Growing up as a Minnesota Twins fan in the 1990s, it became a very familiar sight to see the Twins take their lumps from the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe’s line-up was stacked every year in the mid- to late-90s, and they would regularly feast on the Twins woeful staff. I can still remember a video-game commercial of a young Brad Radke serving up home run after home run to the Indians’ line-up, which formed a conga line around the bases. (The literal translation of what seemed to actually be happening during those Twins-Indians contests hit a little close to home.)
For all the talent on those Cleveland teams, it seemed that there was one hitter in particular that you didn’t want to see come up to the plate in a key spot, and that was Jim Thome. He represented the classic power hitter that you would read about as a kid, from his size and strength to his batting stance that seemed to be designed to launch baseballs, and it seemed as if he burned the Twins every time he had a chance (especially in Minneapolis). Still, despite all the punishment he inflicted on the home team, a sense of resentment toward Thome never materialized. He came in, did his job (very well) and was on his way.
When the Twins signed Thome in 2009 – even though he was in the twilight of his career at age 39 – it was a welcome sight. The idea of the slugger chasing history and doing damage for Minnesota as it opened its gorgeous new ballpark, Target Field, could not have been imagined better than what Sports Illustrated produced for its Sept. 27, 2010 cover, and Big Jim became the catalyst for a Twins division championship.
This writer has only seen one of the future Hall of Famer’s 600 home runs in person, yet it embodied much of what has made Thome an iconic figure in baseball.
More than three months before that SI cover would be released, the Twins were in Philadelphia for a three-game series with the Phillies, and a friend of mine had made the trip with me to Citizens Bank Park as the first of a two-stadium weekend trip (we went to Pittsburgh the next day to see the Pirates host the Indians). After taking the loss the night before, the Twins were in danger of losing the series, falling behind 9-4 going into the ninth inning on a warm Saturday afternoon that had already seen the Phillies hit four home runs.
Thome was brought off the bench to pinch-hit with one runner on against journeyman right-hander Jose Contreras, and he received a nice ovation from the Phillie fans, for whom Thome was a favorite during his two-plus seasons from 2003-05.
The crack of the bat left no doubt that the ball was leaving the yard. The 570th home run of Thome’s career was a majestic shot to center field that backup catcher Drew Butera had to jump to catch in the Twins bullpen, which is located at an elevated position behind the Phillies bullpen beyond the outfield fence. As he rounded the bases, Twins fans and Phillies fans alike stood and applauded Thome, a moment that quickly came back to mind Aug. 15 as he rounded the bases at Comerica Park in Detroit after hitting his 600th.
The home run in Philly ultimately sparked an unlikely comeback, as the Twins tied the score in the ninth and went on to win 13-10 in 11 innings.
The shot was not even the best Thome-related memory of the 2010 season for Twins fans. That would likely be his walkoff homer to beat the Chicago White Sox at home on Aug. 17. But they both helped contribute in making him a beloved figure in Minnesota (as he was everywhere he played) and only further added to his historic career, which should ultimately end with his enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.