By Steve DiMatteo
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Jim Thome walks into a hallway of the Chicago White Sox spring training facility, having just finished swapping old stories in the team dining area. He's a special assistant to White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, having last played in 2012, though he hasn't yet ruled out a return to uniform. "I could see myself one day managing or, you know, there's days that I think, 'God, I kind of like what I'm doing in the front office,'" said Thome, now 43.
The hallway is adorned with pictures of him, from when he played for the Sox, and everyone who passes by acknowledges Thome, gives him a pat on the back and says hello. This is the player -- the person -- that Jim Thome is, intensely respected by all in the game, even if, for some reason, it never quite feels like the national appreciation for him has ever reached the level he deserves. It's especially noticeable in the wake of Mariano Rivera's year-long retirement party, with a similar run now expected for Derek Jeter.
Thome is seventh all-time in career home runs, with 612 -- 91 more than Chicago icon Frank Thomas, who recently was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. At the start of Thome's career, only six men had ever hit 550 home runs, a milestone since passed by eight more hitters. Yet only Thome and Ken Griffey Jr. amassed those numbers without ever being linked to a criminal investigation or positive test for steroids. Thome and Griffey's clean names are preceded on the all-time list only by Aaron, Ruth and Mays, making it all the more remarkable that Thome has had such a quiet exit from the game.
You won't catch him being bothered by that, though. "I won't really think or look at a situation and go, 'Oh, I'd like it to be this way, or I'd like it to be this way," Thome said. "I enjoyed being in the spotlight when I hit, but I'm not a spotlight guy. Not that anybody else is, it's just that we all have different paths."
While one of Thome's paths could have certainly been the arena of superstardom, the one eventually laid out for him led to an aura of quiet leadership and gushing humility. "I feel so blessed and honored that I got to play so long and had a good career and was with some great managers, teammates, teams," Thome said. "I have no second regrets on any of that at all."
Still, this is a player who spent 22 seasons hitting 612 home runs, including an all-time franchise-best 337 for the Cleveland Indians, plus 17 more in the postseason for Cleveland. He's seventh all-time in walks with 1,747. He's 24th all-time in runs batted in with 1,699. He hit 451 doubles and scored 1,583 runs, and his career OPS of .956 is good for 19th all-time. He is one of the best power hitters the game has ever seen, yet he never finished higher than fourth in the MVP voting. That is partly because that he did play in the steroid era, when home runs were hit at astronomical levels. Thome only had one season where he hit more than 50 home runs, plus five more seasons of 40 or more.
"I don't feel slighted because I played in a time when all that was going on," Thome said. "There's always gonna be the question, 'Did this guy do it or did this guy do it?' I know what I did. I can look in the mirror. At the end of the day, the mirror doesn't lie."
It also might be that Thome was too consistent a player, putting up solid numbers with such regularity that, at some point, it no longer seemed noteworthy. "When you have an opportunity, I guess, to put up numbers, sure, that's very natural," Thome said. "But if you look on the back of a baseball card, [the numbers] are not the same year in and year out, so that's where I try to keep it in perspective."
"That's what was so great is, you know, trying to take little things every year and try to improve your game and if I wasn't hitting the breaking ball well one year, I'd go home and work on it, or if I had problems defensively, and I felt like I needed to work on it, I did it. I had great coaches and great people that have helped me along the way, but ultimately, the player has to get out there and do it. You have to get out and do it."
That doesn't mean there wasn't failure to go right along with that success. After all, Thome does have the second-most strikeouts in history, with 2,548. "This game is evolved around failure, so as much as it looks like there was success, there was so much failure involved at times in the cage and trying to work out things -- and then all of a sudden, you get it," Thome said. "You get it, and you get on one of them streaks, and the enjoyment and the success just kept me wanting to come back, and that's what's cool about the game."
Thome probably doesn't have to worry about his place in baseball history, or that he played in a time where the big power numbers are now scrutinized and met with shifty-eyed skepticism. Thome's legacy is a quiet one, a slow-burning appreciation that more fans will recognize when the Hall of Fame eventually gives him the spotlight he deserves, as his name finally rises above more controversial ones.
Of course, Thome doesn't need that type of recognition, given that he has already found the satisfaction he was looking for from the game of baseball. "I want to be remembered for a guy that posted up every day, that came and wanted to play every day and was a good teammate," Thome said. "I think one of the biggest compliments anybody can give a player is, 'God, he was a gamer, he loved to play.'
"I felt like when I was a player, I gave everything to the game. I showed up to the ballpark early, I stayed late. I wanted to get better. I failed, I succeeded, but yet at the end of the day when the game is done -- as right now it is -- when you look back, and you have ex-teammates that seek you out and say, 'Man, you were a good teammate' -- you know what, to me, that's special. That's special because, ultimately, you can't play baseball forever."
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Steve DiMatteo writes for the Associated Press, Fox Sports Ohio and more. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @steve_dimatteo.