Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy

By Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

On an otherwise ridiculously busy Sunday, one particular event shone above the rest. That’s right, even above the generous amount of white noise generated by a full slate of NFL games.

And I bet very few people outside the confines of U.S. Cellular Field took much notice when it happened.

White Sox designated hitter Jim Thome hit his 500th home run Sunday afternoon, the 23rd player in major-league history to do so, and the third this season after Toronto’s Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees.

The milestone marker came in typically heroic fashion. It was a two-run, game-winning shot to center which gave the Sox a dramatic 9-7 win over the AL West-leading Angels. With a runner on, Thome worked the count to 3-2 before drilling reliever Dustin Moseley’s low offering into the bleacher seats just to the left of center field. The blast capped a late rally which saw Chicago down 7-1 heading into the home half of the seventh inning.

When he reached home plate, his teammates mobbed him and carried him on their collective shoulders, being that the man with the big stick and even bigger heart needed a full escort to support his hulking frame and his tremendous smile.

All I can say is, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Of course, that seems so maudlin, clichéd and simplistic, but I think it hits the spot. I can’t imagine that the aw-shucks kid from Peoria would stand for a compliment with greater exaggeration. Among all the daily revelations of wrongdoing in baseball, Thome’s good nature stands that much further above the fray.

In the post-game, he was quick to mention family first. After that, he gave huge props to current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. Yes, the same Manuel who is the target of deserving criticism and whose posterior alternates between the frying pan and the fire in the thick of another playoff race. He went on to thank all three organizations and a generous number of players and coaches besides. Did anyone notice or care?

I have to admit, a colleague nailed it Saturday night when he said it’s a shame Thome didn’t reach 500 in the first two games of the set against the Angels, because if he hit the milestone Sunday, everybody would be too caught up in watching the Bears. The White Sox may be the team of the South Side, but the Bears have a pigskin monopoly for all Chicagoland.

In a way, it might be fitting that Thome reached the 500-home-run club in relative anonymity. For a man standing six-foot-three, 250 pounds, Thome has never kicked up a lot of fuss from a personality standpoint.

Take this year’s other players to reach the 500 mark. Frank Thomas of the Blue Jays sulked for so many years being the best player on middling White Sox clubs, that the team was more than willing sit him then get rid of him after their 2005 World Series run. Alex Rodriguez has been a lightning rod ever since signing that $252 million deal in Texas, not to mention the daily gossip-go-round he rides in the Bronx, bolstered by his rumored infidelities.

By contrast, Thome has been nothing but a cheerleader for the Indians, Phillies and White Sox. At times, he’s been derided as too nice, too polite and too unassuming, unwilling to step in and use his size as a motivating factor when thing go bad. But doesn’t every ball club deserve someone who performs without bearing an extra burden of responsibility?

He’s been nothing short of the perfect bridge between the devil-may-care player and the unrelentingly intense player during his career. He’s been voted one of the nicest people in the majors for many years. He’s done a ton to promote breast cancer awareness, and is putting numerous nieces and nephews through college.

For the cynics, can’t you concede that if he’s been on anything, he’d have been caught by now? That he’d probably corner Bud Selig and be enough of a boy scout as to admit he’d been using and show Bud the actual samples of what he’d used?

If there is such a thing as karma, he’s been repaid a hundred-fold. Since it’s not likely being in a select group of baseball greats will change his style, his demeanor, or his powerful hitting stroke, he’s bound for greater bounties.

If we spend so much time trampling on the supposed guilty, why not spend as much to praise the obviously unblemished? It’s already been two days since Thome’s blast, and the bloom is off the rose, so to speak. The White Sox continue to dwell in the dregs of the AL Central, and debate still rages on whether Britney Spears is still hot.

Whatever the attention paid then, now, and for the future, the recognition of Jim Thome as one of baseball’s true ambassadors bears repeating. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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