Winning, grinning important to Thome

Winning, grinning important to Thome

CHAMPAIGN – In a sporting world populated by too many Terrell Owenses, Ron Artests and Marcus Vicks, there can't be enough Jim Thomes.

The Pride of Peoria visited Champaign on Saturday for the Illinois baseball team's annual Hot Stove Banquet, and by the time he'd finished speaking, the newest Chicago White Sox had made hundreds of new friends with his genuine good-guy demeanor.

No surprise there, given that Thome has a mantel full of plaques and certificates and assorted other honors that have absolutely nothing to do with his All-Star baseball abilities.

The Children's Miracle Network, the Lupus Foundation, United Way, United Cerebral Palsy, the National Conference for Community and Justice all have benefited from Thome's involvement in their causes. His fundraising efforts for Children's Hospital of Illinois in his hometown have surpassed the $10 million mark.

Both major league baseball and his own players' union have honored Thome with their highest awards for community service and charitable efforts – the Roberto Clemente Award and Marvin Miller "Man of the Year," respectively.

"There is so much more to Jim Thome than just baseball," Illini coach Dan Hartleb told a packed house at the Round Barn Banquet Centre while introducing the event's guest speaker.

History lesson

You might not know it, but 18 years ago Champaign came this close to claiming a bit of Thome as its own. Tom Dedin, then the baseball coach at Parkland and eldest son of the former Illini baseball coach of the same name, tried his darndest to recruit a switch-hitting shortstop out of the Peoria area. The Bartonville Limestone senior politely declined, opting to stay closer to home at Illinois Central College in East Peoria.

"We were close to getting him," Dedin, who now lives in Denver, said last week. "He was a heck of a hitter from both sides of the plate. ... I always knew he was going to move up and play at a higher level."

Although Thome remembers playing in Champaign against Dedin's Cobras, any details have been clouded by the passage of time.

"It's been a long time ago," said Thome, who not long ago got together with some of his junior college baseball buddies and mostly listened as the group reminisced. "I had to apologize" for not contributing his own memories, he said. "I've played so many games since then it's hard for me to remember every one."

Thome spent one season at ICC before being snapped up by the Cleveland Indians in the 1989 draft. Fifteen major league seasons – and 430 home runs – later, Thome is back in his home state as a member of the defending World Series champions after being acquired from Philadelphia.

"I'm very excited," he said.

And very undemanding.

Change of plans

After years in the field – initially as a third baseman and later at first base – Thome says he has no problem with becoming a full-time designated hitter, as he will in Chicago. A careerlong chase for a World Series title, which barely eluded him in 1995 and '97 with the Indians, takes priority over all else.

"I just want to win," he said. "I'm 35 now, and I think DH is really going to help me as far as my body. It's not for me to come here and demand what to do. I just want to play and be a good teammate and win a championship."

If Thome can regain the good health that has marked most of his career, the Sox's chances to repeat undoubtedly will improve. He hasn't played in a game since June 30, sidelined by a frayed tendon in his right elbow that was surgically repaired Aug. 15. Thome insists his rehab is right on schedule, with his trips to the batting cage scheduled to increase from five days a week to six starting Monday.

"Everything has come along very smoothly .... knock on wood," he said.

Truth be told, Thome grew up a fan of that other Chicago team, attending games at Wrigley Field with his father, Chuck. On one of those trips, an uninhibited 8-year-old leaped onto the field and into the home dugout in pursuit of an autograph from Dave Kingman, who moments earlier had ignored the youngster's request. Thome never made it to "King Kong," instead being intercepted by Cubs catcher Barry Foote and returned to the stands.

That memory stuck with Thome, and because it has, he remains one of the softest touches an autograph seeker will find in the big leagues.

"I understand when a little kid approaches you what it means to turn him down," Thome said.

That's why this good guy never does.

Jeff Huth is a News-Gazette staff writer. You can reach him at (217) 351-5384 or via e-mail at jhuthnews-gazette.com.

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