Kirk Wessler's column on Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome's 500th homer. Thome is from Peoria, Ill.
Honestly, the entire scene could not have been more perfect if it had been scripted in an Iowa cornfield.
It was Bobblehead Day for the man of the hour. There was a rousing comeback by the home team. The drama of a tie game entering the bottom of the ninth inning. A lead-off single to put the winning run on base. A full ball-strike count. Twenty-nine thousand fans on their feet, cheering for the biggest fly of all.
And last but not least, an angel named Joyce Thome.
Before his first at-bat Sunday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, Jim Thome had taken his bat and scrawled his late mother’s initials in the dirt by home plate.
"I wanted her to be part of it," Thome said.
And so it was, three hours later, standing in the growing shadows of a perfect September afternoon, the Pride of Peoria authored a perfect entry into baseball’s most exclusive power club.
At 4:13 p.m., Jim Thome cracked a fastball high into left-center field and long into the bleachers for the 500th home run of his 17-year major league career. Of more than 16,000 men to play in the big leagues, Thome is the 23rd to reach the 500 mark.
Fittingly, for a man revered as the perfect teammate, the homer won the game for the Chicago White Sox, who mobbed Thome as he joyfully jumped on home plate after he circled the bases. Of the No. 500s in history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Thome’s was the first walk-off — so called because it ends the game and the hitter and his teammates walk off in victory.
"Incredible," Thome said. "You try to figure how it’s going to happen. But you never imagine it’ll be like that. A walk-off? No way."
Sitting in the front row behind home plate, Chuck Thome said he knew the ball was gone as soon as it jumped off his son’s bat. He turned and hugged Jim’s wife, Andrea, who is seven months pregnant with the couple’s second child. Then an usher escorted the two of them to the fringe of the melee that greeted the slugger at home plate.
Once free of the mob, Jim lifted both arms to the roaring crowd, then spied his dad. He trotted across the plate, and the two flung their arms around each other. They stood there on Joyce Thome’s initials, clutching each other; Chuck’s left arm patting his son on the back as tears ran down his face.
"I probably won’t be around to see him walk up the steps in Cooperstown," the 72-year-old father said, choking up again as he referenced the Upstate New York hometown of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which has beckoned every eligible 500-homer hitter but one. "To see your son do that ... Everybody that has a son in Little League wants to see him in the big leagues. That’s the dream. Boy, he just added a lot to the dream."
So did Will Stewart, a resident of Austin, Texas, who is in Chicago for an accounting conference and was in the left-center-field bleachers because his meetings had not yet begun and he loves baseball.
Thome’s home run bounced out of the grip of an unidentified fan, 421 feet from home plate, and caromed into Stewart’s hands. Stadium security got to Stewart quickly and escorted him to his 15 minutes of fame.
Some weeks ago, Jim and Andrea and Chuck had discussed their desire to retrieve the milestone homer ball, so Jim and his dad can deliver it personally to the Hall of Fame. Knowing these artifacts can fetch quite a sum of money on the memorabilia market, they came up with a package of goodies to offer: autographed items, plus a Sox-Cubs game in Thome’s personal suite and a pair of season tickets to Sox games next season.
Sunday, Stewart handed the ball to Thome and announced he would donate the season tickets for use by Thome’s favorite charity. That would be Peoria-based Children’s Hospital of Illinois, for which the native son has helped raise almost $2 million during his career.
Gasps and murmurs rose from Thome’s family.
"What a gentleman," Andrea Thome said of Stewart. "I was hoping so much that the person who caught the ball would be a cool person, and he was."
One could say the same of Thome. In fact, one person saying it is an understatement.
Two years ago, Tribune Co., conducted a survey of major-league players, who named Thome the best teammate in baseball, by a 3-to-1 margin over the field. His friends are the Peoria guys he grew up with on the South Side, in the West Peoria Little League, at Limestone High School in Bartonville and Illinois Central College in East Peoria.
He is respected not so much because he is one of baseball’s most prodigous power-hitters but because he treats other people — fans, teammates, management, stadium workers and everyone else he meets — with respect.
"He grew up the right way," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He plays the game right. He plays the game hard. He respects baseball, he respects the fans. I tell kids, if you want to look up to somebody, that’s who you look up to.
"On the field, off the field ... nobody says anything bad about Jim Thome. Except his wife, maybe."
No way. Not on this day.
The Thome family was all there to hear Guillen’s words. Wife, brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews, cousins.
Chuck Thome beamed, with another tear in his eye.
And Joyce Thome was there too, smiling.
"Oh, she was here," Jim’s sister Lori said. "She had the best seat in the house."
KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3216 or e-mail to email@example.com.