Jim Thome looks for one more MLB season

(Photo: Joy R. Absalon/USA TODAY Sports)

Jim Thome knows that his days of playing defensively are over, but that there are still a few hits - possibly some longballs - left in his bat. The problem is finding a team that will give him a shot at one more major league season.

Know this about Jim Thome: If he is forced into retirement, he is not going to be bitter, and he is not going to complain.

Thome, though, does not want to retire.

In fact, he is heading to Phoenix early next week to continue his training at Fischer Sports, a physical therapy and conditioning center.

"My plan is to kind of stay in shape and see what happens," Thome said in a telephone interview Friday. "If a team calls for me, mentally, I want to know I'm ready to go."

And if no team calls, and Thome, 42, cannot go out on his terms? Then he will leave the game just as he played it for the past 22 years.

With grace.

"I said this to my wife: There is never a happy ending," Thome said. "You can't script it. You can't look in the mirror and go, 'I want to go out like Ray Lewis did. Or John Elway.' You can't script the perfect ending.

"But how can you not be proud of the 20-something years before this? To play until you're 42? I've been playing since the age of 8-9-10. How could I look in the mirror and tell someone, 'I got a bad shake?' Never. I would never do that. You treat the game with respect."

Thome, an almost-certain Hall of Famer, ranks seventh all-time with 612 career homers. He is 19th all-time with a .956 OPS. And he remained a force with Baltimore and Philadelphia last season, hitting a combined eight homers in 186 at-bats and producing a .786 OPS.

Why, then, is he still unemployed?

His role, for one thing: Thome is strictly a designated hitter and pinch-hitter at this stage of his career. He also said that he does not want to accept a minor-league contract and non-guaranteed roster spot; the Cleveland Indians, one of his previous clubs, were among the teams that were unwilling to give him a major-league deal.

"For me, what I've done in the game, I felt really strongly about that," Thome said. "I still love the game. I want to keep playing. But I felt after 20-something years, that if I went back and played, I wanted to get an opportunity to make a club at the major-league level. To me, that was important. I feel I'm still a major-league player. I'm in great shape."

Thome isn't the only player of his kind who is still looking for work; Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon and Carlos Lee also remain free agents. But Buck Showalter, Thome's manager with the Orioles last season, said, "I still think he's a threat." Paul Konerko, Thome's former teammate with the Chicago White Sox, agreed.

"He's always going to be one of those guys - I don't care if it's 10 years from now - who is going to be able to come off his couch and be dangerous in the box," Konerko said. "He'll have a chance to draw a walk, be a tough at-bat. He's that good."

Konerko added that he has never been around a player who enjoyed preparation as much as Thome, saying, "This whole offseason, I know he was working out in Illinois like a madman."

Thome, though, acknowledged that the most difficult part of his current training is that he is on his own, unaffiliated with any club, unable to play in games.

He knows this could be the end. He just isn't ready to say goodbye.

"If I didn't feel I could still play, trust me, at 42 I would just go home. I would just coach my son, be with my kids (Lila, 10, and Landon, 5). But my love and passion for the game, I don't think that ever stops.

"Baseball has been my life. At some point, I understand there is a next chapter, a next phase, whenever that is. I have a timetable in my mind if something doesn't happen, where I would probably say, 'That's it.' I'm just not there yet. I'm not there mentally.

"If a team is in need of my services and that situation arises, I just want them to know that I am available.

"I am still ready to go," Jim Thome said.


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