Jim Thome's pursuit of 600 career home runs has been a rather quiet quest.
Fighting injuries during a frustrating season for the Minnesota Twins, the 40-year-old Thome hasn't received nearly the amount of national publicity that his predecessors who reached the milestone did. Even Derek Jeter's accomplishment of 3,000 hits dwarfed the attention that Thome has been getting, naturally, since Jeter plays for the New York Yankees.
But Thome is close to joining an exclusive club. With 598 home runs over his powerful 20-year career, Thome is on the verge of becoming only the eighth player in major league history to hit 600. And there are all kinds of people around the game who couldn't be happier for him.
"This guy deserves everything he gets," said Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who first managed Thome in the minor leagues and then again with the Cleveland Indians. "When you say, 'Nice guy,' yeah, Thome's a nice guy. But at the same time, he's also been a great hitter. I think they're going to look at him as someone who's just totally genuine and played the game in his own way — and that was good for baseball. They'll look at him for who he is as a person and the things that he accomplished. I mean, 600 home runs is a tremendous feat."
Mark McGwire, now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, had a one-word reaction — "awesome" — when asked for his take on Thome.
"He's a stud. He's just a country hard, country strong, country hard-hitting player," McGwire said.
Barry Bonds. Hank Aaron. Babe Ruth. Willie Mays. Ken Griffey Jr. Alex Rodriguez. Sammy Sosa. Thome is next on the all-time list, and unlike several of the other higher-profile sluggers of his era, he's seen as clean. No admission or suspicion of steroid use for him. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound native of Peoria, Ill., is just a down-home guy with a bundle of natural athletic ability, from a family with a father and brothers who are just as big.
"I've been blessed," said Thome, speaking in his clear, drawn-out, careful voice and giving one of those aw-shucks shoulder shrugs he often does.
He's been asked about his sterling reputation over the years more times than he can remember, realizing the skepticism toward home run totals of his time is a perception the public will probably never forget.
"I think there's still some sour feelings around, just in general. Let's face it. There were guys who did that. But my thing was not every guy did it. You can't punish everybody," Thome said, adding: "You make decisions in your life, and I guess you have to live with those decisions. But, again, not every guy did it, and that's the unfortunate thing: Certain guys are paying that price for that time."
Since signing with the Twins before last season, Thome has been a popular figure at Target Field — both in the clubhouse and for the paying customers in the seats. He hit 25 home runs last year in just 276 at-bats, many of them moon shots that sailed high into the Minneapolis air and caused players, coaches, fans and everyone else to shake their head in amusement and astonishment.
This season has been more of a struggle. He's been bothered by injuries to his toe, oblique and quadriceps, and he has struck out 55 times in 172 at-bats. Thome has nine home runs this year.
But the anticipation is still there for anybody at the ballpark, each time he walks out of the on-deck circle.
"It's an exciting thing to step to home plate and have the fans want you to hit a homer," Thome said. "It's pretty cool. Now I will say this: There is a little bit of pressure with that. And it's up to you to try to relax and know that if you come here every day and you try to approach the game the same and you do your work and you're diligent every day with your program and how you prepare for the game, then all that stuff hopefully in the end will be there."
The Twins sure could use an emotional lift like this. Thome's 598th, hit last week on the road against the Los Angeles Angels, was one of those no-doubters that brought the dugout to life despite a 7-1 defeat that night.
"We're all looking forward to him hitting this next one, and then the anticipation will be unbelievable," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "So that's something that we've been watching and enjoying."
Gardenhire added: "Every time he walks up there and starts taking a swing, you know the ball can fly."
Thome has been careful not to put too much emphasis on the milestone itself.
"You don't ever want to fall into that trap," he said. "Obviously every day is about winning the ballgame, and if you do something in that game, if it's to hit a home run or to get close to a milestone, then it's all worth it. But I don't want to ever think of it as, 'Oh, today I've got to come to the park and hit a homer.'"
He's come a long way since Manuel taught him in the minors to open up his stance and harness his natural power. Now he's trying to gather as many of his home run balls as he can, asking the team to invite the lucky ones to trade the memorabilia for a postgame visit, autographs and perhaps other rewards for their willingness to add to his collection of more than 100 balls.
"What a cool thing to do, if you can play long enough," Thome said. "You've got to hit home runs to do it. Who knows? One day my kids might go through 'em, and there might be a story behind each ball."
AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.