FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Jim Thome’s back still aches in the morning, just as it has for the past 10 years or so.
The older he gets, the more the Minnesota Twins slugger has to do to get those discs and muscles warmed up and ready for another day on the diamond.
There is going to come a day when that pain will be too great for him to bear, when that mighty swing of his will slow down too much for him to get around on a 95-mph fastball, when all the weight lifting, stretching and cold tubs in the world won’t be enough to get his body prepared to handle a 3-2 slider.
But not yet.
After the season he had in Year No. 18, there was no question Thome was coming back. He was too productive at the plate, had too much fun in the clubhouse and got too close to that elusive World Series ring to walk away.
“I wanted to play,” Thome said without the slightest hesitation. “That’s that competitiveness in me. When you’ve done it a long time, it’s hard to imagine not doing it. But there is going to be a day when you’re not going to do it and I understand that.”
He will turn 41 in August, but there was no shortage of suitors lined up at his door this winter to try to sign him as a part-time DH and dangerous pinch hitter. The Texas Rangers made a strong push to join the defending AL champions, with Nolan Ryan wooing him personally.
In the end, Thome decided to return to the Twins and Target Field, a gleaming new ballpark that he said rejuvenated him and helped him put together one of the most efficient seasons of his career. He hit 25 homers in just 276 at-bats and his .627 slugging percentage was his highest since he led the league in that category during his 52-homer season in 2002.
So he’s back. Back in search of his 600th career home run. Back to win the championship that has eluded him all these years.
“He’s awesome,” Twins catcher Joe Mauer said. “To watch him day in and day out is about as good as it gets. The excitement he has coming to the park every day, that rubs off on people. He’s just been a pleasure to play with.”
Barring a significant injury, Thome should become the eighth player in league history to hit 600 homers. He’s just 11 away. Heck, the big lug swatted 11 in August 2002 alone, though that was long ago.
Last year, he passed Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson on the career home run charts and is 21 away from leapfrogging Sammy Sosa for seventh place.
“Obviously we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but with every home run, it’s special,” Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer said. “He’s passing somebody with some record. Not even just home runs. It seems like every pitch that is thrown to him, he’s passing somebody in something. Every time it’s just more and more special as we go along.”
In his first summer in Minnesota, Thome would occasionally wear a purple No. 4 Brett Favre shirt during pregame workouts.
The similarities were many. Each has been able to play a kid’s game longer, and better, than most 24-year-olds around. Favre was coming off perhaps the best season of his career at age 40, leading the Vikings to the NFC title game after the 2009 season.
Thome was thrust into a more prominent role — the everyday DH — when Twins slugger Justin Morneau went down, and the 40-year-old was the only Twins player who managed to make spacious Target Field look small.
Then Favre showed last year just how fleeting success can be, especially as a player gets older. The quarterback struggled through a season of injuries, had his beloved consecutive starts streak end and threw 19 interceptions as the Vikings stumbled to a 6-10 finish. He also was embroiled in a scandal alleging he sent inappropriate text messages and pictures to a woman when both worked for the New York Jets.
“It’s hard to do it on a consistent basis, to hit home runs, to knock guys in, to throw touchdown passes,” Favre said when talking about himself and Thome in September.
Thome agrees, echoing Favre’s oft-used phrase “no guarantees” when talking about the upcoming season. But Thome also made it clear that Favre’s downfall didn’t give him any pause about coming back.
“If you like the guys you play with, to me, coming to work every day and enjoying what you do is what it’s about,” Thome said. “It’s not about a one-season deal. If I don’t have a good year and we win a World Series ring, that’s what you strive to get. It’s not about the individual. It’s about us. That’s one thing we do really well here.”
Twins general manager Bill Smith didn’t seem to have any reservations about bringing Thome back, either.
“His role has changed a little bit from that 650 at-bat hitter, but his impact hasn’t changed,” Smith said. “His impact on a lineup, his impact on a game, his impact on a team hasn’t changed. He’s got tremendous value. It’s all about leadership and it’s all about playing the game the right way.
“He fits into this organization as well as any player could.”
Thome has always aw-shucksed his way around talking about his individual accomplishments.
Sure, 600 homers would be “special,” Thome says, using one of his favorite words. Then his thoughts turn to that ring, and a different gleam starts shining, right next to the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes.
“But on the other end, man that World Series ring is something every player should want and strive to get,” Thome said. “I’ve been close. But just not over that hump.
“We’ll see. We’ll see.”
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