This season, Jim Thome will likely pass Harmon Killebrew and move into 10th place on the all-time home run list. The Hall of Fame-bound slugger needs just 10 long balls to surpass the 573 put up by the Twins legend, and it is fitting that he could do so in a Minnesota uniform. Much like the former player whose mark he is chasing, Thome has gone about his business with a humility and grace that is far too seldom found in an era of big money, egos and, at least until recently, performance-enhancing drugs. Now in his 20th season, and his first with the Twins, Thome has a career slash line of .277/.404/.557.
David Laurila: You were drafted in 1989. What were your expectations at that time?
Jim Thome: Well, I was a young guy. I was out of a junior college—Illinois Central College—and basically the expectations are that your dream is to play in the big leagues. I was blessed and fortunate to be in an area where baseball was big. We played baseball all the time, so I just loved the game. I loved the game. That’s kind of why the junior college route, for me, was the way I wanted to go, because hopefully you would get the opportunity to get drafted and go on and fulfill your dream.
DL: You began your professional career as an 18-year-old shortstop in the Gulf Coast League. It sounds kind of funny to say that.
JT: Yeah, that was a long time ago. I think going up through Little League, and then obviously in high school, usually your talented players are either a pitcher or a shortstop. I guess I was fortunate that that’s where I played.
DL: Who most influenced you during your minor-league days?
JT: Charlie Manuel. No question. Charlie was, for me, first of all like a father. Secondly, he kind of took my career and really broke my hitting down and helped me progress. I would think a lot of other guys within the Cleveland organization would have said the same thing—just how important he was and what he did for their career. No doubt.
DL: Charlie Manuel has long had a reputation as a good hitting instructor. Why?
JT: Confidence. He builds confidence. He makes you think you can do anything when you’re in there competing. He’s that good. We worked. We practiced. We did everything we had to do to try to succeed. For me, no doubt, he was the biggest, I think, guy for me. At a turning point in my career, he was the one guy that really helped me out along the way the most.
DL: From your days working with him as a young player, to now, what is the difference in you as a hitter?
JT: I don’t think much. I don’t think much. I think he made me believe. He tinkered with where I now stand in the box and how I approach my setup. But for the most part, he bred confidence in me and let me fulfill that. That’s where… mechanically, he switched a few things up, but at that point, we practiced so much that I think practice just carried over into the game.
DL: Mechanically, who are you as a hitter?
JT: I don’t think about mechanics much. Mechanically, I try not to get too deeply involved with that because as a hitter, you want to compete. When you get in the box, you just want to compete.
DL: What are your memories of getting to the big leagues?
JT: Dream. As I said, out of junior college, your dream is to play in the major leagues. When you fulfill that dream and accomplish it, it’s very special, one of the most special things that, I think, any player ever experiences when you’re doing this.
DL: What about moments on the field, like hits or home runs?
JT: There have been a lot of them. Probably the times with my parents. My mom passed six years ago of lung cancer, so for me, all the memories of having her around—the World Series, the playoffs, the down times. Basically, just having her around really stands out as the most memorable, for sure.
DL: Was your first big-league home run a special moment?
JT: You know, to me there are other aspects to the game besides the home runs—the walks, the runs scored, the lineups we had in Cleveland, the players we had around us, the veterans that taught us the right way. But as far as statistics-wise, there’s so much more than the home runs that stand out.
DL: When you think about veteran players who influenced you, who stands out?
JT: Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Orel Hershiser. Dennis Martinez was up there. We had Brook Jacoby. Brook Jacoby was a big, big influence. I roomed with Joel Skinner, who now is a [minor-league manager] with the Indians; he was an influence. Obviously, Charlie Manuel. There were a lot of guys, older guys. Buddy Bell. Johnny Goryl. Johnny was a big influence. I could go on and on, and definitely, all those people have played a significant part to what we all did and how we progressed through the system.
DL: What role did Eddie Murray play for you?
JT: I think the veteranship. His leadership. His presence. What he brought to our clubhouse every day when he walked in the room. You knew he was a guy who was intense. He liked to play the game. He played it a long time and was very successful, so you looked at that and admired that, for sure.
DL: You were with Manny Ramirez when he was just a kid. What were your first impressions of Manny?
JT: Tremendous hitter. Maybe the best. I was telling somebody the other day that only other hitter that I’ve ever seen with as good of balance as Manny is Joe Mauer. Very similar. Lefty-righty, they’re very similar. They’re just big time. Great balance. Never got fooled. Just a solid, solid hitter.
DL: A sports psychologist once told me that Manny Ramirez is a poster child for never carrying one at-bat over to the next. Is that something you’ve been able to do throughout your career?
JT: I’ve tried to, but it’s difficult because you care. For me, and I think every hitter, no matter if it’s Manny or any other hitter, it’s hard not to carry it over. But what his biggest gift was—Manny’s—was the fact that he was so talented that he didn’t have many bad at-bats. Unlike me, where I might go three, four, five at-bats and not put the ball in play, so it affected me a little bit more because of the fact that we’re different hitters. As I said, his balance was so good that he just never, never got fooled a whole lot. That’s what makes each hitter unique.
DL: Just how good of a hitter was Albert Belle?
JT: Great. Just great. Maybe one of the best clutch hitters I’ve ever seen. He was a guy that during crunch time just got it done. He got it done. He studied the game, he practiced. He worked as hard as anybody I ever saw.
DL: What was Carlos Baerga like?
JT: Energy. Great energy and a leader in that regard. Every day he came to the park and, I think, got people ready to play.
DL: Were the 1995 Indians the best team you’ve played on?
JT: There were some good ones in the ‘90s. Yes, that was probably way up there. Yes. Just the whole thing. Offense, defense, everything. You look around, we had some guys who played it right, did it right. That time was a lot of fun for me, no doubt.
DL: There were a lot of great players on those teams. Who was underappreciated and maybe flew a little under the radar?
JT: You know what—I would say our bench guys—[Alvaro] Espinosa, [Wayne] Kirby. We had guys like Mark Clark who was our fifth starter at the time and threw almost 200 innings. Those types of guys mean a lot, whether it’s a bench guy or a fifth starter or a guy out of the bullpen. All of those guys had a significant role, but they stand out to me because they were talented. They just didn’t get all the publicity.
DL: The 1997 World Series was obviously disappointing for you.
JT: Yeah. Well, as a player, you go to spring training, you prepare in the winter, and when you get that close to winning the World Series, it’s very disappointing. It was probably, for me, one of the most disappointing things in my career that has happened just because you are right there. You’re right on the cusp of winning the whole thing. Unfortunately, somebody has got to win, and we were the second-best team that year. With that being said, it was a great experience and a time for me that I’ll never forget. But it does, it still eats at you. Every guy in this room, we all should walk around wanting to win a World Series. That should be No. 1, and we got so close that year. It was very disappointing. Very.
DL: If you could have played in a different era, which would it have been?
JT: Oh, I would say… You know, I’ve never really thought about it. I feel lucky that I was able to come up and get an opportunity at the time I did. Who knows? You look at the era of Harmon Killebrew and [Rod] Carew and that era. It would have been fun to see how everybody traveled from trains and just how would it have been different. Hotels were different then. That era would have been a neat thing to play in, for sure.
DL: You’re going to pass Harmon Killebrew on the all-time home-run list this summer, and in my opinion, the two of you have a lot in common. Do you think that’s true?
JT: Well, I mean that’s a huge compliment, and I appreciate that. I never saw Harmon play. I obviously hear what a tremendous player he was, so to be put in the same breath with a guy like that is a huge compliment. He’s somebody for me—getting to know him the first two weeks [of spring training] has just been a real pleasure. I always say that when baseball is over, you want to be remembered for the guy you are because the statistics and everything is great—it’s nice to be a good player and have all the nice stats—but I think in the end, you look at a guy like Killebrew and you watch how people kind of gravitate to him and how he treats them. That’s, to me…to answer your question, a huge compliment.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JT: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been very lucky and very blessed throughout my career to have played with great players, been on great teams, been with great coaches and managers. I think I’ve benefited from all of them. At a certain point in my career, each and every coach or manager, or player that I’ve played with—I’ve been very fortunate to feed off of their positive energy, and that‘s helped me. That’s helped me.