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Bill Plaschke: Kindness backstopped Jim Thome's run to 600 homers

August 16, 2011 | 10:17 am

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The former Dodger with 600 career home runs hit exactly zero as a Dodger, yet his presence left the yard.

The biggest man in baseball today had exactly five singles in 20 at-bats as a Dodger, yet his impact covered all the bases.

He never scored a run. He never played an inning in the field. He never even wore a glove, and barely wore a Dodger uniform, hanging around only for the final month and playoffs of that nutty 2009 season.

Yet Jim Thome smiled like he led the Dodgers in hitting and fielding and had played here forever. There may have never been a truly nicer guy to grace a clubhouse in more difficult circumstances.

Thome arrived here in an odd last-gasp trade with the Chicago White Sox. He was a designated hitter who had not played in the field in two years. He was immediately marginalized as a strictly a pinch hitter. He was quickly teased for being a left-handed hitting statue with little value.

Yet he never stopped smiling, never stopped shaking hands, never stopping reminding everyone how lucky he felt to be here.

Thome struggled in a strange role for a strange team in at atmosphere charged with Manny Ramirez’s  nuttiness and Larry Bowa’s intensity, yet he never failed to greet each visitor to his locker as if they were an old friend.  He never failed to stop and chat with whoever, wherever, whenever, a longtime star acting like a slo-pitch softball slugger, lumbering pleasantly through Chavez Ravine like every night was just another night with neighbors and friends.

When Thome became only the eighth man in history to hit at least 600 home runs Monday night with a three-run shot for the Minnesota Twins against the Detroit Tigers, the reaction was swift and succinct.

Nice wins. Decency triumphs. Grace prevails. And, yeah, for once, Leo Durocher was wrong.

Jim Thome won with not only kindness, but integrity, joining Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only members of the 600-homer club who have not been linked to steroids. And when he finally reached that plateau, you would have thought the entire Twins team had reached it with him.

He gave a short raised fist-pump as the ball left Detroit’s Comerica Park, but then he hustled around the bases and into the arms of his teammates. Literally. There was no usual celebratory dog-pile at home plate, there was just one 40-year-old man individually hugging each of his teammates, one by one, looking them all squarely in the eye in an apparent gesture of thanks, an intimate celebration that seemed to last forever.

All the thanks today, of course, goes to Jim Thome, the briefest of Dodgers. We hardly knew him; we’ve never known anyone like him.

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-- Bill Plaschke

Photo: Jim Thome pinch-hits for the Dodgers in September 2009. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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