It happens every year. The baseball writers submit their ballots, baseball fans and the media argue incessantly over numbers and WAR and steroids, and when the dust settles, a new class of generational players get the call to the Baseball Hall of Fame. What usually follows is a cascade of stories about the impact Player X had on an organization, locker room, community, fan base, etc. This is no exception to that trend.
The Twins signed Jim Thome before the 2010 season, and he quickly became a fan favorite and one of the most popular players on the team. Thome played only 179 of his 2,543 career games with Minnesota, and hit just 37 of his 612 career home runs in a Twins uniform, but he did hit his milestone 600th home run while in Minnesota. Although he was primarily signed as a bench bat and DH, Thome unexpectedly led the Twins with 25 home runs in 2010 and hit one of the most memorable walk-off home runs in the long standing rivalry with the White Sox. It was a 10th-inning dagger to the heart of the Pale Hose during an August hot streak that helped the Twins pull away in the AL Central, and the scene at home plate of his elated teammates waiting for him is an image that has reached icon status with all Twins fans.
I had the privilege to work with the Minnesota Twins as a rehab bullpen catcher from 2010 through 2016. I would go to Target Field to play long toss and catch bullpens for pitchers working their way back from a DL stint. Spending time in the training room inevitably allowed me to also interact with other players rehabbing from an injury. Growing up a Twins fan I was acutely aware of Thome’s HOF credentials as he victimized my favorite squad by hitting 61 of his 612 career home runs against them, which is the most of any opposing player in franchise history, and 22 of those home runs either tied the game or gave Thome’s team the lead. However, it was in that training room in the bowels of Target Field that I got to meet Jim Thome, the Hall of Fame Person.
It was a random day in June 2011, when I was set to work with a couple pitchers while the squad was on a road trip in Kansas City. I had the opportunity to sit with this lumberjack of a man and experience his joy and passion for the game of baseball. On any given day when I was at the stadium I kept a low profile and checked my fandom at the door, but this day felt a little different as I entered the training room. There on a training table next to the pitchers was Jim Thome. I gathered my things and went over the day’s pitching workout schedule with the trainer, all the while my brain is screaming, “DUDE! Thats Jim F-ing Thome!”
Then it happened, Jim motioned me over, and as I approached I asked, “Can I get you something?” He replied simply, “No, no, grab a seat, I just wanted to introduce myself and say ‘hello.’” He extended his hand and said, “I’m Jim.” Of course you are… What followed was a conversation between Jim, myself and a couple pitchers that spanned the topics of hunting, fishing, pole barns, ATVs, family, and of course, baseball. We talked about hitting and he gave me some invaluable information that I still use to this day when training and coaching young ball players. We talked about competing and the importance of mental toughness for young players.
We talked about how my dad, who is admittedly a football guy first, became a fan of baseball after his boy fell in love with the game at a young age. My dad rarely roots for specific pro athletes, with the one exception being the Paul Bunyan-esque player sitting in front of me. Even when he was crushing our collective souls as Twins fans, my dad loved watching Jim Thome compete. When the Twins signed Thome, it meant we could watch him on a nightly basis. He asked me about my family, career goals, and playing career. He genuinely cared. He genuinely listened. He genuinely wanted to get to know me, even if it was only for a few minutes. He shook, or more accurately engulfed, my hand again as I left to head out to the field with the trainer and pitchers.
When I returned to the clubhouse to shower and grab the rest of my gear, I opened my bag and sitting on top were three baseballs with “Jim Thome” written across the sweet spot. One of those balls is now prominently displayed at my house in a case next to other Twins greats like Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield. Another one went to my sister, and the other sits atop my dad’s mantle.
Just like how his short stint with the Twins left a long standing impact on the organization, our brief encounter left me with a lifelong memory. June 4, 2011 was probably just an average day in Jim Thome’s Hall of Fame career, but that day was everything but average for me. Jim’s Hall of Fame character and personality were on full display, and for a short while, Jim erased that invisible barrier that exists between fans and players. He made me feel like we were just a couple of ball players shooting the breeze about life and baseball. This whole experience could have easily been a blurb about that one time Jim Thome asked me to grab him a towel for the whirlpool, but the book on Jim was that he always thought about other people and how he could make them feel special. I am so happy that, on this day, Jim gets to feel the same way he made everyone around him feel every day of his illustrious 22 year career.
Congrats to the Hall of Fame’s newest member, Jim Thome! While this honor becomes a reality for you in 2018, you have been HOF in my book since 2011.
By: Bryan Ludwig