He is cherished in this ballpark because he came here — the second time — for a ring. It has to be one of the great Philadelphia baseball regrets that Thome was gone before 2008. No offense to Pat Burrell, but we all know who would have been riding down Broad Street behind the Clydesdales had things been different.
But it is 2012 now. What could very well be Thome's last go-round will be strictly as a pinch-hitter and as a designated hitter in the nine games coming up in American League ballparks. At this point, it is all he can reasonably hope to do.
The Phillies founder, hungry for some kind of offensive spark. Their fans fidget, searching for signs of the magic of old.
With that, Thome returns. And they all hope. And Phils manager Charlie Manuel says, "I think it's worth a chance, worth a try."
The relationship between the manager and the player goes back years and decades, back to their time together in Cleveland. The regard they have for each other is well-known. Asked Wednesday, sitting in the dugout for his daily media chat, whether that relationship would result in Thome receiving every benefit of the doubt, Manuel pretended not to understand the question. But he did. And he bristled, just a bit, as he formulated his answer.
He said, "Jimmy, he'll be the first one to tell you: We're in this to win. We're in this for serious. He'll pull his weight. That's the best answer I can give you."
Before injuring his back on April 28, the start of Thome's season did not go well. He was decent when he started at first base, collecting two hits and three walks in those four games. But he was 0-for-8 as a pinch-hitter.
Now he is 0-for-9. Thome came out to pinch-hit in the ninth inning Wednesday night against the Dodgers. The Phils trailed by 6-5, there was one out and one run in, and Ty Wigginton was on second base. The remnants of a sellout crowd stood and cheered when Thome was announced.
The hope was for lightning. The result was a strikeout, looking.
Thome has always talked about how hard the job is, the job of the full-time pinch-hitter, and how much he respects the people who do it well. And now Thome will have to find a way.
"I think he's got to take a lot of BP off of guys that can throw firm — also guys that can throw breaking balls," Manuel said. "Also, we've got a machine down there in the cage where he can get it up to anywhere from 90 to 100 miles an hour. It's kind of an electronic thing that's pretty true. He can go down there and at least see balls, and get in there and kind of play pepper with it and kind of hit it. I think that's how he's going to do it."
In addition, Manuel said, Thome could see live pitching from members of the staff when they normally would be throwing on the side. They seem willing to try almost anything to make this work, and willing to live with the obvious handicap of having a player on their bench who cannot be used in the field.
Manuel's logic is that, well, the Phillies have had players like Ross Gload and Matt Stairs on the bench in recent seasons, and neither of them could play much in the field, and the team survived. He said: "We carried Gload and we carried Stairs. Thome is more apt to hit one than those guys, I would think — although Stairs hit quite a few."
And, well, we'll see.
Manuel tells a story from 2010, when Thome played for Minnesota and they visited Citizens Bank Park. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who once played for Manuel, was talking to his old boss before the game.
"He said, ‘I've had a hard time finding at-bats for Jimmy,'?" Manuel remembered. "I said, ‘If you give him some, he'll make you play him.' He got in the game and hit a home run off of [Jose] Contreras and he took off.
“He should be able to take care of himself."
The belief Manuel has in the man is plain. The affection the crowd has for him is just as obvious. Everyone who has ever met him roots for Jim Thome. It is his baseball legacy.
So we will watch it play out. We will do it knowing what will be required, both for Thome and for this baseball team in 2012. That is, an act of faith.
Contact Rich Hofmann at email@example.com, read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich, or follow @theidlerich on Twitter. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.