About a year ago I summarized Albert Pujols’ rapid emergence from unheralded 13th round draft pick in 1999 to major league star. Jim Thome took a similar path, from being drafted out of junior college by the Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 draft to playing for the team at the end of 1991. It took Thome quite a bit longer than Pujols to become a starter, but here are two reports from the early ’90s that properly tabbed him as a future star. In April 1991, Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote:
If anyone was ever bred for baseball stardom, it’s Thome.
The scout responsible for drafting Thome in the 13th round of the 1989 lottery, Tom Couston, noticed right away, and he didn’t even know the whole story.
“The scout didn’t have much information on Thome’s family, but he did know one thing, they’re big people,” says Dan O’Dowd, the Tribe’s director of player development.
When Cleveland claimed Thome in the draft, he still had growing to do. Only 18 at the time, Thome was 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds.
Now 20, Thome stands 6-3 and weighs in at 210 pounds.
That doesn’t necessarily make him a baseball player, but there’s an impeccable lineage to back up his good work habits and a desire to succeed.
“It’s my dad’s side of the family,” Thome says. “They’re all in the Peoria Hall of Fame.”
Just hold the snickers, please. Granted, Peoria, Ill., does not spit out baseball players like Orange County, Calif., San Pedro de Macoris, D.R. or even Cincinnati. But the Thome family does seem special.
Thome’s father, Chuck Jr., “was rated one of the best softball players in the world,” Thome says. “He played third base on one those fast-pitch teams that traveled all over the country. He used to have these unbelievable battles with Eddie Feigner.”
Feigner gained widespread fame as pitcher and manager of the King and His Court, the 4-man softball team that toured the country beating conventional 10-man teams.
“My dad was good, but he says my uncle Art was a great hitter. My grandfather Chuck Sr. also could play, and my aunt Carolyn was named Miss National Softball or something in the early `60s.”
None of this was apparent to the Indians when they drafted Thome. Most 13th-round selections never work their way up from suspect to prospect.
But it didn’t take Thome long. Thome reported to the Gulf Coast League in July, 1989, and failed to distinguish himself, batting .237 with no home runs and 22 RBI in 55 games.
“You have to throw a player’s first year out the window,” O’Dowd says. “For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve been away from home, and playing baseball for a living is a lot different than playing in high school and college.
“But I’m not going to tell you we knew what we had. All we knew is that the kid had a great mental makeup.”
By 1990, Thome had begun to fill out and sprout up. He started the year at Burlington, another rookie league club, though a step up from the Gulf Coast League. It didn’t take long for him to become a legendary hitter. After 34 games, Thome was batting .373 with 12 home runs and 34 RBI.
To put that in perspective, Thome played less than half of the Appalachian League’s 80-game season yet finished third in homers.
“During one stretch,” Thome recalls, “I had seven homers in seven days and didn’t even realize it.”
He was promoted to Kinston of the much tougher Carolina League, and hardly missed a beat. In 33 games, he batted .308 with four homers and 16 RBI. At home he hit .411 in 17 games.
The bonus is that Thome bats from the left side and might be good enough to play third base in the big leagues, though that won’t be known for a while. “Left-handed power hitters are hard to find, and he’s improved 100 percent at third base,” O’Dowd says. . . .
“I’d get four hits in high school and my dad would have something negative to say,” Thome recalls. “But he knew that’s what would make me concentrate even more.”
Effusive praise from Chuck Jr. rarely has been forthcoming, but there are times when Thome can almost see his father’s chest explode with pride.
“My dad always told me that my uncle was the best hitter ever to come out of Peoria,” Thome said. “But now he says I’m even better, and that tells me something.”
In May 1992, Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote about how Thome had surprised everybody by winding up a major leaguer:
Thome’s rise through the Tribe’s farm system has been so swift and unexpected, it has left every close observer shaking his head.
Chuck Thome, Jim’s father, a former world-class fast-pitch softball player, says: “I’m just totally flabbergasted by how he’s progressed. I didn’t think he had the talent. I really didn’t.”
Carl Gottlieb, Thome’s manager at Limestone High School in Bartonville, Ill., says: “He sure wasn’t a bum, but on the team he played with, he was about third- or fourth-best.”
Todd Furniss, Thome’s manager at Illinois Central College, says: “I figured it would take him at least five years to get to the big leagues.”
Brian Graham, Thome’s manager at Class A Kinston who now is at Class AA Canton-Akron, says: “I have to believe Jim Thome’s made more progress than any player we’ve had in the organization.”
Dan O’Dowd, Indians director of player development, says: “There is no way any of us thought this kid was going to make it up (to the major leagues) this soon.”
The Thome family has an athletic tradition steeped in baseball and softball. Four members – Jim’s grandfather, father, uncle and aunt – were enshrined as a group into the Greater Peoria Area Sports Hall of Fame for their contributions to sandlot programs.
Brothers Chuck, 35, and Randy, 33, had more baseball talent than Jim, said their father, but did not pursue careers. Being so much younger than both, Jim had to work hard to live up to their reputations – and their physiques.
“Chuck was big, 6-4 and 250,” said the elder Chuck Thome. “Jim always asked, ‘Mom, what did Chuck eat? Am I ever gonna get as big as him?’ Even now, the first thing he does when he walks in the house when Chuck’s home is say, ‘OK, take off your shirt. Let’s take a picture.’
Jim’s physical development accelerated after he played one year at Illinois Central. It led to his rapid development as a player.
At junior college, Thome was about 6-1 and 180. He played shortstop for a .500 club and was not highly touted. The Indians surprised everyone in central Illinois by taking him as high as the 13th round.
Thome was still immature physically and mentally, he said, when he spent the 1989 summer with the Gulf Coast League Indians in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 19 and lonely. Away from his close-knit family for the first time, Thome hit a dismal .237.
“He came home from that and told me, ‘Dad, I’m not strong enough to play this game, but I’m gonna get that way,’ Chuck Thome said.
O’Dowd said, “He turned into a physical monster (now 6-4 and 220 pounds).” But the key to Thome’s maturity as a hitter came the following year.
He was returned to St. Petersburg after a frustrating spring in Tucson. The Indians didn’t think he was ready for their lowest farm club.
At “extended spring training,” Charlie Manuel, then a roving minor-league hitting instructor, and Dave Keller, now the manager at Class A Kinston, worked with Thome’s swing.
“We had been constantly trying to get him to ‘load’ his bat,’ said O’Dowd. “By that I mean to use preliminary movement with his hands to get into hitting position. Jimmy would always hit from a dead stop. It’s the aluminum bat syndrome.
“One day in the batting cage, it clicked. He just started doing it and he hit for two weeks. Then he absolutely took off.”
Dispatched to Class A Burlington, Thome hit .373 with 12 homers and 34 RBI in 34 games. Promoted to Kinston, he hit .308 in 33 games.
“That’s when he was tabbed as a bona fide prospect,” said John Hart, Indians general manager. “He started growing on everybody (in the organization).”
The next year, 1991, Thome started at Class AA Canton-Akron. He said he expected to stay the whole season. He was leading the pitching-rich Eastern League with a .337 average in 84 games when he was promoted to Class AAA Colorado Springs. In 41 games there, he hit .285, before being called up to the big club.
“The credit goes to his work habits,” said Graham.
Thome always worked hard. Gottlieb, his high school coach, said that Thome would always be at practice 15 minutes before anybody else, so that he could get in extra work.
“We call it ‘Thome time,’ Gottlieb said. “If I tell a player ‘Be there at Thome time,’ it means be there 15 minutes early.’
As his body filled out, Thome was switched from shortstop to third base at Class A Kinston. He has worked hard at that part of his game, too, but may never develop into a slick fielder.
O’Dowd worries that Thome may eventually fill out physically at, say, 6-5 and 240 pounds, like his brother Chuck. If so, he would have to be moved to another position, possibly first base or designated hitter.
It is the kind of problem the Indians would welcome. They now believe his potential as a hitter is unlimited. He projects as a high-average hitter to all fields who will smash home runs by accident.
“A surprise like Thome happens, maybe every five or six years, to a good organization,” said O’Dowd