There can be little question as to the positive impact that slugging 1st baseman Jim Thome had on the Philadelphia Phillies organization upon signing with the club as a free agent in the off-season prior to 2003.
As he turns 45 years old today, middle-age in a normal lifespan, it’s a nice time to take a look back.
Thome was aggressively wooed by the organization following a dozen glorious seasons with the Cleveland Indians. During those years, Thome slugged 334 home runs, drove in 927, and earned every bit of his tremendous .287/.414/.567 slash line without a hint of PED involvement.
He also had helped the Tribe move from antiquated Cleveland Municipal Stadium, jokingly known as the “Mistake by the Lake”, into Jacobs Field, Cleveland’s version of the new ‘retro’ ballparks that began springing up around MLB during the mid-90’s.
In their new digs, Thome and a bevy of young stars helped the Indians go from doormats to perhaps the most dangerous team in baseball, and to the verge of a World Series victory.
He was a 3x AL All-Star, a Silver Slugger winner, and in his final two season’s with the Tribe, finished 7th in the AL MVP voting.
Thome was brought in to add veteran leadership and winning experience to the Phillies, to add legitimate pop to the middle of the batting order, and to help the team pack The Vet in it’s final season and carry over excitement and a real chance at winning in the new Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies had begun to look like a contender over the previous two seasons. Under manager Larry Bowa, the 2001 team had battled Atlanta right into September. But the 2002 team disappointed, finishing just 80-81. It would prove the organizations only losing season between 2001-2011.
The 2003 version of the Phillies included not only Thome, but also newcomer 3rd baseman David Bell, veteran holdovers Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal, and young stars Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell.
During the season, a 24-year old 2nd baseman named Chase Utley would join the squad, challenging and eventually unseating incumbent 2nd baseman Placido Polanco.
Thome proved to be just what the doctor ordered, just what the organization paid for, as he bashed 47 home runs, just one shy of Mike Schmidt‘s franchise record at the time. He knocked in 131 runs, and in his first National League season finished 4th in the NL MVP race.
The Phillies battled down to the season’s final weeks for the NL Wildcard berth. But a late swoon left a bitter taste in the mouths of the players and fans.
The Phils lost seven of their final eight games, including a crucial 3-game sweep at the hands of the Florida Marlins, finishing with an 86-76 record, 5 games behind the Fish, who would go on to win the World Series.
At the end of that 2003 season, Thome helped the team close down Veteran’s Stadium, their home since 1971. Schmidt himself raised Thome’s arm as a sign that not only the slugger title, but the role of leader had been officially passed to the big man.
Expected to contend in the 2004 season, the Phillies did indeed finish in 2nd place in the NL East. However, with another 86-76 record, they finished 10 games behind front-running Atlanta.
More disappointing perhaps was that again they missed out on the Wildcard, finishing just six games behind the Houston Astros.
Thome was again the centerpiece of the contending Phillies lineup that year, bashing 42 homers with 105 RBI. However, there was a growing situation in the organization.
A 24-year old slugging 1st baseman named Ryan Howard was destroying the minor leagues to the tune of 46 homers and 131 RBI. Clearly now, Thome was blocking the future.
As the 2005 season began, a now 34-year old Thome started slow, with just one homer through the month of April, followed by a 3-week stint on the Disabled List.
He returned at the end of May, and played through June, before his injuries caught up to him and ended his season, and his Phillies career at that point.
Thome would return to the team for a 2nd show, signing as a free agent again with the team in the 2011 off-season.
The Phils had won 5 straight NL East crowns at the time, but Howard had been seriously injured at the disappointing end to those 2011 playoffs, and it was unknown if he would be ready to play when 2012 began.
Thome was used mostly as a backup and pinch-hitter in April of 2012, spent the entire month of May back on the DL, but then returned in June and got hot. That hot streak, however, coincided with the team’s collapse.
The Phils opened June of 2012 just 2.5 games out of 1st place, and looked like they could again contend for a 6th straight division crown.
But after winning on June 1st, the Phillies lost six straight, eight of nine, and 15 of 21. For the first time in years, it became obvious that they would not contend.
On June 30th, the Phillies traded Thome to the Baltimore Orioles, ending his career in Philadelphia for a final time.
In his nearly three full seasons in red pinstripes, Jim Thome became a beloved fan favorite. His #25 shirsey and jersey are still popular around the ballpark to this day. He helped the team move from the .500 level to the verge of contention, and from the old age of The Vet to the new age at The Bank.
Now Thome moves into middle age, having retired following that brief stint with the Orioles at the end of 2012.
For his career, Thome bashed 612 home runs. Cleveland, where he played for parts of 13 seasons, and where he is even more beloved than here, erected a statue in his honor.
Thome has returned to Philly a number of times, most recently for last month’s celebration of his ex-teammate Burrell becoming enshrined on the Phillies Wall of Fame. We can expect to see him back for similar reunions and events in the future.
He will be eligible for Baseball Hall of Fame consideration in 2018. Thome should receive considerable support, and he could even become a 1st or 2nd ballot Hall of Famer.
If that should happen, expect to see a strong contingent of Phillies fans show up wearing red at Cooperstown in the summer in which he is enshrined.