Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I Got Thome

The other day, the great Joe Posnanski* wrote a piece about how in sports we don't need a reason to choose what we celebrate, we just need a consensus. In other words, if we all agree that hitting streaks are worth celebrating, we celebrate them. But if we all agree that 10,000 rebounds, a feat achieved by 34 men, isn't such a big deal, we don't celebrate them.

* When I do these little asterisk/italics things, I am using a Posnanski invention called the Posterisk. It is superior to parenthesis and footnotes, and I hope it catches on.

As it turns out, his timing was perfect. Because last night Jim Thome hit his 599th and 600th home runs. It was an astonishingly rare achievement, one of the rarest in sports. Only 8 men in baseball history have accomplished the feat, and the other 7 are baseball legends, admitted steroid users, or both.

And yet...the world yawned. There will be no HBO special commemorating his chase for 600. His achievement did not pass the Lucille Test. Few people marveled at the way he achieved it, being the first man to hit back-to-back jacks to get to a six-pack.

Most importantly, ESPN's SportsCenter this morning followed up the highlight of this game with a segment titled "Hall of Famer?" The report, by Tim Kurkjian, concluded he was a Hall of Famer. But that's quite a question mark. 600 homers does not punch your ticket to the Hall.

This is in stark contrast to the celebration around Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit. 3,000 hits is a much more common achievement. 28 guys have gotten to that level.*

* In a related note, sometime this September Clinton Portis will become the 26th NFL player to rush for 10,000 yards. Will anyone care?

In fact one can argue Thome has been a better player than Jeter. He's almost certainly a better hitter. He got to his 600th homer with far fewer (around 900) plate appearances than Jeter needed for 3000. He has a lower batting average (.312 to .277), but a higher On-Base Percentage (.403 to .383) and a much higher slugging % (.557 to .449).

Of course, Jeter was a far superior fielder and a much better base runner (335 stolen bases to 19). The Captain was not quite the October superhero people think he was, but he was a very good post-season player, whereas Thome wasn't. Most importantly, Jeter is the rare modern athlete who has spent his entire career with one team, so his connection to that fan base is greater, certainly, than Thome is to Minnesota, or even Cleveland.

The point here isn't to bash Jeter, who deserves the credit he received. It's to wonder why Thome's far rarer achievement is virtually ignored.

It's not because he's a bad guy - in fact by all accounts he's a great guy. According to Joe Pos, he's won the Clemente Award and the Gehrig Award. He's been voted the nicest guy in baseball by his peers. And it has something to do with the fact that homers have been devalued in our post-Bonds era.

But still...there's a good chance that in about 8 or 9 years, Jeter will be cruising to Cooperstown as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And Jim Thome might be on his 3rd year trying to get in. Will he be joining him?

About the name of this post...in 1992 my friends and I founded the Madisox Fantasy Baseball League. (Odd Couple fans know the name comes from an episode involving television's greatest sportswriter). That first year, well, the details are hazy but my buddy Costello drafted this Indians prospect named Jim Thome. Later, somebody tried to draft Thome but Costello, looking over his roster, said, "No, I got Thome. I definitely got Thome." Only he pronounced it with a Th- sound, rhyming with home. Anyway, "I got Thome" is one of the catchphrases of our league, and has been repeated at every draft since.

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