Slugger credits former manager with giving him confidence to succeed
By Hal Bodley
The day in August 2014 when the Indians unveiled a bigger-than-life statue of Jim Thome at Progressive Field, the slugger said another should be erected next to his: Charlie Manuel.
It's not a statue, but when Thome is inducted into the Phillies Wall of Fame this weekend during ceremonies at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, his bronze plaque will be close to Manuel's.
Manuel, 72, is the most successful manager in Phillies history, and if it weren't for him, Thome would not have hit 612 home runs or have joined Hall of Famer Bob Feller as the only Cleveland players honored with a statue.
And, oh yes. Thome is a cinch to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he's eligible for election in 2018. His 612 homers rank seventh on the all-time list.
"Charlie meant everything to me -- everything," said Thome, inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame last month. "He gave me confidence, taught me how to hit -- everything about baseball."
Manuel, now a Phillies adviser, was the Indians' hitting coach when a shy, skinny 19-year-old Thome met him for the first time.
"He made me feel comfortable from the start," said Thome. "He has a special knack for that."
Manuel, who guided the Phils to five consecutive division titles, two World Series and the championship in 2008, was in Cleveland when Thome's statue was unveiled.
"When he said if he had his way, he'd have a statue of me standing beside his, that was probably one of the greatest compliments ever given me," Manuel said.
Thome was not drafted until the 13th round in the 1989 Draft.
And Thome's dad, Chuck, is convinced if it were not for Manuel, Jim would never have made it to the Major Leagues.
"He's the reason," Chuck Thome he said during a conversation we had several years ago. "Jim was sent to an extended spring training in 1990, and the Indians wondered if he was a prospect. They weren't sure he was good enough for any ballclub they had. So they sent Charlie out to check on another kid who had received a big bonus and was supposed to be a hot-shot prospect.
"Well, after a few days, Charlie told the Indians he didn't know about that player, but said, 'This kid Thome is doing everything asked of him, and he's going to hit. You better find him a job.'"
The left-handed slugger hit 337 homers for the Indians.
"He was very coachable," Manuel said. "We did a lot of work together. I felt like he came along at the right time for me, and I came along at the right time for him. I helped build his confidence. In the beginning, he was a slow learner. But to this day, he doesn't realize how much work he did and how much he practiced. I'd throw to him every day and he never stopped hitting. I was around him about 15 years.
"I look at Jimmy as a son. I keep telling him he's my son. One reason for that is because he can hit -- really hit. If he couldn't, maybe I'd look at him as a nephew or something," Manuel joked.
After watching the movie "The Natural," Manuel suggested to Thome that when he got into the batter's box, he point the bat toward the mound. That became Thome's trademark, and the statue at Progressive Park has him pointing the bat.
"Charlie had seen a clip of Roy Hobbs [Robert Redford's character] point the bat," said Thome. "When I was younger and got in the box, I was tense, everything was tight. Charlie wanted me to create that relaxing feeling in the box. For me, pointing the bat did that. He said it got my trigger ready to hit."
Thome, 45, spent three seasons (2003-05) with the Phillies and returned for part of 2012, the final year of his 22-year career. He blasted 101 homers for them, and his 47 in 2003 led the National League.
Manuel managed Thome for parts of three years in the Minors, and after serving as hitting coach, he became the Indians' skipper in 2000; he was Thome's manager for two-plus seasons there. Manuel was dismissed three months before Thome left as a free agent to join the Phils in December 2002, signing a six-year, $85 million contract.
Manuel was manager at Triple-A Charlotte in 1993, Thome's final year in the Minors before he was promoted to the Indians for good in August. At Charlotte, Thome hit .332, blasted 25 homers and drove in 102 runs.
"Not only was he a great hitter, but he's a great human being," said Manuel, who managed Thome just the one year (2012) in Philly.
Thome grew up in Peoria, Ill., a devoted Cubs fans. When he was just 10, he was standing behind the dugout at Wrigley Field one day and asked his idol, Dave Kingman, for an autograph. Kingman refused and told him to get lost.
"He vowed to me that day if he ever made it to the Major Leagues, he'd never do that to a fan," Chuck Thome said.
And along the way to 612 homers, he never did.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.