Thome left lasting impact in Philly
Utley, Howard praise former Phillies star in his return
PHILADELPHIA -- Jim Thome hadn't been wearing Phillies pinstripes for long when he noticed the confident but wide-eyed kid sitting in the adjacent locker.In a crowded Spring Training clubhouse at the Carpenter Complex, Thome introduced himself to a young player who hadn't yet made his Major League debut. Chase Utley couldn't have been luckier to wear No. 26 and be placed next to big No. 25. "He made me feel like I was part of the team right there," Utley said. "He was like that with everybody, whether you were No. 78 or No. 1." Utley learned plenty that spring as the Phillies' biggest free-agent signing since Pete Rose explained baseball in a booming, friendly voice, listening to Utley's ideas and offering his own. The more the bear of a man talked, the more Utley absorbed. "He was the player I watched growing up," Utley said. "He was one of the best left-handed hitters at the time. I always kept track of how he was doing. I tried to pattern my stance after him. It worked for him, so I figured it would work for me." Utley has since found a stance that works pretty well, but will never forget those locker sessions. The All-Star second baseman would come and go during the 2003 season, before arriving for good in 2004. "He's become a tremendous hitter," Thome said about Utley in his first Philadelphia appearance since being traded to the White Sox on Nov. 25, 2005. "He's a special player and is going to have a long career." Thome has watched Utley from afar the past two years, and Utley is one of many players who considers himself better for knowing Thome. The big guy impacted the team and the city greatly from the day he signed in December 2002 to when he played his final game on June 26, 2005 -- walking in his final plate appearance. Thome went on the disabled list shortly after with right elbow tendinitis that eventually required season-ending surgery. Just before Thanksgiving in '05, new general manager Pat Gillick dealt Thome and $22 million to the White Sox. Eager to return to his home state, the slugger quickly waived his no-trade clause. With that, his 2 1/2-year run in Philadelphia ended without the championship he was signed to deliver. Still, the big guy's arrival made the Phillies relevant again. "At the time, it was the right decision for my family and my career," Thome said. "When I signed here, people told me, 'Don't do it, don't do it.' But I felt it was the right move for me. Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing. They wanted me. They [were building] a new ballpark. I'm very proud that I did that. Every player, you like to feel wanted. Philadelphia did that for me from minute one, even until the end, when I got hurt."
In that end, Ryan Howard was ready to assume the gig in 2006, having come off a National League Rookie of the Year campaign he accomplished in Thome's stead. One small matter remained -- the Phillies played in the NL, where there was no designated hitter.So Aaron Rowand, Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood became Phillies, with only Rowand remaining from that deal. Haigwood brought Fabio Castro last season, and Gonzalez was packaged with Gavin Floyd to land Freddy Garcia from the White Sox. Despite his relative short stay, Thome was arguably the team's most important signing of the previous decade. The Phillies were coming off their eighth losing season in the past nine years, and attendance at Veterans Stadium had dipped considerably. With Citizens Bank Park expected to open in 2004, Thome was a marquee arrival who provided serious star power, after signing a six-year, $85 million contract.
The city never fully embraced Bobby Abreu and hadn't seen Utley or Howard take a Major League at-bat. Thome's likeness was stamped all over the team's marketing campaign, and the mere mention of his name seemingly spiked season-ticket packages."When you sign as a free agent, it's your responsibility to be a part of that," Thome said. "You have to give back as well." Thome's legend grew quickly when he slugged a batting practice home run onto Route 19 in Clearwater, Fla., in Spring Training. In his first spring at-bat, against the Pirates, he homered again. He then went 3-for-4 in his first game as a Phillie, and hit his first two homers in his eighth game. He led the NL with 47 homers in 2003, and clubbed 42 in '04. Phillies fans certainly remember the home runs he hit in three consecutive games against the Marlins in 2003, including one into Hurricane Isidore. They also remember the night in June 2004 when he hit his 400th homer, and recall giving him a 10-minute standing ovation. There were many, many more memorable moments, and the fans loved him for it. "You hear Philadelphia is a tough place to play," Thome said. "But those people took me in from minute one, and I appreciated that." Thome returned on Monday, but the absence of a designated hitter kept him on the bench. He got as far as the on-deck circle as the potential tying run, but Antonio Alfonseca retired Luis Terrero for the final out of the game. Thome is expected to start at first base in Wednesday's game. At Class A Lakewood, during Thome's magical first season, Howard wondered what might happen to him. "Slightly," he said, asked if he heard the buzz generated by Thome. "That was my first year. There was one of two things you could do: be disheartened or just play and see what happens. We were always told that you're playing for 29 other teams. The goal is to get to the big leagues." Thome's injuries opened the door for Howard, and the rest is history. The protégé won NL Rookie of the Year honors. After Thome left, Howard won the NL MVP. And with Thome watching from the bench on Monday, Howard smacked his 13th home run. But he's no Thome. "I can't fill his shoes. There's only one Jim Thome," Howard said. Howard and Thome are grateful that everything worked out well for both of them. Howard became a star in the only organization he knew -- just like Thome did in Cleveland -- and Thome went home to Illinois, where his father, Chuck, and his family could see him play regularly. Thome's return to Philadelphia brought up an interesting matchup. He got to face a team managed by Charlie Manuel for the first time in his career. Manuel has been like a father to Thome since he was drafted as a shortstop with the Indians, managing the slugger in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Did he want to beat Manuel? "It will be nice," Thome said. "You know what, Charlie is like a dad to me. Sometimes you have to try to beat your dad as well."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.