Today my column is about my favorite sport, baseball, not baseball in general but one particular player in particular. I am referring to Jim Thome. In Peoria we proudly claim him as our own. On Wednesday, in his first year of eligibility he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving individual. A former ball player and manager, Leo Durocher, once made a famous statement I have always disliked and very much disagreed with. He said, “Nice guys always finish last.” Not always. And Jim Thome proves the point that sometimes, thank God, nice guys finish first.
Let me list a few of his statistics. In a 22 year career Thome compiled 612 home runs, 1747 walks, drove in at least 100 runs nine times, had a career on base plus slugging percentage of .956, .402 on base percentage and on and on I could go. One of the highest accolades he received was from another player who said, “He was universally loved as a teammate wherever he played.”
Thome’s former manager, Charlie Manuel, said,”I’m probably more happy than Jim who is like a son to me. This is totally deserving and for me ranks up there with anything I’ve ever seen happen in the game of baseball. I started thinking this was possible after he hit his 500th home run and for the day to be finally here, it’s like winning the World Series all over again.”
When Thome received the news his remarks were typical of the man. “Everything starts at your roots. I was so fortunate and proud I grew up where I did. Peoria is such a special place. All the coaches from Gary Trotter to my youth and high school coaches to my Dad and brothers who motivated me were so special. I think about my father, the long hours of him throwing batting practice and hitting ground balls. The message I would send is that every midwest kid can dream of a day like this.”
As I thought about Jim Thome I remembered something John Ortberg once wrote about the game of Monopoly. He said that to become good at playing Monopoly be the kind of player other people want to sit next to at the game. Be the kind of player other people don’t mind losing to. People who cling to resentments, people who do not know how to handle disappointments with grace, people with long memories and short forgivers, people who choke on the words, “I’m sorry”, people who sulk and whine end up losing at the end of the game. Ortberg wrote: “In an era of flamboyant end zone celebrations and grandiose trash talking, winning gracefully is perhaps harder than losing gracefully.” Jim Thome had something bigger than his own ego to motivate him. He had family. He had friends. He was, he is the kind of player I would always want to sit next to.