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Jim Thome, a baseball gentleman of the first order, solidified his stature as one of the game's signature sluggers Sunday when he walloped the 500th home run of his distinguished career, becoming the 23rd player in baseball history to reach the milestone.
Thome, 37, has one distinction all to himself. His 500th had the additional dramatic benefit of breaking a 7-7 tie in the ninth inning and lifting the White Sox to a 9-7 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, tingling the spines of 29,010 jubilant U.S. Cellular Field fans who were delighted to witness an uplifting bit of history.Sox officials and MLB historians believed it was the first instance of a 500th homer being a game-ending blast. And Thome was undoubtedly the first to reach 500 on the day his bobblehead doll was distributed.
"It's amazing, it really is–like a movie script," Thome said. "I would never have imagined doing it in that situation."
He had company as a doubter. The Sox trailed 7-1 through 6 1/2 innings, and Angels starter Joe Saunders turned the lead over to one of baseball's most formidable bullpens after retiring Thome three times on a grounder and two lazy fly balls.
Josh Fields' three-run homer highlighted a four-run seventh that brought the Sox back into the game, but there was some doubt as to whether Thome would bat again after he struck out against Justin Speier with one out in the seventh. The Sox hit the road after Sunday's game, and a milestone homer in Kansas City would not have the same feel as one in Chicago, which has embraced Peoria native Thome as one of its own, a pro's pro in the way he goes about his business.
So Danny Richar, the rookie second baseman, tied the game with a two-run homer off Scot Shields in the eighth, setting the stage for Thome.
He came to the plate to face Angels reliever Dustin Moseley after Darin Erstad had begun the Sox's ninth with a pinch single. Thome, 0-for-11 and stuck on 499 homers since Wednesday, quickly worked a 3-1 count, then hit a dribbler foul toward the Angels' dugout.
Moseley's 3-2 pitch was to his liking. Thome drove the ball on a high, majestic arc toward the bleachers in left-center field, just to the left of the center-field shrubbery, where it bounced off the hands of one bleacher fan and settled into the grasp of Will Stewart, a 28-year-old accountant from Austin, Texas, who made his way to the ballpark after arriving in town Sunday morning for a conference.
Thome is revered as an old-school competitor down to his simple, all-business home run trot, but this one called for some embellishment. His right hand shot skyward as he neared second base. He removed his batting helmet after rounding third and slapping hands with coach Razor Shines. He leaped into a delirious scrum of teammates at home plate–who knows whether he touched it?–then broke from the pack to await his wife Andrea, father Chuck and other friends and family members who came down to the field.
After a quiet moment to acknowledge his late mother, Joyce, the 250-pound Thome was carried around the field on the shoulders of hefty teammates Bobby Jenks and Jermaine Dye. His wife and father dabbed at tears. The crowd would not leave.
"I just can't believe it, I really can't," Thome said. "All weekend long I was trying to get a pitch to do it with. I kept telling myself, 'Relax, relax, let it happen.' I knew I hit it good. I knew I hit it solid enough."
Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had pretty much resigned himself to seeing Thome do it in Kansas City–"hitting one in the water fountain," he said–but as the game wore on ...
"I called it," Guillen said. "[Dye] was sitting next to me on the bench, and I told him, 'Watch this. This kid is going to hit a home run to win the game.' Good things happen to good people, and you've got it right there."
Guillen marveled at Thome's composure as he closed in on No. 500.
"I'd be all crazy ... but Jimmy, he's the same, he doesn't do anything different," Guillen said. "You wouldn't know anything is going on with him.
"The guy is special. He plays the game right, he respects the game, he respects the fans. I tell our young kids, 'You want to look up to somebody, that's the guy you look up to, on the field and off. He's a great man.' I don't think there's anyone in baseballwho will say anything bad about Jim Thome. He's what we need in this game."