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At 41, Thome back in Philly, seeking first Series title

Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 10:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

CLEARWATER, Fla. (MCT) — Jim Thome, seated in front of his locker in the Phillies’ clubhouse Sunday, took the wrapping paper off a narrow but large object to reveal a special piece of artwork that had been given him. It depicted all those hitters who had amassed at least 600 homers, with Thome the latest to join the group

Several teammates gathered around, including Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, who, noting the likenesses of such swatsmiths as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., said to Thome, “That’s some elite company there.”

The company Thome is keeping also includes Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez, all of whom have been linked to the steroids culture. Whatever the path, a total of only eight players has reached the 600-homer plateau, with Thome second among active players to Rodriguez at 604 homers.

But, at age 41, there is one plateau he has yet to attain, a World Series championship ring.

The Peoria, Ill., native and occasional hunting partner of new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (“I wish him all the best, just not against the Phillies,” Thome said), must have thought early on that there would be a lot of World Series in his future. He made the World Series in his first full season, 1995, and then again in 1997, both with Cleveland.

The Indians lost on both occasions, but Thome hasn’t been to a World Series since, even though he has clubbed a total of 17 home runs in 251 postseason at-bats.

“When it’s going on, you always think you’re going to have that opportunity, but it sure doesn’t work like that,” Thome said Sunday.

It was thought by many last year that Thome would retire after Cleveland, going nowhere in the standings, acquired him from Minnesota on Aug. 25, when Thome had already reached the 600-homer mark.

The Indians, it seems, were planning to erect a statue of Thome in Heritage Park, which is in center field behind the outfield wall at Progressive Field, to commemorate where Thome’s 511-foot homer had landed in 1999. Fittingly, on that same Sept. 23, Thome hit homer No. 604 to a spot a few feet from where the statue will be stationed.

That was the last homer of the season for the lefthanded-hitting slugger but probably not the last of Thome’s career.

He signed on to play for folksy Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, his former hitting coach in Cleveland, for a third time. “He makes the game a lot of fun,” said Thome.

Thome will make only $1.25 million for one season, far less than he made in his salad-day seasons, but, for Thome, it isn’t about the money. It’s about the ring.

“I think that’s everybody’s dream,” said Thome. “I think there a lot of guys in here who would put individual things aside to get that.”

Thome was with the Phillies from 2003-05, hitting 47 and 42 homers, respectively, in 2003-04. Then he made the mistake of getting hurt, and Ryan Howard got his job.

Ironically, Thome is back now in large part because St. Louisan Howard, recovering from Achilles tendon surgery and a subsequent infection in the area, isn’t back in camp working out yet, and there is no real guarantee when he will be ready to play. So there was a need for a first baseman, albeit one in his 40s.

“It’s just an age,” said Thome smiling. “This organization puts itself into position every year to compete, which was intriguing to me.

“You look at the players who have signed here who have come back here (Cliff Lee, Placido Polanco, among others), it says a lot about not the organization but about your teammates.”

Thome admitted the chance to win a World Series was by far the biggest reason he came back. “I do love the game,” he said. “But I think the opportunity to get a ring, yes, that’s probably the biggest. They ... we ... are good, and to be able to put yourself in that position is pretty special.”

Thome, mostly an American Leaguer in his career and a designated hitter later in that career, hasn’t played a game in the field since 2007, when he took a turn at first base in one game for the Chicago White Sox. The year before, he made just three starts at first for the White Sox.

“It’s an on-going process in order to feel comfortable” on defense, he said.

“Six or seven years of not playing it ... it’s not that you forget things, it’s that you need to start doing them over again.”

The Phillies have won five straight National League Eastern Division titles but have made it to just two World Series in that span, prevailing over Tampa Bay in 2008 and losing to the New York Yankees the next year. Last year, they lost a one-game edge and a four-run lead in Game 2 of the divisional series as the Cardinals rallied for a 5-4 win over Lee in that game en route to a playoff series triumph capped by Chris Carpenter’s 1-0 win over Roy Halladay in the clinching fifth game.

As they chart their course to the World Series again, the Phils must overcome advancing age. Their infield, with Thome in it, has a 41 year-old, 33-year-old Chase Utley at second base, 33-year-old Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and 36-year-old Polanco at third. Carlos Ruiz, the catcher, also is 33.

In the rotation, Lee is 33 and Halladay 34. With Cole Hamels also in that rotation, the window isn’t being slammed shut, but it is closing.

“Every year is the year you figure you need to win it,” said Lee. “But it would be good for Halladay to get a ring, and Thome and . . . I don’t have a ring either.”

Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa often has cited that Game 2 of the division series as one of the four most important games the Cardinals won all season. Lee was the party of the second part in that game, but he has no regrets about the outcome of that series or future playoff rounds as the Cardinals completed an improbable triumph.

“St. Louis kept fighting back,” said Lee. “It didn’t surprise me at all that they won the World Series.

“(David) Freese came on. They deserved it.”

Lee seemingly has been to the World Series with a different team every year and, in fact, was on two straight losing sides for Philadelphia in the 2009 Series and Texas in 2010.

And then there is former Cardinal Polanco, who has been to the playoffs five times—twice with St. Louis, once with Detroit and twice with the Phillies—but has just one World Series appearance. In that one, the 2006 Cardinals’ victory over Detroit, Polanco was hitless in 17 at-bats after batting .529 in the league championship series.

Last year, laboring with a sports hernia that required postseason surgery, Polanco limped to a two-for-17 showing against the Cardinals in the divisional round and clearly wasn’t himself.

“But what can you do?” said Polanco. “We were there. We won 103 games. I wasn’t the only guy hurt. Without a doubt, yeah, it could have been better.

“At the same time, I’ve been fortunate. There have been a lot of guys who haven’t been to the playoffs. But, I would love to have (a ring). Of course.”

His former team got the prize Polanco thought the Phillies would bag last year and Polanco, unlike Lee, said he was surprised.

“To be honest, I didn’t think they were going to make (the postseason),” said Polanco. “I don’t see how they made it.”

Polanco said, however, “I’m extremely happy for Tony and (Albert) Pujols and all those guys. If there’s a team that deserves it, it’s them because they really had to play hard and all they had to go through.

“They should have made rings for us, too because we made them get in,” said Polanco, referring to the Phillies’ final-series sweep of Atlanta, which had been the wild-card leader most of the way.

Polanco said he thought the Phillies again were the best team in the National League this year. He is on the final year of a three-year deal with them, although he has no plans to abandon baseball ship, saying he would play “until they kick me out.”

Thome may be closer to the end.

“Look,” said Thome, “I get the fact that you can’t play forever. If this is my last year, I’m going to go out and just enjoy the game.”

Cardinals fans, while no doubt appreciative of neighbor Thome’s accomplishments, surely won’t miss seeing him in the opposing uniform.

Howard has been damaging enough against the Cardinals, hitting .360 over 164 career at-bats against them, with 16 homers and 50 runs batted in. He has slugged .707 and his on-base-plus slugging is 1.185.

But Thome has been even more hurtful.

In precisely 100 career at-bats against the Cardinals, Thome has 43 hits, 18 of them home runs, and has knocked in 40 runs. His slugging percentage has been a ridiculous 1.010 and his OPS off-the-charts at 1.575.

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