© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
Jim Thome, the eighth member of the 600-homer club, now has his rightful place in history. And though the decision is his and his alone, he might also have enough incentive to call it a career at season's end.
"I do love the game," Thome told me the other day. "I do still love to play the game. But there is a day that I do look forward to going home and being with my kids. As much as this has given me, it's also very important to know when the time is right to go home to your kids and your family, you know? And they're getting to that age where it's getting close. It's getting close."
Health was the prevailing reason Thome opted, at 40 years old, to return to the Twins this season. After a month's break at the end of last season, he felt rested and resilient enough to sign on for designated hitter duties once more.
But this milestone undoubtedly had an impact on Thome's decision-making, too. He entered 2011 just 11 home runs shy of the feat, so to walk away from that possibility, with two good legs and two strong arms, would have been a travesty.
"I mean, how do you ever imagine 600 home runs?" he said. "If you'd ever asked me if I'd be sitting where I am at 40 and still playing, you'd have to be pinched. It's really neat. It's cool. And being a fan of the history of the game, I've tried not to think about it, because the task at hand is to perform. But you can get caught up in the history of it very easy. Very easy."
This is where Thome stands in history. Not only did he reach 600, he did so in the second-fewest at-bats ever, behind only Babe Ruth.
And not only is he eighth in the homer tally, he also ranks eighth in walks, with 1,710. His lifetime on-base percentage of .403 ranks 25th among those with at least 7,500 plate appearances.
There was a time not long ago when a player with those credentials would have been a slam-dunk Hall of Fame selection. These days, though, it's a talking point, with plenty of argument on each side.
If it's my vote -- and it's not -- Thome is a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Not once has he been tied to the stigma of performance-enhancing drugs, other than the slippery slope that is guilt by association within an era. And whether or not his numbers received their due discussion as he was putting them up, the fact is that they still stand out, even by the standards of the profound power we witnessed in the 1990s and 2000s.
Baseball-reference.com ranks Thome 53rd among position players in Wins Above Replacement (71.1). His .960 lifetime OPS ranks 17th. The only players ahead of him who are not in the Hall are Larry Walker and Mark McGwire. Walker was a first-timer on the ballot last year, while McGwire, of course, has had his candidacy all but ignored because of his admitted use of performance-enhancers.
No one can definitively prove that Thome did not use steroids, and the timing of his career will undoubtedly taint his candidacy on some level or among some voters.
"I think everyone knows [performance-enhancing drugs] were in our era," Thome said. "It was a part of it. And I've said this -- I've been very open about this -- not everybody in that era did it. You can't punish everybody. I think there are still people that are hurt that guys did that. It's not about me paying the price or anybody else paying the price. It's just that people have the right to choose what they want to say or do. I think that's basically how it is."
Thome is too humble to tout his own candidacy, and that's part of what has made him a Hall of Fame person, in addition to a Hall of Fame player. Ultimately, the Hall of Fame comes down to a judgment call on the part of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and it has to help Thome that you'd be hard-pressed to find a single writer, broadcaster, manager, player, front-office executive, batboy or clubbie with a negative word to say about him.
The negatives trailing Thome revolve more around his lifetime batting average (.277), his lack of a defensive identity (he shifted from third to first in 1997 and has been primarily a DH since 2006) and his strikeout totals. Thome's 2,453 career Ks are the second-most ever. Then again, the only guy with more strikeouts than Thome is Reggie Jackson, and the Hall found a home for him.
What's interesting about Thome's Hall of Fame candidacy is the lack of, well, fame. He was a five-time All-Star but not a perennial one. He never received a single first-place MVP vote, and the highest he finished in the balloting was fourth, after his first season with the Phillies in 2003. The one place where Thome could have been a lifelong icon is now the one place where he gets booed. Many Clevelanders still haven't forgiven him for leaving as a free agent after the 2002 season.
Sometimes, there is a tendency to overlook or be unimpressed with players who simply stick around long enough to compile impressive statistics, without many major accolades along the way. But in Thome's case, such longevity ought to be appreciated, for he continued to produce after his prime years and after the game ramped up its drug-testing procedures.
I don't know if Thome is thinking about retirement now that he has his 600th home run. But I do know that when Thome does retire, the voters should think of him as a Hall of Famer.