What now looks like a no-brainer actually had the Phillies somewhat divided internally. Thome was coming off elbow surgery. While he was sidelined, Howard hit 22 homers in an 88-game audition. But no club made an offer for Howard that the Phillies felt was worth taking.
So, Thome was moved to the White Sox after the 2005 season in a trade that brought Aaron Rowand to the Phils. And with Howard in the middle of their lineup, the Phillies have won a World Series and three consecutive National League East titles, while Howard won the MVP award in his first full Major League season.
Thome returns to Philadelphia for the first time in the postseason as an important bit player with the Dodgers, a pinch-hitter whose clutch single was a big part of their 2-1 comeback win in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series.
"I always respected what he did," manager Joe Torre said. "You get to know players when you play against them for a number of years. But to have him in our clubhouse and see how much more he was than just a player, which has really, I think, helped the core of this group."
Thome said he wasn't bitter then and isn't now that the Phillies went with a young star over an aging one.
"The bottom line -- Howard needed to stay," said Thome. "He was an up-and-coming star. You could tell the kid was special. I don't think it was a bad move. Actually, they gave me the opportunity to go back to Chicago. At that time in my career, my mom had just passed away from lung cancer and it was a chance to be closer to my dad. It helped revitalize my family. So in that way, the Phillies took care of me. They were class from top to bottom."
Standing in the visitors dugout at Citizens Bank Park during a Saturday workout, Thome said the way he wound up in a postseason in Philadelphia is "a little weird."
"It's definitely a good feeling when you can come back and see people you have been around," said Thome. "With that said, I want to win every game against them now. My time here was great. The intensity, the atmosphere of baseball in Philadelphia, the whole organization treated me so well, it was a great experience, a great three years."
The year before his elbow injury, Thome slugged 42 homers for the Phillies. His first year with the White Sox, Thome also had 42 homers. Injuries and time have conspired to reduce Thome's production the past two years and he was dealt to the Dodgers on Aug. 31 to provide a threatening left-handed bat off the bench and an uplifting presence in the clubhouse.
Limited with a lingering foot injury, Thome seems to be hitting with only his upper body. He hasn't hit a homer with the Dodgers and can't run fast enough for a double.
Nonetheless, he said he expects the foot to heal over the winter and hopes to continue playing as a designated hitter next year, when he will turn 40.
"I want to keep playing," Thome said. "Other than the foot thing, I feel good."