horn?"
Wade said the general manager "basically hung up on me" and "that's the only proactive conversation I had on Ryan Howard."
Thome's second season with the Phillies, from an individual standpoint, was nearly as spectacular as the first. He hit 42 home runs and drove in 105 runs, but the Phillies finished 86-76 for the second straight year and were never really in wild-card contention in September. Larry Bowa was fired as manager on the Saturday before the season finale amid grumblings from his players.
Thome refused to join that crowd.
"I'm not going to sit here and say anything bad about Bo," Thome said on the season's final day. "He treated me with respect. He treated me first-class. One of the reasons I signed here was because I thought Bo would give me a chance to be a better player, and he has done that."
To this day, Thome speaks highly of Bowa. On the other hand, he was also thrilled to have another chance to play for Manuel, whom Wade hired after an extensive managerial search. As it turned out, however, Thome played sparingly the following season. Back and elbow injuries severely affected his play and ended his season before July. He had hit only seven home runs in 59 games and he had opened the door for Howard to take over at first base. Howard seized the opportunity, hitting 22 home runs in 88 games, to win the National League rookie of the year award.
The Phillies finished two games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and just a game behind Houston for the wild card. Wade was fired after the season. Pat Gillick's first order of business as the new general manager was to resolve the first-base situation, and he said it was quickly determined that Howard would remain. Thome and $24 million in cash were dealt to the Chicago White Sox for centerfielder Aaron Rowand and minor-league pitchers Daniel Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez. It was a good trade for both teams.
It was a great one for Thome, a Peoria, Ill., native who wanted to be closer to home at that point because his mother, Joyce, had recently died. Plus, the White Sox had just won the World Series, and that had long been Thome's primary goal. It was why he signed with the Phillies, and even though he is going into the Hall of Fame, it still bugs him just a little that he never won it all.
"The ultimate dream is to win a World Series," Thome said. "I can't sit here and say I don't look back at the 1990s with Cleveland and think about 1995 and 1997. So close. There are no regrets. We had great teams, and I was so fortunate to be a part of them. When you're playing and you don't win, you think you'll do it the next year. Once it's over, though, it's done. I don't think it defines you, but I think within you there's this feeling that you were so close."
Perhaps therein lies why Thome is so special to Philadelphia and the Phillies and vice-versa. He had three more great years in Chicago, averaging 37 home runs and 97 RBIs from 2006 through 2008. But the White Sox made the playoffs in only one of those three years and exited in the divisional round against the same Tampa Bay Rays the Phillies went on to defeat in the World Series a few weeks later.
Howard had lived up to his stardom, winning the National League MVP award in 2006 by hitting a franchise-record 58 home runs. Two years later, he was helping Charlie Manuel's Phillies win the franchise's second World Series. Manuel, after a turbulent start to his tenure as Phillies manager, said it did not take him long to think about Thome after that World Series title.
"It was not one of my better days when we traded him," Manuel said. "I definitely hated to see Jimmy go. I never stopped thinking about what our lineup would have looked like with him and Ryan. I wish we had the DH."
Manuel was Cleveland's hitting instructor when the Indians scored a major-league-record 1,009 runs in 1999. He thinks the Phillies could have scored as many with Howard and Thome in the middle of his batting order.
"They had a lot in common as hitters," Manuel said. "They both hit the ball in the middle of the field, and they were both so strong. I think Thome definitely played a role in what we ended up doing. Our players had a lot of respect for him. Jimmy definitely had something to do with the chemistry that we had in that clubhouse."
Manuel was not alone in thinking that Thome played a part in what happened in Philadelphia in 2008. That's part of the reason that he ended up on the Phillies' Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park. Thome had so much of an impact in such a short amount of time.
"I think it's absolutely justified," Wade said. "Aside from the playing credentials, it's his personality. A question I've always pondered about Jim is just how much influence did he have on that clubhouse with that young group of guys? Did his humanity and willingness to be a good teammate rub off on Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley? Does Ryan Howard become the player he becomes if he doesn't have a chance to spend some time around Jim?"
The definitive answer to that question came in 2012, when the Phillies signed Thome as an extra man in the hope he could help them stay afloat while Howard and Utley recovered from injuries. He could not do that, but he got to see how much he meant to one of his teammates.
"We were hoping that we could get him that ring," Montgomery said. "But what I remember most is this: Chase never said much in spring training, but that year he got up and told the players in the room that they were lucky to have Jim Thome in the room with them. He wanted them to know how special he was."
Thome remembered the speech just as he recalled the greeting from the Local 98 electricians a decade earlier.
"I do remember him getting up and speaking," Thome said. "I mean, that's Chase Utley, and I'm sure a lot of guys now feel the same way about him. That to me was just special. I hope that I had some impact there. I think every player looks back and hopes he had a little bit of an impact. I feel proud of that. I did not spend nearly as much time in Philadelphia as I did in Cleveland, so to think that people feel that way about my impact really makes my time there special."
Jim Thome's quality of time in a Phillies uniform far outweighed the quantity.
Jim Thome signed a six-year deal with the Phillies worth $85 million in December 2002. He played only three seasons of that contract in Philadelphia because of Ryan Howard's emergence at first base while Thome was injured in 2005. The overall numbers, however, reveal that Thome lived up to his huge contract while also playing for the Chicago White Sox. Here are the vitals and where he ranked in major-league baseball from 2003 through 2008:
Home runs: 207, tied for seventh
On-base percentage: .391, 18th
Slugging percentage: .548, 12th
OPS: .940, 11th
The Phillies chose Ryan Howard over Jim Thome after the 2005 season. Here's how their numbers compared from 2006 through 2008, which would have been the remainder of Thome's contract.