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Jim Thome knew how to go deep with baseballs and people

scottteaser-215x160When Jim Thome steps to the podium in Cooperstown next month to deliver his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, he’ll doff his cap to his former manager and mentor, Charlie Manuel. And it wouldn’t be totally off-the-wall if he also gave a shout-out to Roy Hobbs, the fictional slugger played by Robert Redford in The Natural. See, at Manuel’s urging, Thome picked up a pointer from that classic movie that helped him orchestrate one of the greatest power surges in baseball history.

A respected hitting guru, Manuel took a liking to Thome while managing him with the Charlotte Knights in 1993. About a third of the way through that season, Manuel showed the strapping, 6-foot-4, 220-pound slugger how Hobbs’ habit of pointing his bat toward centerfield before every pitch helped him relax and focus. “We then went out and practiced it and it felt pretty good,’’ Thome said recently by phone. “It was one small tweak, one small adjustment that got me into a rhythm, and after that everything just kind of clicked.”

Thome went on a tear that saw him win the International League batting title with a .332 average and club 25 homers for the Knights and an additional seven for the Cleveland Indians after his September promotion. Those 32 long balls would be just one fewer than he hit in his first four seasons of professional baseball combined.

A slugger was born—thanks to Manuel, with an assist from Hobbs and Redford. Over the next two decades, Thome would establish himself as one of the game’s most prolific power-hitters, smacking 612 homers, eighth most all-time. By the time his 22-year big-league career ended in 2013, he was one of only five players in history—along with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Barry Bonds—with at least 500 homers, 1,500 runs scored, 1,600 RBI and 1,700 walks. And last January, he became just the 54th player (of the 19,000 to play Major League Baseball) to earn first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.

“I would not be here if not for Charlie,’’ said Thome, who will receive the Coca-Cola Sports Personality of the Year Award at the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s Day of Champions Children’s Charities Dinner Monday night. “We had this bond that was very special. He gave it time and passion. He gave his life to the game of baseball and I was one of his guys who reaped the rewards.”

He reaped those rewards through hard work, often showing up to the ballpark well before his peers so he could take extra batting and fielding practice. It was something he learned from former Rochester Red Wings first baseman Eddie Murray, who spent the latter part of his career with the Indians in the 1990s, while Thome was still an up-and-comer.

“I’m so grateful I got a chance to play with Eddie, and have him take me under his wing,’’ he said. “He was the consummate pro; he had a great work ethic and approach to the game. Eddie was always even-keeled. He was the same guy when he made an out as he was when he doubled.”

It would be an example Thome would set for his teammates during a career that saw him play for six teams—Cleveland, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles. Interestingly, while with the Twins in 2010, he almost became a member of the Wings.

“I had to go down to the minors on a rehab assignment and they were going to send me to Rochester, but I wound up going to one of their Florida clubs instead,’’ he said. “It’s too bad, because I heard Rochester is a great baseball town.”

Every place Thome played, he was beloved by teammates and fans. “He is the world’s nicest man,’’ said former Twins closer Joe Nathan. Added ex-Wing and Thome teammate Michael Cuddyer: “He is the nicest, kindest guy you will ever meet … to everything except the baseballs he hits.’’

The new Hall-of-Famer’s goodness was summed up beautifully by respected baseball writer Jayson Stark: “One thing that always has struck me about this man is that he was one of the few stars I’ve ever known who connected with the little people, not just the bigwigs,’’ Stark wrote several years ago. “You’d see him walk through the ballpark, and he knew the security guards, the vendors, the season-ticket holders who sat near the on-deck circle and the writers from the little suburban papers he’d never read in his life. He knew their faces. In a lot of cases, he knew their names. He asked what their kids were up to, how their families were doing. And he actually CARED.”

Thome knew how to go deep away from the ballpark, too. The pride of Peoria, Ill. became as well-known for his philanthropy as for his slugging, becoming involved with charities in each community he played. He established funds to put 10 nieces and nephews through college. After a tornado struck a town not far from his hometown, he pledged $100,000 to relief efforts. He and his wife, Andrea, continue to devote time and money to numerous worthy causes, including the Children’s Hospital of Illinois and Children’s Home + Aid, which strives to find families to adopt and foster underprivileged children.

Through the years, he has received numerous honors for his community involvement, including the Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente and Marvin Miller awards.

“Jim Thome isn’t merely a Hall of Fame ballplayer,’’ Cuddyer said. “He’s also a Hall of Fame person.”

Though flattered by the comments, Thome shrugs off credit.

“I just think you should try to treat people the way you’d like to be treated, and give something back to the less fortunate,’’ he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Slugging and kindness came naturally to him.

Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak will be signing copies of his books at Lift Bridge Book Shop, 45 Main St., Brockport, Saturday from noon to 1 p.m.

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