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August 11, 2016

Jim Thome's Greatest Hits with the Phillies

You could probably make an argument that Jim Thome was the most underrated hitter of his generation, which is crazy to say when you consider he hit over 600 home runs.

While Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were breaking records (with people still arguing about the validity of those records), and while Ken Griffey Jr.’s incomparable talent on both offense and defense made him the sport’s best all-around player, and Ichiro arrived to show a different brand of hitting, and Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez became the modern day versions of Sandy Koufax in their brilliance on the mound, Thome was launching long balls with regularity in ballparks across America for two decades.

Just during the 14-year period between 1995 and 2008 alone, Thome hit 511 home runs and had a .412 OBP. He was averaging 36 home runs and 100 RBI for that decade-and-a-half-long stretch.

Thome, who finished his career with 612 home runs (seventh-most in baseball history) and a .956 OPS (19th best in history), will join the hallowed halls of Cooperstown in 2018. But before he’s enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Thome will become the 48th member of the Phillies Wall of Fame on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park.

Thome’s stay in Philadelphia wasn’t long (2003-05, 2012) but it was impactful. Here are five moments that stick out during his tenure with the Phillies.

The courting of Jim Thome as a free agent

Yes, technically Thome was not a Phillie yet. But we’re counting this for a number of reasons.

Baseball in Philadelphia had not been relevant in a decade when the Phillies decided to open their wallets and woo the top hitter on the free agent market. And it made a lot of sense: they needed a proven, marketable player to sell seats at their new ballpark that would open a year and a half later.

For anyone that grew up in the mid-1980s, there was really just one year when the team was relevant (1993) so even just the thought of a player of Thome’s caliber wearing a Phillies uniform was exciting. Also keep in mind that the Phillies were arguably the fourth most popular pro team in the city at the time: the Eagles were obviously in the middle of the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb era, the Sixers still in the peak of the Allen Iverson era, and the almost-always relevant Flyers were in the midst of 11 straight playoff appearances.

Before Thome brought baseball back to Philadelphia, the city nearly begged for him to do so, with electricians wearing “Philadelphia Wants Jim Thome” hats forcing the affable slugger to hop out of his limo to thank them for their enthusiastic support.

Given the context, the place and time of the franchise, and what would follow in the next decade, this may have been the most memorable free agent courting in Philadelphia history.

Thome becomes first Phillie in 20 years to hit 40 HRs

Babe Ruth’s arrival as a pitcher-turned-power hitter 80-some years ago began the trend and changed the game forever. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, the home run was almost all anyone in baseball cared about. You remember the commercial. And you remember the Phillies really never joined the home run party, save for the 1996 Home Run Derby at Veterans Stadium.

But then Jim Thome didn’t just sign with the Phillies, but he lived up to his billing as a must-see slugger. He tied for the major league lead (with Alex Rodriguez) and led the National League (two more than Barry Bonds) with 47 home runs, one shy of Mike Schmidt’s franchise record.

Thome hit his 40th home run of the season in a forgettable 8-4 loss in Pittsburgh in September. Unfortunately, neither or Youtube has a highlight of the home run (nor much of anything from that season).

So we’ll settle for this blast on national TV, when Thome was in the midst of hitting eight home runs in a nine-game stretch in August, making the 40-home run plateau a foregone conclusion. Fun fact about this homer: it’s listed as a “line drive” in baseball-reference’s index. An upper deck line drive. Imagine if the stadium wasn’t there to hold it in, it may have actually found a landing spot where broadcaster Jon Miller suggested.

Thome slugs 400th home run

You know an event was kind of a big deal when you remember where you were when it happened. On June 14, 2004, I was covering the Carpenter Cup tournament at the University of Pennsylvania (I believe I interviewed then Shawnee High School standout and eventual Oakland Athletics All-Star closer Sean Doolittle that day, although the Courier-Post’s archives couldn’t confirm).

It rained. I was able to use my press pass to get into Citizens Bank Park (which had just opened its doors two months earlier) and I wrote about the Carpenter Cup from the big league pressbox. At some point when I was either stuck in traffic on I-76 or trying to find parking outside the ballpark, Thome launched his 400th career home run.

I was bummed I missed seeing it live. But having it live forever on YouTube with Harry Kalas’s perfect call? Priceless.

The Walleye Stick home run

The 2012 season was surely a forgettable one for the Phillies. It began with both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on the disabled list for the majority of the first three months. It ended with the run of five straight postseason berths coming to an end and started a string of four (and soon to be five) consecutive seasons without a winning record.

But Thome returned to play for old pal Charlie Manuel and hopefully provide some of the power Howard and Utley wouldn’t be providing. Since he was a designated hitter playing in the National League, it was pretty much an experiment that was designed to fail, but the future Hall of Famer showed he was still capable of hitting home runs with regularity in June, when the Phillies played three straight series in American League ballparks (and, thus, could use a DH).

Thome hit five home runs in an 11-game span in June of 2012. The first memorable one from that stretch led to possibly the best Thome quote of all-time.

Thome broke a 1-1 tie between the Phillies and Twins with a booming three-run blast off Scott Diamond. The ball cleared the batter’s eye at Target Field.

A couple of points before Thome’s postgame comments: 1. Gentleman Jim was the anti-Bonds, the most humble slugger of his generation, one who would rather go out of his way to pat a teammate on the back than boast about his own contributions. 2. Just as they sell cheesesteaks at Ashburn Alley beyond the center field fence at Citizens Bank Park, there is a concession stand at Target Field that sells walleye sticks (think the fried fish version of a corndog) on the other side of the batter’s eye.

“It had a walleye stick on it or something,” Thome said of the home run that disappeared over the batter’s eye.

Those of us not only lucky enough to see the home run in person but also hear Thome describe it later burst out laughing.

"I'm joking about the walleye stick,” he said. “But that's where they sell walleyes up there.”

The last (historic) blast

The aforementioned string of home runs Thome would hit in the final June of his celebrated career would be the final one he would hit in a Phillies uniform. And it ended with a worthy celebration, too.

Thome’s pinch-hit, game-winning shot of Tampa Bay’s Jake McGee on June 23, 2012 was his only walk-off home run as a Phillie. But it was historic: the walk-off blast was the 13th of Thome’s career, the most in baseball history.

He entered the at-bat with 12 walk-off home runs, tied with Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, and Frank Robinson. That’s pretty good company.

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