Ninth-inning walk-off shot admits slugger into exclusive club
CHICAGO — The fastball delivered by Angels reliever Dustin Moseley connected with Jim Thome’s bat and made a resounding noise that sounded like baseball history.
Thome took two or three steps down the first-base line before pumping his right fist in celebration as career home run No. 500 landed in the left-center field bleachers at U.S. Cellular Field. But only a player as special as Thome could come upon such a milestone via the electrifying manner in which he got the job done Sunday.
Frank Thomas launched his 500th home run in the first-inning of a late-June loss to Minnesota, but then was ejected before the game came to a close. Alex Rodriguez connected against the Royals’ Kyle Davies, whom Thome will face on Monday at Kauffman Stadium, but the primary American League Most Valuable player candidate seemingly has hit another 500 long balls since that moment.
Yet, Thome stands out as the only member of the trio to reach 500 this season and among the 23 players to hit 500 all-time whose momentous blast also produced a walk-off victory for his team. Thome’s 426-foot clout completed a six-run White Sox comeback, but also capped off a magical ride to immortality.
For good measure, it also took place on Jim Thome Bobblehead Day.
“Just can’t believe it, I really can’t,” said an emotional Thome, after wading through three curtain calls from the 29,010 in attendance, who stayed until the very last pitch despite the Bears game taking place at the same time.
“The crowd and just the way they hung in there all weekend long, kind of the downs, they had a lot of downs all weekend. I would never have imagined doing that as a walk-off. It’s just amazing to see your teammates standing there. It’s like a movie script. It really is.”
Not only did Thome’s home run get him to 500, but it served as a class example of the prolific slugger illustrating an approach that has made him so successful. With Darin Erstad on first base following a leadoff single, Thome worked the count full before hitting a pitch on the outer half the opposite way.
On numerous previous occasions, Thome has talked about being completely locked in when taking the ball back up the middle or to left field. And Thome was locked in during this nine-game homestand against the Twins, Indians and Angels.
Try locked in to the tune of five home runs since Sept. 7 in front of the energetic White Sox faithful, a supportive group who really haven’t found much to cheer about during the 2007 season. Thome joined Mark Buehrle’s no-hitter and Bobby Jenks’ record-tying string of 41 consecutive batters retired as the highlights of this disappointing season.
“Even when we won the World Series, I don’t think we got so excited,” said White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who playfully kidded Thome before the game about taking care of 500 before the team left town. “I was jumping, and [during] the World Series I was calm. All of the sudden we see all of those guys on the field celebrating that, it was real neat.”
“Everyone is really happy because we won the game, but it is also even more storybook for Jim,” White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko added of his friend and teammate. “Let’s face it, we’re out of it. It’s good to see his moment be as good as it could be, and that is pretty much what just happened.”
Prior to possibly the third most famous home run in franchise history, Thome was 0-for-4 on Sunday and hitless in 11 at-bats during this series. He had gone 14 plate appearances in between home run No. 499 and No. 500, but reached this plateau in the fourth-fewest at-bats necessary in history. Thome hit 500 in at-bat No. 6,809, trailing Mark McGwire (5,487), Babe Ruth (5,800) and Harmon Killebrew (6,671).
When the ball ricocheted into the hands of Will Stewart, a 28-year-old accountant from Texas who arrived in Chicago Sunday morning, the Thome celebration really just began. Thome leaped into a group of euphoric teammates as he reached home plate and eventually exchanged emotional hugs with his father, Chuck, expectant wife, Andrea, and his two brothers and two sisters.
Somewhere around 25 family members took in this career highlight Sunday afternoon. But the most memorable moment of the afternoon might have been when the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Thome was hoisted into the air by teammates Jermaine Dye and Jenks for the fans to shower adulation upon at a higher elevation.
“They were two big guys, and it took Jenksie to get me up and then JD,” Thome said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ I thought they were going to throw me.
“But, no, when you see your teammates at home plate and then they pick you up like that, and along with probably the greatest fans in sports, in Chicago, what a great, great feeling. You couldn’t have written it any better.”
Sunday’s postgame festivities involved Stewart giving Thome the baseball, followed by a plethora of photo opportunities. Thome had a team charter to catch to Kansas City, but the next series probably was the last thing on his mind — even for a dedicated professional such as Thome.
There were words of gratitude handed out to Charlie Manuel, Milt Thompson and Greg Walker, the current White Sox hitting coach, all of whom have helped craft the offensive force that Thome has become and maintained over the years. Thome also thanked all of the teammates who have been by his side for the past 17 seasons.
It was classic Jim Thome, a man with humble Midwestern charm and values, whose ability with the bat plays pretty well across the entire country.
“He takes a lot of pride in that fact that he represents this game that has been so good to him and he’s passing it down the line,” Walker said. “The generation that has got to see him play, big league players idolize this guy, and not just for his talent and his achievements, but how he goes about his business.
“Jim is revered by other players for being a competitor but also for being a great guy. He’s passed this game down the line and done it the right way.”
By Thome’s estimation, though, it might take until some time during the offseason before he realizes what Sunday truly means to him. Not only did he hit his 500th home run, but he also provided victory for his team.
“That was amazing. It really is,” Thome said. “It’s hard to imagine doing that in that situation.”