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KEVIN BAXTER / ON BASEBALL

Jim Thome deserves to be in baseball Hall of Fame

The Minnesota Twins slugger hit his 600th home run last week and is one of the nicest guys in baseball, but Thome often flies under the radar in an era of glitz, glamour and egotism.

August 20, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Minnesota's Jim Thome stands with members of his family at a ceremony celebrating his 600th career home run on Thursday.
Minnesota's Jim Thome stands with members of his family at a ceremony… (Eric Miller / Reuters )

Jim Thome and the Hall of Fame.

If you think the two don't go together, you're not alone.

But you're also wrong.

Not that he would hold that against you because Thome — with apologies to the Angels' Torii Hunter — is perhaps the nicest and most sincere man in baseball.

And has been for 21 seasons.

Walk through a ballpark with Thome before the gates open and you'll see him greet the security guards and ushers by name. Sit near the dugout during games and you'll hear him call out to the season-ticket holders. Watch him afterward and you'll find him standing patiently by his locker, respectfully answering the lamest questions from reporters representing the smallest hometown newspapers.

That wasn't something you would see with Barry Bonds.

Bonds would question your parentage; Thome will ask about your kids, then listen intently to the answer.

When the Minnesota Twins held a memorial service for Harmon Killebrew in May, Thome flew to Illinois to see his family, then flew right back to take part in the service. Never mind that it was the Twins' only day off in a month.

"It's just respect," Thome said.

Yet a player who shows respect to everyone doesn't always see it in return.

When he hit his 600th home run last week, just the eighth player in history to do so, the milestone was greeted with a wide yawn and far less fanfare than Derek Jeter received for his 3,000th hit.

Jeter, after all, is the toast of New York, lives in a Florida mansion and dates celebrities. Thome comes from Peoria, Ill. — where else could he come from? — and all but carries a lunch bucket to work.

While Alex Rodriguez faces allegations that he has been spending part of his Yankees contract on high-stakes poker games, Thome reportedly is putting his nieces and nephews through college.

Clearly Thome lacks the glitz and glamour, the flamboyance and the egotism to stand out in a tabloid world. Which is why he's thought of primarily as a nice guy and not a great player.

Truth is, he's both.

He's also crew cuts and blue collars. He's Middle America, right down to the "please" and "thank you." In his world, guns are for hunting, not for carrying into night clubs.

No wonder the license plate on his pickup truck — what else would he drive? — once read DBTH, shorthand for Don't Believe the Hype.

But you can believe the numbers, which make a strong case that Thome should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible.

He hit 40 or more home runs in a season six times, more than Mike Schmidt or Ernie Banks. He has a higher career on-base percentage than Joe DiMaggio or Rickey Henderson. He's scored 100 runs in a season eight times, more than Lou Brock or Cal Ripken Jr. And he's driven in at least 102 runs nine times, more than Frank Robinson or Reggie Jackson.

Those players all are in the Hall of Fame.

And though Thome, who turns 41 this week, is the oldest player to reach 600 home runs, only Babe Ruth got there in fewer at-bats. Thome's average of a homer every 13.6 at-bats is fifth-best in history. He has a better career slugging percentage than Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, three of the greatest sluggers in the history of the game.

That's certainly a track record his peers have noticed. In a poll of major league players, Thome was once named best teammate, earning three times as many votes as the second-place finisher.

Detracting from all that is that Thome won only one home-run title, finished as high as fourth in the most-valuable-player voting just once and hasn't played more than 20 innings in the field since 2005. He's also made just five All-Star teams in 21 seasons and has bounced between five teams in the last 10 years.

Thome is also a slugger in an era when all sluggers are viewed with suspicion. Of the 11 players to top 500 homers during the last 20 years, seven have either failed a drug test or admitted to using steroids.

Thome is among the exceptions, but that doesn't change the perception.

"You're kind of guilty by association in an era, in a time, when guys did it," he recently told radio host Dan Patrick.

When and where Thome comes from, though, drugs were for curing colds, not hitting fastballs. The Hall of Fame was made for guys like that.

In this case, a nice guy should finish first.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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