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Anthony Castrovince

Thome's quiet quest for 600 needs more buzz

Castrovince: Thome's quiet quest for 600 needs more buzz

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The talk about Jim Thome's quest for 600 career home runs is that nobody's talking about it. And all this talk about the lack of talk seems to center around a single premise -- that Thome, who has never been linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, is the unwitting victim of a steroid era that has cheapened his impending milestone.

Once he gets around to hitting two more home runs, Thome will become just the eighth member of the 600 Club. And for all we know in this era of diminished offensive output, he might well be one of the last.

If nothing else, he'll be the last for several years. Manny Ramirez is gone. Albert Pujols, sitting on 435 homers at age 31, obviously has the best shot of any active player, but he probably won't reach even 500 until 2013, so let's not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera turned 27 and 28, respectively, earlier this year and both have more than 200, so, they have a fighting chance. But this stuff is impossible to project.

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All we can say for certain is that Thome is about to join one of the game's most exclusive clubs and the chase is getting about as much attention as, say, Michael Young's quest for 2,000 hits. Which is to say, not much at all.

The only attention Thome is getting comes from articles like the one you're reading right now, pointing out the lack of attention. Invariably, they all tend to point to the PED perspective as the reason why Thome is receiving so little fanfare in what has become a quiet quest.

"I just think the steroid era is killing things," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson told USA Today. "There are some guys, some great players, who have paid the penalty because of PEDs, even though they have never been mentioned with them."

It's a legitimate point. After all, three of the last four men to reach 600 homers -- Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez -- have been linked to PEDs in the past. It could well be that our collective contemplation on the number of career home runs has been sullied by those who cheated the game. So Thome's numbers, when taken in the context of the bloated power era, don't blow us away. And even now, when a legit long-ball threat like Jose Bautista comes along seemingly out of nowhere, every reflection on his ridiculous numbers is countered by the chorus of those who have trouble believing he is au naturel.

That's life in 2011.

Still, I would have to imagine that if Thome, with his unsullied reputation and outright class, were sitting on 598 home runs and playing for the Yankees rather than the Twins, the lack of talk would not be such a talking point. We'd undoubtedly be barraged with all the countdowns and cut-ins to his every at-bat. Even A-Rod, who has admitted to using steroids during a three-year period with the Rangers, got more national attention in his chase of 600 than Thome is getting today. Put Thome in pinstripes, and his march to history might not have gotten quite as much attention as Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit, but he'd undoubtedly be getting his due.

Thome's pursuit is also polluted in some ways by the choice he made nearly a decade ago as a free agent. After 12 years and a franchise-record 334 home runs in Cleveland, Thome signed with the Phillies in the winter before the 2003 season. He spent three years falling short of the postseason in Philly before he was unloaded in a trade to the White Sox. A few months late to the Sox's World Series party, he spent two and a half seasons on the South Side, then was sent packing for Los Angeles in a waiver trade in August '09. The one thing Thome was counted on to do for the Dodgers -- hit home runs -- was the one thing he didn't do in 17 regular season and five playoff games. Now, for the last two years, he's been a cheap hired gun for the Twins.

So Thome -- and understand this is presented as a fact, not a knock -- lost his identity as a franchise cornerstone when he left Cleveland. In the years since, he's become a nomad. He's always represented the game right, and he's always done so quietly.

The Twins fans took to Thome in a hurry with his resurgent 2010 season, so there is hope that he'll hit No. 600 during the remaining two games of this week's series against the Red Sox at Target Field. If Thome is unable to do so, then the first leg of Minnesota's upcoming road trip has its share of cosmic appeal, as the Twins will be at Progressive Field this weekend. Thome, of course, has hit more home runs (186) at the ballpark formerly known as Jacobs Field than anywhere else, so it would be a fitting place for him to achieve the feat.

But in general, as our fascination with home runs has evolved over the years, so, too, has our appreciation for a player like Thome. He is not as one-dimensional as some might insist or suspect, as he's always drawn his share of walks to accompany the big blasts and help offset the strikeouts. But even in his prime, he was certainly more one-dimensional than the likes of A-Rod, Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. were in their prime. Because of the congestion of talent at first base, he was not a perennial All-Star. Nor was he ever a serious MVP candidate.

Rather, Thome was and is just country strong, having the respect of everybody in baseball. He is a tremendous teammate and a feared threat (even at 40 and pushing 41) to hit mammoth home runs. That he's about to hit his 600th deserves celebration, even in this jaded era and even though his bat has traveled to many markets ... but not the biggest market of all.

People can argue over Thome's Hall of Fame worthiness another day. When Thome joins the 600 Club, he ought to be the talk of baseball.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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