The Chicago White Sox scored something of a coup by announcing Jim Thome will be joining the organization as a special assistant to GM Rick Hahn. Thome played for the White Sox, and hit his 500th career home run for them in 2007. Jim Thome is a Hall of Famer in waiting, and even if he’ll likely be inducted into Cooperstown in an Indians cap, the White Sox also can claim him as one of their own.
But Jim Thome grew up a Cubs fan in Peoria, Ill. A story on JockBio.com says he attended his first game at Wrigley Field at the age of eight. He went in search of Dave Kingman‘s autograph, but was unsuccessful. He made his way into the Cubs dugout, though, and that fueled his desire to become a big-leaguer. How many of us wish that we had such a fire in our own childhood?
Jim Thome grew up, just as I did, watching the Cubs play on WGN in Chicago. Jack Brickhouse announced the games, while Arne Harris directed them on TV, and it was enough to make any kid want to spend his days in and around the ballpark. The Cubs were Thome’s window into the majors, and playing in Wrigley Field must have been his fondest dream once upon a time. And there was a brief moment where that might have been a reality, too. Regrettably, fate had other ideas.
We all know Jim Thome broke into the majors with the Cleveland Indians in the 1990s. The Tribe was loaded then, with Thome and Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, to name a few. They slowly began leaving as free agency beckoned, and the end of Thome’s days in Cleveland came in 2002. Thome was a free agent, and he was expected to draw many large offers.
One team that needed a first baseman — more than they realized — was the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had a young slugger named Hee Seop Choi at first base, and he would play for a fraction of the dollars Thome could command. But the chance to take Thome seemed too good to pass up, at least to me.
Thome would have be quite expensive for the Cubs to sign. And they also were known to be Sammy Sosa‘s team in those days. Perhaps the team wanted to skimp on other talent in order to carry Sosa’s big paycheck and to pay for the large contract Mark Prior had received. So the team went with Choi, and never pursued Thome as seriously as they could have.
Choi’s $305,000 salary for the 2003 season was about what Thome made in a week. When Thome signed his contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, it was for six years and $85 million. Financially, there was no reason for the Cubs to jump into the fray for Thome’s services at first base. But as we all know, hindsight is 20/20, and in the case of Thome and the Cubs, it’s enough to make me want to look away as quickly as possible.
Choi was injured when he hit his head on the Wrigley Field turf on a Saturday in early June. He came back at the end of the month, but hardly played down the stretch, and was left off the playoff roster altogether. The Cubs got by with Eric Karros and Randall Simon at first base, and they were serviceable enough players. But those two put together — on their best days — couldn’t offer the team what Thome could.
Quite simply, Thome was a beast his first year in Philadelphia. He hit 47 homers, drove in 131 runs, and finished fourth in the National League MVP balloting. It was the closest he came to winning that award, and he followed it with another stellar season in 2004, before going down with an injury in 2005. The production Thome could have given the Cubs — in a ballpark that seems to have been made for him to hit in — would have easily been enough to get the Cubs over the hump that has been eluding them for so many years.
It didn’t happen that way, though, and my writing hundreds of words about it now won’t somehow make it so. Jim Thome did eventually get to play in Chicago, and now he’ll be a high-profile part of the White Sox organization. Good for him, and good for the Sox to be smart enough to bring him back into their fold. If only the Cubs had been wise enough, and bold enough, to take a chance on him a decade ago. Had they done this, their ongoing championship drought would likely be a thing of the past.