Bill Lyon: Thome's long goodbye

Posted: April 29, 2012

The Long Goodbye, Part 1

 He takes a mighty cut, as they all are, and whiffs on high heat. He strides briskly back to the dugout, his face betraying no emotion at all, but you wonder if, inside, he isn't dying.

Because we on the outside sure are.

The first commandment of this profession is: Thou shalt not cheer in the press box. Rarely is this a caution that is difficult by which to abide.

Until along happens a Jim Thome. (Or as my 98-year-old mother fondly calls him: Big Boy.)

These are tough times for both of them. Big Boy is struggling - going into this weekend he was saddled with a batting average of .118. Home runs: None. RBI: None.

"He just needs to be patient," says his biggest fan. "Patient."

When you're only a month away from turning 99, patient is as patient does.

Big Boy is handling it well, of course - no tantrums, no splintered bats, no kicked water buckets. He is a professional and a throwback, and the young pups would do well to observe and emulate.

This is the flip side of stardom, when all your flailing and flaws are out there for all to see, when your bat can no longer catch up with high heat, when you begin to wonder if it's time to say goodbye.

This is twilight's last gleaming on a glittering career - 604 home runs, eighth all-time (fifth if you exclude the druggies).

But so much more than that. In a players poll by Sports Illustrated he was voted the nicest guy in all of baseball. When he was in Cleveland, he was voted by fans the greatest athlete in that city's history. And, oh yes, he is paying for 10 nieces and nephews to go to college. His list of great deeds is long and impressive.

Philadelphia will always have a soft spot for the big-name athlete who came here, reversing a dismal trend of rejections and igniting a golden age of baseball.

Big Boy made it cool to be a Phillie.

The Long Goodbye, Part 2

 Larry Brown, the original Travelin' Man, has come in for another landing, come to make things better, which he will because he always does, and then will leave because that, too, is what he always does.

This is career coaching stop No. 14 for the professional nomad, this one at that bastion of college hoops, Southern Methodist University, which has compiled a record of 80-109 over the last six seasons. In other words, a perfect setup for the Travelin' Man: destitute program with lofty ambitions and a recruiting tool to help feed that urgent yearning - SMU is joining the Big East, a conference that prints money.

The Travelin' Man last coached in December 2010, 16 months ago, which is slightly longer than his typical stay. (His longest tenure, by far, remains his time spent with the Sixers - six years.)

He arrives at your front door with the best of intentions, and exits by the back door, leaving the lawyers to sort things out.

Coaching is not the problem; it's everything else. The man, after all, is the only one in history to win an NBA and an NCAA championship.

He is 71 now, so it's obvious he won't be changing. The grass on the neighbor's side will always and forever be without weed or dandelion, and the Travelin' Man, apparently, is doomed to wander, restless and unfulfilled, job to job, in futile search of . . . well, what exactly?

I can only give you the answer he gave to me long ago: "I don't know."

In other words, he will know it when he finds it.

 

Inch by inch . . . step by step.

At his introductory news conference at SMU, Larry Brown did a riff on Allen Iverson. It was a dead-on imitation of the player Brown used to call "The Little Guy" and it was that bit about ". . . practice? We talking 'bout prack-tiss?"

Does that bring back memories or what? More than a decade has evaporated since the two of them took the 76ers to the brink, but it feels like a lot longer than that. In the interim, the Sixers fell into the abyss, and labored through a dreary and unproductive succession of players and coaches. Now, one painful sneakered step at a time, an ascent has begun.

When he took over, Doug Collins said the initial goal was to become relevant, a modest enough ambition but one that will take time - an excruciating amount of time.

So here they stand, having achieved their first winning season in seven years and reaching the playoffs again, from where, unfortunately, they will be making a first-round exit. Are they relevant? Probably. Contenders? No. They belong somewhere in that great gray mass in the middle, good enough to beat bad teams, not so much against the big boys.

It is a painfully young team that was deprived of coaching by an insane, truncated schedule and so, theoretically at least, should show improvement. But the NBA is a super-star-driven league, and for the moment the Sixers lack even one. (To have two would be better.)

There have been tweets from management hinting at changes in the offing. The new owners have sat and watched and now, presumably, are ready to put into play what has served them so well in their Wall Street bare-knuckles risk-management.

The operative word in that is risk.

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