By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jim Thome powered his way into one of Major League Baseball's most exclusive clubs on Monday when he slugged his 600th home run after a long journey built on hard work and consistency.
The 40-year-old Minnesota Twin became just the eighth major league player to reach the milestone, adding his name to a list of greats including Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660).
The achievement will warm the hearts of traditionalists, coming through the so-called 'steroids era' of baseball without a hint of controversy tainting Thome's image as an honest, old-fashioned slugger.
Recent inductees to the 600-club have been dogged by admissions or allegations of having used performance-enhancing drugs, including Barry Bonds (762), Sammy Sosa (609) and current New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez (626).
Thome, untainted like Ken Griffey Jr (630) who retired last season, was more of a throwback player.
He wore his socks pulled up high in the old style and his hair cut short, with his bulging forearms warning opposing pitchers to keep the ball away from the barrel of his bat.
What he lacked in glamour, soft-spoken Thome made up in integrity and determination as he battled injuries, including a chronic back problem that made it a struggle for him to reach the goal in his 21st major league season.
Thome began his career with the Cleveland Indians in 1991 and moved on to the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox and had a brief stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers before ending up at the Twins.
Thome was selected by the Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 MLB Draft and quickly proved to be a bargain.
He hit .340 with 16 home runs combined in two minor league stops in 1990, and batted .319 the next year, leading to a September call-up by Cleveland as a 21-year-old third baseman.
Thome split the next two seasons between the minors and the big league team before reaching the majors for good in 1994, hitting 20 homers and following that with 25, 38 and 40.
In 1997, the left-hander switched to first base after the Indians traded for third baseman Matt Williams and he became an All-Star at the position for the next three seasons.
Thome, who once smashed a 511-foot home run for the longest blast ever recorded in Cleveland, helped the Indians reach the World Series in 1995 and 1997 and bashed 49 homers for them in 2001 and 52 the following year.
In 2003, he signed a six-year, $85 million free-agent deal to join the Phillies and in his first season hit 47 home runs, one short of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt's franchise record.
He followed that with a 42 home run season, before an elbow injury led to mid-season surgery. His replacement at first base, Ryan Howard, went on to Rookie of the Year honours and a suddenly expendable Thome was dealt to Chicago.
SENSE OF OCCASION
Thome resumed his slugging ways as designated hitter for the White Sox, belting 42 homers with a .288 batting average in 2006 and followed that with 35 home runs.
With 25 members of his family and friends in attendance, the slugger connected for his 500th home run against the Angels to give Chicago a 9-7 walkoff victory in September 2007.
Following a late-season 2009 trade to help the Los Angeles Dodgers in a postseason bid, Thome joined the Twins in 2010, blasting the first walk-off hit at Minnesota's new Target Field with a 445-foot rocket in the bottom of the 10th inning against his former team Chicago.
That was the 12th walk-off home run of his career, bringing him level with all-time leaders Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson and Babe Ruth.
Thome is not without flaws and his power-hitting action has seen him prone to strike-outs throughout his career. He stands second on the all-time list behind Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson.
That weakness has been offset, however, with a keen batting eye that has him eighth all-time in drawing walks and boasting a .403 on-base percentage.
His frequency at clearing the fences has also underlined his mastery. His average of belting a home run for every 13.7 at-bats stands fifth best in the major leagues behind Mark McGwire (10.61), Babe Ruth (11.76), Ryan Howard (12.16) and Barry Bonds (12.90).
(Editing by Ian Ransom)