BALTIMORE – In the front corner of another new clubhouse of another new team, Jim Thome slowly buttons a strange new jersey. He does this carefully, with gigantic hands that have helped him hit 609 career home runs, because he knows time is running out. Soon there won't be another team to give him a new jersey and he wants to hold onto all that he has for as long as he can.
Next month he will turn 42, and the massive home runs don't come nearly as frequently. Back injuries kept him from playing first base much for what was supposed to be a triumphant return to the Philadelphia Phillies this year, so just before the All-Star break the Phillies traded him to the Baltimore Orioles where he can be a designated hitter. In a way it's a last great hope for both player and team. The Orioles, overachieving so far this year but fading from a pennant race of late, need Thome to help keep them alive, and Thome needs to keep playing baseball.
The game is everything. He can't give it up.
"I love the game," Thome says.
Then, as if once wasn't enough, he says it again.
"I love the game."
He is staring into his locker, at the black Orioles' jersey hanging in the corner of the stall. For a moment it seems he doesn't want to stop looking at it. He is silent. Then he says again: "I love the game. I love the game."
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When the Orioles trickled back from the All-Star break Thursday afternoon, the first player in the clubhouse was Thome. He was so early he almost got to the park before manager Buck Showalter, a man known for spending an inordinate amount of time in the bowels of baseball stadiums. Thome did this not because he needed extra time in the training room or had contract issues to take care of but because it was the only place he wanted to be.
That evening, when Showalter addressed the players, the manager scanned the room as he talked, noting those whose attention was waning. But what shocked him was the player paying the most attention: the one with the most home runs, the one who has built such a mountain of respect no one would have given a thought had he missed the meeting. Instead, Thome stared at Showalter, absorbing every word as if it was the first meeting on the first day of his career.
It was such a startling sight that Showalter would later chuckle. Why couldn't the other players be like this? Why couldn't they care about the game as much as he does? Is it possible for a player today to love baseball this much?
"He doesn't have that disease of me," the manager said. "He doesn't have that inoperable disease of Jim."
The Orioles needed a big left-handed hitter. They needed another home run threat. And what better to have than the man who has hit more than 600 of them? They also needed someone who could get on base. And in his career, Thome has reached base 40 percent of the time. But more than home runs and walks, the Orioles needed someone who would show a young, mostly anonymous team how it should care.
Baltimore's management made background calls on Thome before the trade was made. Everyone wanted to be sure they weren't bringing in a broken down ballplayer hungry for one last paycheck. Showalter called Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who assured him that the player he had seen for years wobbling around batting cages, standing for all of batting practice in the late-day sun when the other stars had retreated to air conditioning, was indeed sincere.
Yes, he loves the game, the Orioles were told. He loves it in a way so few of them ever do.
Then when the trade was made and Thome arrived in Showalter's office July 1, the manager looked at his new slugger with the bad back and sore feet who is almost certainly solely a designated hitter now and joked: "I'm going to play you a little at first, a little at third, maybe some left field. …"
Thome stared at Showalter.
"I'll do it," he said.
Showalter laughed. He was sure Thome would.
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"I think you look at him and you say: 'This is a guy who loves the game more than anyone,' " says Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. "He's the first guy to the park, the first guy to the weight room, the first guy hitting. You would think a guy that's played the game for more than 20 years would be more … "
Wieters stops, searching for the right word.
"Jaded," someone suggests.
"Well, yeah," he replies.
The first time Wieters played against Thome, he mumbled a customary "How are you" to the slugger, then with the White Sox. Thome smiled.
"I'm doing great, Matt, how are you?" Wieters remembers him booming.
At first the catcher was stunned. A star who knew his name. But as he played more and more against Thome and Thome always seemed so happy and friendly, he realized this is just who Thome was.
"I think he makes it a point to learn the catcher's name just so he can say hello to him," Wieters says. "He's got 600 home runs and yet he acts like he hasn't got any."
The Orioles have given Thome the customary two lockers awarded to star players. Not that he needs two, or probably even cares. In the back of one sits a Louisville Slugger bat, the same 32-ounce model he has used his entire career. On a hook hangs a glove that is also the same style as he has always worn. He doesn't change. There are no pretensions. In the other locker hang a pair of jeans and a golf shirt. He's still who he has always been: forever the big kid from a little town in Central Illinois who loved to play baseball so much he couldn't give it up.
He stands before his lockers taking tiny half swings with his bat. When reporters stop by he greets them with a friendly hello, then hooks the bat in his arms behind his back as he talks. He smiles a lot because the conversation is baseball. And when he smiles, the edges of his eyes wrinkle.
When it is time for batting practice, Thome is one of the first players out the door. And even when he has taken his swings, Thome stays and finds people to talk to. He talks to Showalter. He talks to the coaches. He talks to the visiting clubhouse man who knows him from all his trips as an opposing player. He talks to teammates. He talks to players on the Detroit Tigers who drift onto the field as the Orioles finish their hitting.
Thome loves to talk about baseball. Teammates say this is all he does in the dugout during games.
"I talk the game," he says as he sits by his lockers. "When I sit in the dugout during games I talk baseball to these guys. You talk history. You talk the game. If a young guy asks you a question you talk to him. They'll ask, 'Hey, what's this pitcher like?' or 'What about the game?' I get a lot of questions. 'What about all those Indians teams you were on?' "
He pauses, gazing into his locker for a moment. Then he looks back up and smiles. The wrinkles fold around his eyes.
"I did it to Eddie Murray when he was in his 40s," Thome says.
Eddie Murray? The always angry Eddie Murray?
"Sure," Thome says. "He loves to talk the game."
In Jim Thome's world there are no villains, no grouches, no bums, just a game that has given him 22 years in the big leagues; a game he can't let go as long as someone keeps giving him a uniform, finding a place for someone who can hit an occasional home run and let the players around him feel the same joy.
"They keep me young," he says of the other men in the clubhouse, some barely half his age.
He laughs again. Those wrinkles crease around his eyes.
He's holding his bat, taking those half swings, the way he has for most of his life.
How is he ever going to let the game go?
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