Thome happy to be back with Phillies

Jim Thome rounds the bases after hitting his 600th career home run in August. He hit his 400th as a member of the Phillies in 2004.
Jim Thome rounds the bases after hitting his 600th career home run in August. He hit his 400th as a member of the Phillies in 2004. (DUANE BURLESON / Associated Press)
Posted: November 06, 2011

In recent years, the calls from suitors have come later and with less frequency than before. When Jim Thome first made a trip to Philadelphia to sign a contract nearly nine years ago, he was the highest-paid player in Phillies history and a 6-foot-3, tater-mashing symbol of change. Now, he's 41 and has 604 home runs to his name, but that does not guarantee a thing.

So when Ruben Amaro Jr. phoned Thome shortly after baseball's free agency period began Thursday morning with an offer to return to Philadelphia, the slugger did not need to listen further.

"To be honest, it really surprised me that my phone rang that quick," Thome said Saturday at Citizens Bank Park. "So here we are."

Thome signed a one-year deal with the Phillies that, according to a baseball source, is worth $1.25 million. The Phillies will ask him to fill the role of bench player, something Thome has never done in his 21-season career. He no longer has the benefit of the designated- hitter position to accrue at-bats without requiring a glove. Staying sharp will be a challenge and adjustments will come.

On Saturday, Thome's trademark smile momentarily cast aside those questions.

"I'm excited to be here," Thome said. "It's kind of surreal, to be honest, to be sitting here with the team they have and what they've done in the National League and in baseball. It's been fun to watch them from the other side and now it's even better to sit here and be a part of it."

The Phillies wanted Thome last August, but Cleveland claimed him off waivers before the Phillies had a chance. Thome has longed for a reunion with manager Charlie Manuel, his baseball mentor and father figure. In a clubhouse that occasionally lacked a vocal leader in times of distress, Thome provides a voice respected by his peers.

He may even be able to recruit others, too. Thome said he has already exchanged text messages with former Minnesota teammate Michael Cuddyer, a free agent the Phillies have interest in. "I'm sure we will talk going forward," Thome said.

Most important, Thome brings the threat of power off Manuel's bench that can alter late-game situations. The challenge will be finding enough use for Thome to keep him a weapon.

His time at first base will be, at best, limited. Thome has not played an inning in the field since 2007 and just 28 total innings in the last five seasons. He said he hasn't taken ground balls at first since 2009. (Yes, he actually did carry a glove with him for the last two seasons.) If he does play first base, it could be once a week at most.

Thome effectively replaces Ross Gload as the top lefthanded bat off the bench. Gload made $1.6 million in 2011 and is a free agent. He was hampered by hip problems all season, but still played 85 innings in the field to help keep his bat sharp. Matt Stairs was primarily a pinch-hitter in 2009, but even he logged 94 innings in the field.

Thome believes he can condition himself to fewer at-bats given such notice in November. The advice he received from Harold Baines before embarking on six years as a designated hitter was to formulate a plan. Thome expects his routine to change as a pinch-hitter, and he said he would likely arrive early for spring training to prepare defensively.

"I looked in the mirror and said, 'OK, I haven't played first base, but also I like the challenge of preparing over the winter to get ready for it,'" Thome said. "In the past, whether through a trade or whatever, during the season I think it's a little bit different than getting an opportunity to prepare all winter for it. It'll be a great challenge. It'll be fun. We'll see what happens."

In time, Thome and the Phillies will discover if the plan works. But for now, it's a low-risk signing of a popular player who has belted more home runs than all but seven hitters in baseball history. And if this is how his Hall of Fame career ends, Thome feels quite right about it.

"It was," Thome said, "an easy decision."


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

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