Thome's arrival turning point for Phillies

Thome's arrival turning point for Phillies

Sometime around the middle of the 2002 season, with the Phillies on their way to their eighth losing record in nine years, rumors began to circulate around Veterans Stadium. Hopeful, exciting, almost inconceivable rumors.

According to the baseball grapevine, the Phillies were preparing an all-out offensive to sign Cleveland's Jim Thome, one of the game's top sluggers, who was about to become a free agent.

Honestly, it seemed like a long shot. The affable superstar was an Indians icon, incredibly popular with the fan base and considered by many the best first baseman the franchise had ever had. It was the only organization Thome had ever known, and the Tribe had made the playoffs six of the previous seven years, and had only recently ended a streak of 455 consecutive home sellouts.

Spoiler alert: On Aug. 12, Thome will become the latest player to be added to the Phillies Wall of Fame.

Phillies alumni

Phillies general manager Ed Wade signaled his seriousness by sending an e-mail to Thome's agent Pat Rooney at 12:01 a.m. on the day the bidding began. The offer of $85 million guaranteed for six years, plus an option, blew away the competition. That deal is now part of Phils lore.

For the most part, the men who are remembered with plaques in center field at Citizens Bank Park have been honored because of what they accomplished on the field while with the team. Thome is no exception and is well-deserving of being included among the best in team history.

In 2003, Thome tied Alex Rodriguez for the Major League lead with 47 homers. He drove in 131 runs, had a .958 OPS and finished fourth in the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. The following year, Thome had 42 homers, 105 RBIs and a .977 on base-plus-slugging percentage.

To an unusual extent, though, Thome is also being recognized for more than just raw numbers. He's being enshrined for something far more intangible. Thome is being enshrined for what he meant to a franchise that had become used to enduring its winters of discontent, and for bringing instant credibility to both the community and the clubhouse. And you have to remember how important that was at the time.

The Phillies were going into their final season at the Vet. Their new ballpark was rising in the parking lot next door. But there were still naming rights, luxury boxes and premium seating to be sold, and people weren't exactly lining up to buy.

Before Thome, the Phils were in danger of falling off the local sports radar. After he signed, fans were walking the streets in December, talking baseball and wearing team paraphernalia.

That first year, attendance jumped more than 640,000. Part of that could be attributed to the fact that the team won 86 games and finished second. Part could be the nostalgic season-long tribute to the final season of the Vet. But half of it, club president Dave Montgomery calculated years later, was because of Thome.

Senior vice president Dave Buck would also note that Thome's arrival goosed sales in other areas.

"It definitely helped. It created a buzz among the sponsors," he recalled in 2007. "We did the press conference when we signed [Thome] at the Preview Center, and every presentation [for luxury boxes] we did after that started out, 'This is where you had the Thome press conference.' "

There's no getting around the fact that Thome's production dropped sharply after his first two years in Philadelphia. In 2005, bothered by back and elbow problems, he gave way to Ryan Howard, who went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

After the season, Thome was traded to the White Sox.

Thome would go on to have several more productive seasons, including bouncing back to hit 42 homers as a designated hitter and making the All-Star team his first year in Chicago. In 2012, at 41, he came back to the Phillies as a pinch-hitter before being traded to the Orioles, where he ended his career with 612 home runs, seventh on the all-time list.

Thome's time with the Phils may have been relatively short, but it was packed with highlights.

At the top of the list has to be Thome's 400th career homer, which came on June 14, 2004, in a make-up game against the Reds. With two outs and one on in the bottom of the first, and more rain on the way, Thome connected off Cincinnati starter Jose Acevedo to reach the milestone with a long drive to center.

Interesting footnote, Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr. had 499 career homers at the time, but he sat out the game in order try to hit his historic homer at Great American Ball Park.

On June 21, 2003, against the Red Sox at the Vet, Thome hit a two-out homer in the bottom of the eighth to tie the score. In the top of the 12th, Boston regained the lead, and he tied it again with another two-out homer. The Phillies eventually won the game in the next inning on a home run by Todd Pratt.

Thome's final home run for the Phils came on June 23, 2012. Against Tampa Bay, he came off the bench to lead off the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, and hit a walk-off bomb against Jake McGee.

There are several notable aspects to that shot. It was the 13th walk-off homer of Thome's career, a record. But it was his first walk-off homer in his four seasons with the Phillies. A week later, Thome was traded to the Orioles after going hitless in four subsequent pinch-hit appearances.

But there's also this: Earlier in 2003, the Phils hired Charlie Manuel as a special assistant to the general manager. He was known as a hitting guru and a Thome confidante. That led to speculation that Manuel had been brought into the organization to help recruit the slugger he had become close to when he was the hitting coach and manager of the Indians.

In the end, it doesn't matter, because Manuel went on to become the winningest manager in Phillies history while presiding over five straight division titles, two pennants and a World Series in 2008.

And when Thome was traded to the White Sox, one of the players the Phils got in return was center fielder Aaron Rowand. In hindsight, many believe that Rowand, who won a World Series with Chicago in 2005, helped instill a winning attitude in the clubhouse that led to that unprecedented run of excellence.

In his time with the Phillies, Thome averaged one home run for every 13.3 at bats. That's a better ratio than Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, and better than Howard. The numbers alone make Thome a legitimate Wall of Famer.

The rest is just a bonus.

Paul Hagen is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.