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Thome has long trip to Hall

Thome and his father, Chuck, personally delivered Jim's 500th home run ball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum after several postponed attempts.

September 06, 2009|BILL SHAIKIN

Jim Thome took his baseball and went home.

He didn't want to. He had no choice. He was snowed in.

He and his father would have to visit the Hall of Fame some other time, in better weather, for a special delivery.

Baseball players are not responsible for historic preservation. Hit a milestone home run, sign the bat or ball, let the Hall of Fame worry about getting the artifact in hand.

That would not do for Thome, not for a baseball that meant so very much to his family. Thome had the ball he hit for his 500th home run, and he and his father would drop off the ball in person, in Cooperstown.

He hit that home run at home, in Illinois, for the Chicago White Sox. He grew up three hours outside Chicago, and he went home to play for the White Sox in 2006, the year after his mother died from lung cancer.

"When he lost his mom, it was like somebody knocked the pins out from under him," said Thome's father, Chuck.

With the White Sox, he found comfort. His father would not be alone. His friends and family would be in the stands, every day.

In his first year in Chicago, he hit 42 home runs. In the following year, in the final month of the 2007 season, he hit his 500th home run, a walk-off shot against the Angels' Dustin Moseley.

Thome celebrated with his father, and with the milestone ball.

"I would have given it to him," Thome said. "We thought the ball needed to be in Cooperstown."

Thus was born the idea of the trip: Father and son, off to Cooperstown, ball in hand.

The winter did not cooperate. On the day Jim and Chuck Thome were scheduled to fly from Chicago, weather fouled up the plans. The Thomes picked another day, and again snow kept them grounded.

Then came spring training, and after that the regular season, and yet Thome and his father would not be deterred.

There are few things more precious to a major leaguer than a day off. The White Sox had one of those days last August, between one series in Baltimore and another in Boston.

Thome flew from Baltimore to Albany. He and his father rented a car, then drove two hours to Cooperstown.

The ball had completed its journey. Never before had an active player delivered an artifact to the Hall of Fame, said Brad Horn, senior director of communications for the museum.

Jim Thome never had visited the Hall of Fame, and he and his father spent several hours in the exhibit halls. Craig Muder, the Hall of Fame official that escorted Thome and his father, said very few fans recognized the star slugger in their midst.

"He didn't have an entourage with him," Muder said. "He just had his dad."

Muder led Thome and his father into a private area, offering the men the chance to put on protective gloves and swing a bat used by Babe Ruth.

Muder also opened a folder to reveal two pictures from the archives, one of Chuck Thome's father and brother playing in an Illinois semipro league, the other of Jim Thome's aunt, from her induction into the American Softball Assn. Hall of Fame.

"It was the best off day I've ever spent in baseball," Thome said, "maybe the best day I've ever spent in baseball."

The Dodgers would be thrilled if Thome could retract the last part of that quote in about two months, after he gets a pinch-hit or two to help win the World Series.

Thome would be thrilled as well. He waived his no-trade clause for the chance to play in the World Series for the first time since 1997, when his Cleveland Indians lost, three outs from a championship.

"I can still see him on his knees, with his hands over his face," Chuck Thome said.

"I don't know how many more years I'm going to play," Jim Thome said. "To get this chance to win is something I couldn't pass up."

Thome, 39, said he would like to return as a designated hitter next season, with a club in the Midwest, maybe even with the White Sox. And, in another five or six or seven years, he'll appear on the Hall of Fame ballot.

He has 564 home runs, 12th on the all-time list.

Of the players ahead of him, Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew have been elected. Mark McGwire has not.

Among those not yet eligible -- Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro -- only Griffey has not been linked to steroid use.

Thome also has not been linked to steroid use, but he could be tainted by the era in which he played.

"You can't change that," Thome said. "You can't deny that's been a part of our era. The important thing that people need to understand is that not everybody has done that.

"I'm not going to bash anybody. It was wrong. I think everybody understands that. If you do wrong things, you'll pay the consequences."

Thome might well get a plaque in the Hall of Fame. At the very least, he has a ball in the Hall, to the delight of his father.

"I'm living the dream of every guy who's had a son play ball," Chuck Thome said.

Jim Thome squirms just a bit when the conversation turns to his Hall of Fame chances. He is too honest to say he does not think about it, too respectful to toot his own horn, too concerned about a new team that needs him for two months to speak at length about something that might happen in five or six years.

Chuck Thome has no such constraints.

Jim bought his father a cabin in Illinois. Chuck calls it Cooperstown West.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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