COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Jim Thome was one of six former players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday in this bucolic little town that has been welcoming the game's greatest since 1939. This is hallowed ground, a place that has triggered debates for more than seven decades.
Was Mantle better than Mays? Seaver or Gibson? Schmitty or Brooks Robinson? Should Pete Rose be in? What about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the other PED heads?
Well, here's another one to ponder now that Jim Thome is a Hall of Famer: Who is the nicest man to ever be inducted at Cooperstown? To be sure, Thome belongs in this conversation. He was certainly the greatest slugger in the class of 2018, which included outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, third baseman Chipper Jones, shortstop Alan Trammell, and pitchers Jack Morris and Trevor Hoffman.
"He's a professional in every way and a Hall of Fame person," Charlie Manuel said in the introductory video for Thome's induction.
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Predictably and fittingly, the former Phillies manager was the first person Thome thanked during his 20-minute speech after fans from his many teams, including the Phillies, chanted his name as they watched from baseball's ultimate field of dreams.
"From the moment I met Charlie Manuel as a wide-eyed kid in the Gulf Coast League, I knew he was someone I could connect with instantly," Thome said. "Charlie took a strapping, young kid who was anxious to hit a million home runs and actually encouraged those crazy dreams."
Thome hit a lot of home runs, but the men who played with him and against him understood that the slugger's most distinctive quality was his personality. Even one of the men who went into the Hall of Fame with him Sunday realized that.
"He's one of the nicest guys on the planet," Chipper Jones said. "I used to want to hit singles, so I could stop and talk to him. That's how nice he was."
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Before making his acceptance speech, Chipper also had another remembrance of Thome that displayed how the gentle giant could be non-violent in a forceful way.
"Jim Thome, I got to tell the story one more time, good buddy," Jones said, looking to his right.
Thome's triple-A Charlotte Knights were playing Jones' Richmond Braves in 1993 when a brawl erupted. It started after Manuel, the triple-A manager at Charlotte at the time, ordered his pitcher to throw at Richmond's Ryan Klesko.
"Here we go," Jones said. "A nice little donnybrook there at the diamond in Richmond, Virginia. So I go diving into the pile and the next thing I know is what can only be described as the hand of God grabs me around the throat and pins me up against the backstop netting."
Thome had two words for Chipper: "Don't move."
"Thinking God had me around the neck, naturally I obliged," Jones said. "I did manage to glance up and see my mother and father in the third row. J.T. whispered in my ear, 'You done?' I said, 'Yes sir.' We've been buddies ever since."
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It seems as though everybody is Jim Thome's buddy, and his ability to make you feel that way is a brilliance born out of genuineness. So often the greatest athletes have an edge that makes them difficult to approach. They often grow guarded over time when they see approaching reporters in a clubhouse or strangers in public.
Too often history notes the negatives over the niceties. We know that Ty Cobb was mean and nasty and that Steve Carlton still shuns interviews. Hopefully, we will hear for the rest of baseball history what a good, kind man Jim Thome was before, during and after his Hall of Fame career.
Over and over again as I interviewed some of the people who knew Thome the best, they all returned to the same theme.
"In my time with the Phillies, there are two guys who had unbelievable reputations," Phillies chairman David Montgomery said. "One was Dale Murphy and the other was Jim Thome. By the mid-1990s, Jim was an established star and we went out to Cleveland to look at that ballpark, and [former Phillies employee] Dennis Lehman was showing us around. We walked into the Indians clubhouse and there was one player sitting in there. Rarely in my experience do players get up to greet somebody they do not know. I'll never forget Jim walking across that room and introducing himself."
Chase Utley was not always approachable and could be short with the media after difficult defeats and even sometimes after scintillating victories. He understood, however, what it meant to be a good teammate, in large part because of what he saw from Thome.
"Every day, he had a smile on his face," Utley said. "He was always saying 'Hi' to guys, patting guys on the back and making them feel part of the team. The more I watched it, the more I recognized that it had a positive effect in the clubhouse, which also transitioned to a positive effect out on the field. I couldn't be happier for a guy who did it the right way and treated people with respect throughout their entire career. He's the type of guy who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."
Ryan Howard parroted that sentiment in a recent phone interview from Florida.
"First class," Howard said. "That's what I think about every time I hear Jim Thome's name. He was always very positive and very uplifting. He never got too high or too low. Very embracing and great to be around. This is much deserved. As good as a baseball player as he was, he was an even better person off the field."
Before Sunday's ceremony, Thome was asked what he thought his greatest accomplishment was during his career. He said he was proud of his 612 home runs, which rank eighth on the all-time list. He was pleased with 1,747 career walks, which rank seventh. He also likes the fact that he is one of only 56 players to post a .400 or better on-base percentage.
A reporter told him that fans he had interviewed around Cooperstown on Saturday did not think they would remember Jim Thome for any of those things.
"They didn't talk about your 612 home runs or your on-base percentage or your longevity," the reporter told Thome. "They just kept saying he's a great guy and they hope their 10-year-old kid grows up like him."
The Hall of Fame might just have added its greatest person of all-time Sunday.