Part 3: When Fading Away Isn’t the Option

by Timothy Malcolm

The rain fell soft that June evening in 2004. I emerged from the Pattison Avenue subway station and walked cheerily to the park. My mind raced as I saw the brick in the distance. The food. The crowd. The steel. The red. The sound. The smell! A new ballpark must smell like dogs and popcorn, fresh grass and clean dirt. There is such a thing, too. Clean dirt. And peanuts! The ballpark must smell like peanuts. That was a fact. I visited Oriole Park two years after it opened, and the smell of fresh peanuts lingered in the air even then. I was bound to be wowed.

Citizens Bank Park gleamed. The red brick and steel lived seamlessly together. I entered and scoured the park, noting every corner and kooky concourse deep in my mind. Where the cheesesteaks lived. Where the hats were sold. I would need all this information, since I’d take dates here, and my future wife, my children and their children, my father, my brothers and my friends. A home away from home. I carved out a living room, a dining room and a bedroom, in case I would ever need that. I would remember every pitch of every game, whether good or bad, and I would cherish all the memories, no matter how innocuous they would feel decades later.

And yet this day, my first at Citizens Bank Park, some rainy evening in June 2004, was not about the ballpark. And the others, like me, who were discovering the park for the first time, also felt that way. This night was not for brick and steel, but for Jim Thome, a man who was seemingly built of those things. He resembled an early twentieth century row home in Juniata, stout and still. His bat waved in the air like a statue. In sun, in shadows, in rain. Very still. And sometimes, when the timing was right, that bat would whip around, faster than lightning, and lift a baseball deep into the city skyline, like it was trying to knock William Penn off his perch. As this night began, Thome had clouted three-hundred and ninety-nine home runs. He did it for the Indians as a peppier, scrawnier infielder, then was acquired by the Phillies in a monumental signing over Thanksgiving 2002. Months after trading Scott Rolen, with the fans believing the Phillies would eternally and happily stay at the bottom of the baseball barrel, the team paid pounds for Bunyan, hoping he would rejuvenate a team nearing a new ballpark and a new era. By launching balls into the skyline, Thome nearly brought back the entire city.

That afternoon felt unfamiliar. Before Jim Thome there was Danny Tartabull. He brought hype but fell fast. Before Tartabull there was Gregg Jefferies. He was more of a stopgap. In the age of free agency the Phillies claimed early dominance, famously gobbling up half of the Big Red Machine to stagger into a National League pennant in 1983. Since, the Phillies made lame moves, signing cheap thrills like Lance Parrish and the aforementioned Tartabull. But Jim Thome? A prodigious slugger at the peak of his powers? This never happened before. As Bunyan smiled and held up a pinstriped Phillies jersey, deep within the bowels of the crumbling Veterans Stadium, we couldn’t believe any of the madness. The Phillies, possibly, maybe, wanted to win. Finally.

In 2003, his first year with the Phillies, Thome smashed forty-seven home runs, the most in baseball. He drove in one-hundred and thirty-one runs. And best of all, every one of his plate appearances was an event. Fans stopped to watch the human row home wave his stick high in the air, and spread his legs over the batter’s box like he owned the property. He would glare at the pitcher, wind up, then …

The Phillies hadn’t employed a guy like this since maybe Lenny Dykstra, but definitely Mike Schmidt – a guy capable of stopping everybody cold. And his name emblazoned shirts and jerseys across the stadium. His face was on billboards and ice cream cartons. His voice was in auto dealership advertisements. Jim Thome was Phillies baseball, and Phillies baseball was Jim Thome. And the Phillies wanted nothing more. Moving into a new home, engineering a new, powerful era of Philadelphia baseball, the Phillies must have been ecstatic to see a clean-shaven, smiling and brutish boy blast the ball for them.
 
On this June evening, Thome sat at three-hundred and ninety-nine, and the Phillies – already seeing fans stay home from the new park – hosted the mediocre Cincinnati Reds. Home from college, I decided to make this night my first at Citizens Bank Park, but mostly because of Thome. I sensed the milestone home run. Most of Philadelphia sensed it. The Phillies had just finished a road trip in which Thome hit bomb after bomb, eking close to the number. I bought a ticket and hopped on the train.

I reached my left field seat before first pitch. I watched intently. I knew four-hundred was coming. Maybe the first at bat. Maybe the second. Maybe the third. Definitely that night. Thome was not waiting weeks. He was not the sort. He just hit the ball.

He didn’t wait. The Phillies were down 2-0 in the first inning. Jimmy Rollins singled. Two outs later, Thome stepped in, worked a full count, then struck a ball into the seats. Very quickly, that was it. The four-hundredth home run of Jim Thome’s career. As gray clouds threatened overhead and Thome raised his helmet from the dugout, Pat Burrell lined his own home run. Very quickly, that was it.

But that was Jim Thome. Brought to the Phillies as a blockbuster signing, rejuvenating the fans overnight, smiling and slamming home runs. In Cleveland he quietly clouted behind Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Roberto Alomar, big personalities with big games. In Philadelphia he was the main attraction, but he never fit that role. He was destined to hit home runs, then quietly and quickly fade into the dugout as the next guy took the stage.

The next guy in 2005 was Ryan Howard, a hulking young man who was bombing minor league baseball nightly. But Thome blocked his path to a first base job in Philadelphia. Uncertainty reigned. When Thome fell injured during the season, Howard stepped up and proved powerful, slugging home runs with ease. Thome didn’t return. Howard remained. After the season, new general manager Pat Gillick shipped Thome to the Chicago White Sox for Aaron Rowand and a couple minor leaguers, whom would later bring in Freddy Garcia and Joe Blanton. And Rowand planted himself into a fence to win the fans eternally. And Howard established himself in a way nobody predicted: fifty-eight home runs, a Ruthian season that netted the slugger a Most Valuable Player trophy and the keys to the franchise. Thome continued to clout in Chicago, hitting forty-two home runs in 2006, thirty-five home runs in 2007 and thirty-four home runs in 2008. But in Philadelphia, with Howard’s Herculean efforts, two division championships, a National League pennant and a world championship, Thome faded, and quietly, and quickly. The very shirts that blanketed Citizens Bank Park during its infancy, merely four years before, were gone. Howard and Utley, Hamels and Lidge, Rollins and Victorino, Burrell and Myers. No Thome. Never a thought. Quietly and quickly.

***
 
On August 15, 2011, Jim Thome stepped in the batter’s box in Detroit with five-hundred and ninety-eight home runs. He was no longer hitting them at a slugger’s pace. By now he had bounced from Chicago to Los Angeles, then to Minnesota, where he was seemingly playing out the string. He homered eleven days before, and this had become his pace. And on this night, as he swung in the sixth inning at Comerica Park, he launched another trademark blast into the Detroit skyline. Thome now sat at five-hundred and ninety-nine home runs; and while some would believe the six-hundredth would come in another two weeks, those people didn’t really understand Jim Thome. He just hit the ball.

One inning later, with two outs and two runners on base, Thome swung and launched six-hundred deep into the Detroit night. Tigers fans stood and cheered. Thome acknowledged the cheer. Danny Valencia flew out. And very quickly, that was it. Within thirty minutes, Jim Thome hit the anticipatory home run, then the milestone home run, and called it an evening.

On November 4, 2011, nine years after the Phillies first brought Jim Thome to Philadelphia, they welcomed him back on a one-year contract worth just $1.2 million. He finished the 2011 season in Cleveland, again seemingly playing out the string with the team that drafted him, that made him a legend, that would be represented on his Hall of Fame plaque. They are building his statue outside Progressive Field. They showered Thome with applause. But he was not finished. He was not leaving, and not quietly, and not quickly. Not this time.

Thome must want to win a championship. That is all that remains. He has hit more than six-hundred home runs. He will not hit seven-hundred. He will be lauded as one of the nicest men to ever play baseball. And his sturdy stature, his brick and steel build, all that will go in the Hall of Fame with his home runs, those majestic clouts that added fireworks to skylines, that brought people to stadiums, that resurrected cities and spread the lore of baseball to bedrooms across the country. Like a storybook hero, Jim Thome wants a storybook ending. He doesn’t want to fade away. He wants to reign majestically. And he wants to do it at the house where he, and nobody else, was once king. He wants to do it at Citizens Bank Park.

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