Homecoming King: Jim Thome
Philly's love for once-great athletes
IT'S A JANUARY morning and Jim Thome is back in the Phillies' clubhouse, acting just like you think Jim Thome would act - like the genial everyman he's been throughout his career. He looks you in the eye and gives a hearty laugh. He jokes about having to do pilates to stay in playing shape, displaying the sort of unassuming attitude that's made him a beloved character throughout baseball.
At 6-3, 250 pounds, Thome still cuts an imposing figure. But he is now 41 years old, and this will be his 22nd season in the major leagues. It will also most likely be his last - and it will come in Philadelphia. On Nov. 4, he signed a 1-year deal with the Phillies for $1.25 million.
The signing makes Thome the most recent (and most prominent) example of what's become a signature trend among Philly's professional athletes: formerly beloved players who return for one last grasp at glory with their former franchise. Whether it's Thome or Cliff Lee with the Phillies; Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter with the Eagles; Rick Tocchet and Mark Recchi with the Flyers; even Allen Iverson with the Sixers, a bevy of former stars have made Broad and Pattison a popular place for reunions in recent years.
Indeed, while nobody was looking, a place that was once dubbed "The City that Loves You Back," has turned into "The City that Welcomes You Back." Somehow, we've become the grandfather you go to for a loan, the ex who will always take your call. It seems no matter what happens elsewhere, if we loved you once, you're always free to come home. The place that athletes once couldn't wait to leave has become the place to which they can't wait to return.
To understand the irony of Philadelphia becoming a landing spot for its former stars, it's helpful to remember the first time Thome considered playing here. A decade ago, the idea that a player such as Thome would consider signing with the Phillies was antithetical to what fans had long experienced with Philadelphia teams. This was the city that Reggie White left, where Charles Barkley and Randall Cunningham couldn't win. Curt Schilling didn't stay with the Phillies. Neither did Scott Rolen. Yet, here was Thome, the best free agent on the market in 2002, taking a recruiting trip to see the yet-to-be-finished Citizens Bank Park, a place that embodied a hopeful departure from a decade of disappointment. The slugger was famously presented a white construction hat with red lettering that read "Philadelphia wants Jim Thome," courtesy of the Local 98 union. Whatever the reason - the hat, the ballpark, the promise of vast riches - Thome eventually came here, signing a 6-year, $85 million deal and becoming the first marquee free agent for a team, and a city, on the precipice of a baseball renaissance.
Thome continued to validate his reputation as a bona fide slugger in his first 2 years as a Phillie, and ushered the team into CBP in 2004. In the final game at Veterans Stadium, Mike Schmidt held Thome's hand at home plate, one Philadelphia baseball icon passing the mantle to someone who could be the next. Even Harry Kalas invoked Thome's name for the broadcaster's final words at the old stadium: "And now, Veterans Stadium is like a 3-1 pitch to Jim Thome or Mike Schmidt. It's on a looooooong drive . . . it's outta here!"
Reality soon chased down the fairy tale, though. When injuries complicated Thome's third year in Philadelphia, Ryan Howard proved to be a younger, cheaper and potentially better option at first base (imagine Howard as the younger and cheaper option!), and the Phillies traded Thome to the White Sox.
"It was 3 years of my life, leaving a place I had been for a long time that I really enjoyed," Thome says. "I understood the situation at the time, and business is business."
Ten winters later, Thome returns to the city that has moved on since his departure, with a ballpark that's filled each night and a championship banner hanging in the outfield. Thome isn't the franchise savior this time around. And he's not the Jim Thome who Philadelphia fans remember, the Bunyanesque figure who could hit home runs to the cheap seats and then be happy to grab a beer with the fan who caught it afterward. Rather, he is now an aging roster's eldest citizen, a guy who has to do yoga just to try to play in the field once a week.
For Thome, the reasons to return are straightforward, a simple mix of interest and opportunity. The Phils had an opening. Other cases arise out of necessity. Douglas came to the Eagles in 2004 when N.D. Kalu suffered a season-ending injury. Likewise, Trotter's third stint with the Eagles in 2009 came after an injury left the team thin at middle linebacker (sound familiar?).
Others, though, come back for more complicated reasons. Iverson seemed like he was trying to re-create some lost magic in the only place that still believed him capable of it.
There's another factor at play in the homecoming trend. For much of the past decade, the major Philadelphia franchises - save the Sixers - have maintained consistent leadership structures. Andy Reid has coached the Eagles since 1999, and team president Joe Banner has been with the organization even longer. Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren have spent the majority of their professional lives affiliated with the Flyers. Ruben Amaro worked for Ed Wade before he became the Phillies' general manager, and Wade worked for Lee Thomas before becoming GM. Charlie Manuel has managed the club since 2005 and was with the organization 2 years before that.
What's that meant is that in almost every case, returnees are know quantities. No digging needs to be done, no references need to be checked. The teams know exactly what they're getting themselves into.
It's not always clear if fans and the players have the same understanding, especially since the second time around usually pales in comparison to the first. The jersey may be the same, the fans may be the same, the ownership may be the same, but the performance level is - almost always - very different. In other words, if fans expect the Thome of yore, they're bound for disappointment.
That's what Tocchet learned. He spent the first 8 years of his career in Philadelphia, reaching three All-Star games and serving as Flyers captain. When the Flyers traded him, he was in the prime of his career. He didn't return until his he was a half-step away from retirement, at age 35, in 1999. He nevertheless called it a move "that made" his career. Yet it wouldn't have worked if Tocchet did not understand who he was at that point.
"You're obviously not going to be the player you are in the prime, and if you take a role and accept it, once they see you come back, the fans will love you and accept you," he says. "You become even more of a leader. You try to fit a role, whatever that is . . . You try to have some good games for the team, but you know the young guys will be playing more than you."
Thome already has some experience in diminishing expectations. His view on his career changed in 2010, when Minnesota signed him as a bat off the bench and a leader in the clubhouse. He knew what to expect upon arriving at spring training. As it turned out, Thome performed well enough to carve a more permanent job in the Twins' lineup. But the experience in Minnesota served as a preamble for the job with the Phillies.
"I know my role," Thome says. "My role is to be a bench guy and to play first base when called upon. Come in late in the game and try to get a hit."
The best comparison Thome can make to what he'll experience this season in Philadelphia was his final month with the Indians last season. Before Thome arrived in Philadelphia, he was a much-beloved figure in Cleveland. The Indians drafted him in the 13th round in 1989, and the organization developed him from a third baseman to first baseman. It's where he became a perennial All-Star.
"Getting to go back [to Cleveland] was really kind of a dream come true for me," Thome says. "I always thought one day I'd have the chance to go back there. I have to say, they welcomed me with open arms. It was awesome."
It doesn't always work out so well, though. When Iverson returned to Philadelphia in December 2009, the Sixers were in the middle of a 12-game losing streak, with serious shortcomings on the court and fan interest rapidly waning. After 4 years away, Iverson re-signed with the team so he could come "back home" to the city that loved him for more than 10 seasons.
"I really think it's a blessing that I'm back here. I think it's only right," Iverson said at the time.
Yet the experiment was short-lived. It was clear after a single game that the player on the court did not match the player in fans' memories. Iverson left the team to care for his ill daughter after 10 wins in 25 games. He averaged 13.9 points, and the tenure is mostly remembered as a clumsy attempt by a desperate front office to resurrect something that would have been better left in the past.
That's the biggest risk for the player: that a once-proud legacy could be tarnished, that the larger-than-life persona is reduced to that of the hanger-on, like a former chart-topping musician forced to play county fairs. The current book on Iverson in Philadelphia doesn't just include the MVP season and trip to the NBA Finals; it also includes the unceremonious way it ended.
If nothing else, an athlete's return to Philadelphia can sometimes reveal just how good he had it here in the first place.
Trotter and Douglas were stalwarts of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's early-2000s defenses, yet when they became free agents, the offers were more lucrative elsewhere. So they went, and neither could duplicate the success - or the adoration - that he had in Philadelphia. They were stars in Philadelphia, fan favorites, part of the fabric of the city. Elsewhere, they were high-paid newcomers who couldn't live up to their contracts. Both only realized how much they appreciated Philadelphia when they didn't have it anymore.
Echoes Tocchet: "I knew it was a great place to play, but I think sometimes you take things for granted. You appreciate it more when you come back and realize you had it pretty good in Philadelphia."
Tocchet believes the phenomenon is unique to Philadelphia. Athletes don't return to other cities the same way they do here. And the reason is because of the special connection athletes build with this city and its fans. Tocchet recently played in the Alumni Game at the Winter Classic. When he looked around, he realized 45,808 people had come to Citizens Bank Park to watch a group of over-the-hill former athletes. And the reason they came is because those Flyers are a part of Philadelphia history and the history of a Philadelphia fan's life - in a way that athletes just aren't in most places.
For many athletes, playing and succeeding here is different than doing it elsewhere - and worth a second chance. The career of a professional athlete is fleeting. But the life cycle of a Philadelphia fan doesn't end. It's carried from childhood to adulthood, passed from father to son, with the legends of the past becoming the benchmarks of the future.
"To . . . ride down Broad Street would be pretty amazing," Thome says. "I often dreamed of that. To win a world championship coming down here, where I know how passionate the fans are. It would be pretty cool to say you've won a world championship and do it in a place you've had a history."