By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2003
CLEARWATER -- Still, they are talking about the home run Jim Thome hit in batting practice two days ago at Carpenter Complex.
The truth is that the monster blast landed on U.S. 19, beyond the centerfield fence, over a few trees, up a sizable embankment and onto the busiest road in town. It was a majestic shot that traveled about 520 feet.
Legend will say more.
It will say that to introduce himself to his new teammates, coaches and fans, the former Cleveland Indian, intentionally or not, flexed some of the six-year, $85-million left-handed pop Philadelphia acquired in free agency Dec. 3.
It will say that in one titanic blast, the 32-year-old let all doubters know that despite the anguish of leaving behind the only organization he knew, Thome was ready for his 11th season and ready to lead the Phillies.
"I've never went into a season and said I want to hit 30 or 40 (home runs)," said Thome, who plans to watch as much tape as he needs to get used to NL pitching. "To be honest, 50 is mind-boggling. It's a lot of home runs. My goal is to go in and stay healthy, be out there every day and the rest will take care of itself. (My goal) is to try to win a championship."
Before that, Thome is destined to face more than just the challenge of getting familiar with a new spring facility and new teammates.
Before opening the door to his new career, he appears burdened by closing the door on his former one.
"I know there were a lot of people who thought Jim Thome went to Philly because of the money, and you know what: For me, that was not true," said Thome, who turned down a five-year, $60-million offer from the Indians. "Looking back, I'm happy about the decision I made."
Thome, who hit .304 with a club-record 52 home runs and 118 RBIs last season, said the decision to leave the team that drafted him in the 13th round in 1989 was based on wanting one more year on the contract.
"I made it very clear that I would have taken less money to stay there if I had gotten the six years," Thome said. "They did what they had to do. I thought I was loyal enough to say, 'I would take less money but just give me a chance to retire there.'
"They let it be known that they were going to rebuild. That they were going to do some things and to be honest, I told them I would be a part of that. Way back, a year ago, they told us they were going to give us a contract at the beginning of spring training, and we were hoping for that. I always imagined and envisioned myself being an Indian forever, and when I did get to the free agent market, I still wanted the opportunity to finish there. If that wasn't going to happen, you want to be on a winner."
That opportunity takes seed today when Philadelphia's full squad reports and the man wearing No. 25, one of four key acquisitions, begins to work on new chemistry.
"When we sat down late last season and talked about the possibility of using some of our 2004 revenues early, we started to list the guys who were out there, the guy that made the most sense to be aggressive on was Jim," said Phillies general manager Ed Wade, who also brought on board third baseman David Bell, right-hander Kevin Millwood and infielder Tyler Houston. "We didn't know at the time that we would have any shot at him, but we decided to go for it. We recognize not only what he does for us on the field, but the type of impact he would have in the clubhouse and in Philadelphia. He's a Philly kind of guy."