Thome’s new role with Twins

Published 12:38 am Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Digging his left foot into the back of the batter’s box, Jim Thome taps home plate with his bat before pointing that mighty stick toward the center field fence.

Even at 39 years old, Thome still strikes an imposing figure when he comes to the plate.

He is only 36 home runs shy of 600 for his career and has been swinging the bat with plenty of punch in his first spring training with the Twins. But individual numbers don’t mean much to Thome these days, which is why one of the most feared sluggers of his era turned down more money, and more guaranteed playing time, to sign with Minnesota in the offseason.

Email newsletter signup

“As you get older, there’s more you can do than just going out there and doing it by performance,” Thome said. “I think the main thing every day is to be ready, prepare yourself and be ready to play no matter what happens.”

It’s a little startling to hear a player of his stature talk about taking a reduced role. Only 11 players in history have hit more home runs than Thome, who is 10 long balls away from leapfrogging former Twins great Harmon Killebrew for 10th place on the career list.

In just over 17 years in the big leagues, Thome has cemented himself as one of the giants of the game, thanks both to his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame and an affable personality that makes him a favorite in the clubhouse.

The one thing that has eluded him to this point is a World Series title. He played in two with the Cleveland Indians, losing to Atlanta in 1995 and Florida in 1997.

That’s why he’s here.

“There was an opportunity for him to go a couple of other places and DH every day or play every day and try and get 600 homers,” Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. “Well, he’s more interested in that World Series ring. Our goal, for him and for us, is to get that. That’s what we’re here for.”

He signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal in February to serve as a pinch-hitter and part-time DH for a team that is coming off its fifth AL Central title of the decade.

Jason Kubel set career highs in batting average (.300), home runs (28) and RBIs (103) last season as Minnesota’s primary DH. Morneau rarely takes a day off at first base and Delmon Young is the team’s starting left fielder. That means Thome will see most of his action as a pinch hitter and a fill-in DH when one of the above gets a day off.

“You’re talking about a Hall of Fame guy,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I wanted him to know exactly where we were at and what we had available. I didn’t want anything to be a hidden agenda, him coming here thinking I’m going to have a shot to take over as our full-time DH.

“I wanted him to know exactly where we stood, how much we wanted him and how I was going to use him and let him know that everybody gets at-bats and everybody plays. We play to win. You’re swinging well we’ll find a way to get you in the lineup.”

The way he has been swinging this spring, Thome may just force his way into the lineup. In nine games, Thome is hitting .360 with two homers and a .680 slugging percentage.

“It’ll be hard to keep him out of the lineup, the way he’s swinging,” Morneau said. “It looks like he’s found new life here. That’s a good sign.”

Against the Phillies last week, Thome showed he still has plenty of power left with an opposite-field homer off Jose Contreras.

The Twins have played him sparingly this spring in hopes of reducing the stress on his back, which has given him problems in recent seasons. Thome has an exhaustive regimen of stretching and exercises to help him loosen up and get ready every day.

“As you do get a little older, you have to put more time in,” Thome said. “You have to be very diligent about your program.

“I feel good. I can’t say I feel good all the time. That’s a challenge every day that I definitely have to pay attention to.”

Thome hit 57 home runs against Minnesota, the most by any opponent in team history. So Gardenhire is delighted to watch him round the bases with a Twins jersey on his broad back this year.

“When he walks to the plate, just don’t go to the bathroom and you’ll be fine. Because you might miss something. That’s the kind of hitter he is. He’s been that way for a long time,” Gardenhire advised.

Thome spent most of the previous four seasons with the Chicago White Sox, battling the Twins for division supremacy. Gardenhire would chat with Thome before games, saying one of them would be “smoking a cigar, drinking a beer in the garage, watching the other one in the playoffs. Who’s it going to be this year?”

No need for that question anymore.

“We can just be in the playoffs together,” Gardenhire said, “and we can have somebody else smoking a cigar watching us play.”