Thursday, August 13, 2009
Is Jim Thome the Signature Slugger of His Era?
Before you read this any further, click here. Link opens up in a new window, and what you will find is a list of the top 1,000-plus home run hitters in baseball history. But just focus on the top 20. Out of all of the names in that group, ask yourself this question: Which one seems like it doesn't belong?
If you think like I do, the answer to that query is Jim Thome, by a mile. When I learned recently that Thome was only one home run behind Reggie Jackson for 12th all-time, I was thrown for a loop. It's not that I was unaware that Thome had activated the "mandatory Hall-of-Famer indicator" by locating the bleachers more than 500 times in his career; it's that one can't help but be caught off guard by the discovery that JIM THOME has one less career bomb than MR. FREAKIN' OCTOBER himself!!! It put Thome's career in perspective for me, and by doing so it at the same time caused me to consider him in a historical sense for the first time in my life, and really and truly to pay him more mind than I ever had before, period.
I have been watching baseball and grasping it since I was at least 8; as a young boy I was a student of the game. There was nothing I cherished more or spent more time focusing on. And yet in all these years, I don't really remember even thinking about Thome for more than maybe two seconds at a time, and it was rare when I thought of him at all. He was just so...blah. He was never really a superstar, and he never captured my imagination, or anyone else's.
Reggie's name and reputation put in relation to Thome provided some context for Jim's career acheivements and almost alarmed me to his existence. And so of course the two important numbers in the matter - 12 and 562, the number of homers he has accumulated - startled me as well; they both seem too high for him. It's like I knew he was in some exclusive company, while at the same time not being cognizant of the fact.
The reasons I have stated for this go hand in hand: In comparison to other similarly statistically significant players, I rarely thought of Thome. Why? Because he never felt similarly significant to me. There were never any elements of heroism to Thome, none of the grace, majesty, or superhuman powers possessed by his contemporaries; it's more like all he was was a guy who could hit a bunch of inconspicuous homers. On the other hand, Junior, Bonds, and A-Rod were divinely gifted; McGwire and Sosa were both like wood-wielding versions of Hercules; Manny was a goofy hitting savant; somehow even Palmeiro ended up seeming more important and intriguing than Thome, probably because of his connection to the steroids scandal.
Which brings us to another, also mind-boggling point: Isn't it reasonable to say that, considering how his peers are viewed, Thome could one day be considered the premiere home run hitter of his time? The majority of his peers are stigmatized, permanently tainted by their attachment to performance enhancers, their achievements accompanied by an asterisk.
And so here Thome stands, his name never brought up in any such conversations. Griffey has hit more dingers, but in my opinion his case is hurt by the time he missed to injury during what should have been his prime years; the relative lack of production there is glaring. Thome has been consistent, and is still going relatively strong, 21 bombs so far this season at age 39. Albert Pujols will pass him eventually, but that time is fairly far away, and you could even argue that Pujols will eventually wind up belonging to another era altogether.
And sure, this idea is the result of projecting in a way that, given the realities of what we have seen, should not be practiced. Thome could be outed as a name on the infamous '03 list, or otherwise linked to steroids or PED's, at any moment and no one would be surprised. But as it stands, Thome will go down as a big, homegrown mid-west dude who could always hit a baseball, and hit it far. Had things been different he might have become a defensive end for the Browns, Eagles, and Bears.
I don't know if I would necessarily agree with Thome earning such a lofty distinction - I lean towards the opinion that the numbers are what they are, the era was what it was, and that's that. But based on the prevailing logic of Baseball America, my proposal seems to make sense. Only, of course, it doesn't, for the same reason that I've never before heard the idea floated around or that Thome is breathing down Reggie Jackson's neck.
I'm not the only one who doesn't think of Jim Thome that way.