Thome reports to O's ready for new role
BALTIMORE — It never gets old for Jim Thome. Even on Sunday afternoon, when the veteran slugger arrived at Camden Yards to join his fourth different team in less than a calendar year, the experience seemed to be exacerbating for Thome.
A gun for hire, Thome has officially entered that have-bat, will-travel stage of his career. This time Thome has landed in Baltimore after short stays in Minnesota, Cleveland and Philadelphia since the start of last season. Once again there were new teammates to meet, bags to pack, a cross-country flight to get ready for on Sunday evening, and then there is his family to consider in the vagabond lifestyle Thome and his 609 career home runs have entered.
Thome, a man who looks comfortable in any team’s uniform, struck an interesting pose when he pulled on his new black, white and orange cap, replete with a cartoonish smiling bird above the bill. The Orioles, five games behind the Yankees in the AL East, are in the middle of playoff chase for the first time since Thome’s Indians beat them in the ALCS in 1997. Baltimore has hung in the race even though it ranks 27th in baseball with a starter’s ERA of 4.78, 25th in opponents batting average against the starters (.277) and last in complete games.
It has been the slugging and the relief pitching that has kept the Orioles in the hunt, the complete opposite of what pushed the Phillies out of contention and Thome out of Philadelphia.
In fact, there is already speculation around Camden Yards that Thome could be on the move again if the Orioles fall out of the race because of the dearth of starting pitching. In Sunday’s game Orioles lefty Brian Matusz showed just how desperate the team needs quality pitching by giving up five runs on seven hits, three walks and five extra-base hits in the loss to the Indians.
Thome, who went 0 for 4 in his debut for the Orioles in the 6-2 loss, decided to focus on the future and the positives. For one, Thome expects to play nearly every day as the Orioles’ DH. When he isn’t in the lineup, Thome says there are other ways he can contribute.
“Not only can you contribute the days you play, but also the days you don’t play — watching the game, watching pitchers and talking baseball,” Thome said. “Hopefully I may be able to say something to someone that helps them. I’m always going to be there and sometimes being a good teammate means being a good listener and also being there as a teammate and a friend.”
Manager Buck Showalter dropped Thome directly into the lineup as the DH batting behind All-Star and cleanup hitter, Adam Jones. Though Thome arrived at the ballpark just two hours before game time, he was walking around in his new black and orange warm-up gear with his black sanitary socks pulled up to his knees. His young teammates seemed excited to have him aboard yet unable to wrap their heads around what the old man has done during a career that began in 1991 when many of them were infants and toddlers.
“We know what he can do,” said Jones of Thome, who has hit 18 homers in 67 career games at Camden Yards. “He can still do it, too.”
The late arrival from Miami, where he was playing with the Phillies gave him just a limited amount of time to talk to the press, meet his new teammates and strategize with Showalter. There also is a week-long road trip to Seattle and Anaheim to take after the debut in Baltimore.
But what there is no time for is looking back. It’s fair to say that the Philadelphia chapter is closed in the book of Thome, and the Phillies will remain the one team that he did not get to the playoffs with. He made it in Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles and Minnesota, but never in Philadelphia.
He never led the club he helped transform into an elite team when he arrived in 2003, and the club he re-joined in 2012 with the hope for one more shot at the elusive World Series ring.
“I think everyone knows that in Philadelphia that the expectations are high,” Thome said. “But baseball is a weird thing. Look at the Cardinals last year—they had a magical run. Who’s to say the Phillies won’t get hot. [Joining the Orioles] was more of decision on playing time and getting an opportunity because I couldn’t play first base. I respect [the Phillies], I respect everything about the organization there and they put me in a real neat situation here.”
Indeed, the Phillies put Thome in a great spot after the 2005 when they sent him to the White Sox for Aaron Rowand. Thome helped the White Sox win the AL Central and the Phillies win the World Series in 2008 by freeing up Ryan Howard to be able to play every day.
Now he has the chance to help Baltimore to the postseason for the first time in 15 years as well as getting a chance to play.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to play as much first base as I wanted or the Phillies wanted and that kind of put them in a tough situation and I understood that,” Thome said. “When interleague happened and I was able to get some consistent at bats it was one of them things where it showed me how much I loved the game and how much I did want to play and get those at bats every day.”
Still, Thome knows that he doesn’t have too many chances left to get that World Series ring.
“I know my career is winding down. I’ll be 42 years old this year, but I haven’t put too much thought into it because we’re in the grind of the season now,” Thome said. “I always sit down with my family because their decision is a big part of it. I know I’m getting towards the end and that’s why I think this is a neat situation for me because it gives me a chance to play a little bit and also be on a very, very good team.”
Surprisingly, Thome is saying those things about the Orioles and not the Phillies.E-mail John R. Finger at firstname.lastname@example.org