COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Jim Thome might be the first player in baseball history whose Hall of Fame speech preparation says even more about him than the speech itself.
Oh, was Thome's speech Sunday wonderful. Before he even began, his daughter, Lila -- a high school student hoping to become a performer -- sang the Star-Spangled Banner. That obviously overwhelmed him. Jim then took the crowd on his remarkable journey, from "hitting rocks in our gravel driveway … until family and neighbors couldn't take it anymore," through his remarkable 612-home run big league career all the way to the Hall of Fame stage where he stood before his heroes.
"The Hall," he said, "is also a place where players and fans come together to celebrate the game that has no borders, no boundaries, and will forever be defined by its timeless nature. Even though the cell phone may have replaced the transistor radio, and iPads are more common now than the sports page, baseball is still played the same way: between the lines."
As beautiful as it was, though, to understand what makes Thome go, it helps to understand what he did to get here. I don't mean what he did to earn induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, though that is obviously related. Nobody worked harder than Thome. "He hit so much," his mentor, hitting coach and dear friend Charlie Manuel says, "I don't think I can explain to you how much he hit."
But in this case, no, I'm talking about what he actually did to get to the Hall of Fame stage.
Every single day, for weeks, for months, Thome would go to the backyard of his home. There are hedges back there that he would use those as a lectern. He put down his Hall of Fame speech. And he would practice it in the Chicago wind.
"He would tell me, 'I need to do it outside because I'm going to give the speech outside,'" his wife Andrea said. "He would say, 'I want to be prepared to hear what it's like outside, you know. Your voice sounds different outside."
He did this everyday?
"Oh yeah," she says. "Sometimes he would do it twice a day."
Here's how committed Jim was to practicing the speech: A couple of weeks ago, he came to Cooperstown, asked the Hall of Fame folks if he could take a lectern out to the field where he would be giving the speech. And then, he gave it to an empty field.
"He's such a student of baseball," Andrea says. "But he's really a student of life. Whatever he does, he wants to do well, especially something like this."
She looks over at him, this a couple of days before the speech.
"Look at how relaxed he is," she said. "That's how you know. He's ready. He's put in the work. If he didn't feel like he'd prepared enough, you'd see it. He'd be nervous. He'd be jumpy. I've seen that when things get sprung on him at the last minute, and he doesn't have time to prepare. But now, he's prepared."
She smiles: "That's how you hit 612 home runs."
That's exactly right. When people talk about Thome, the first thing they talk about is how nice he is. I've been fortunate enough to know Jim for more than 20 years, and I can't count the number of times I've seen him blow people away with his kindness, his interest and his overall friendliness. Back in the early days of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, when the place was desperate for Major League players to come by and show their support, who was the most reliable player? Jim Thome.
And you know what he said about it? "Oh man, it's my honor."
"Ask people about themselves," Thome said to those kids watching who hope to become Hall of Famers one day, "you might learn something."
Thome does this all the time. Just this week, I saw Thome run into a man he didn't know. After they talked for just a moment, Thome suddenly said "You want to take a picture together?"
"He has an energy about him," film director Jon Hock said as he watched Thome from across the room, "where you can just tell he's a great guy."
Thome's kindness might be what defines him as a person. but it is that work ethic -- the part that makes him practice his speech time and time again over a hedge -- that defined him as a baseball player. He grew up in Peoria, Ill., a Cubs fan who adored Dave Kingman. Looking back, Kong wasn't always the easiest player to love -- he spent a baseball life as perpetual trade bait -- but Thome was smitten by the home runs Kong hit. He wanted to do that -- hit an unlimited number of homers. Thome's infatuation for Kingman was such that as an eight-year-old he wandered into the Cubs dugout looking for his favorite player's autograph.
"Is this yours?" Cubs catcher Barry Foote asked Thome's parents as he carried the young boy out of the dugout.
Yes, Thome always wanted to hit with power. But how? He was a non-prospect at the start, a 13th-round Draft pick. He was tall and country strong, but early in his career, the baseball just didn't carry for him.
"Well you gotta open up your hips," Manuel told him while they were together in Scranton, Pa., but Thome couldn't figure out how to get those hips opened up, no matter how hard he tried. And then one day, Manuel moved Thome closer to the plate and told him to point his bat at the pitcher, the way Robert Redford did in "The Natural." Thome remembered the electricity he felt when he pulled his first home run.
"Charlie took a scrappy young kid who was anxious to hit a million home runs," Thome said, "and he actually encouraged those crazy dreams. He told me I can hit as many home runs as I wanted to."
Once Thome got the feeling, he chased it obsessively. That's what marked his career. He lived in the cage. He hit between at-bats. He thought about hitting constantly. He played for six teams, and every one of those teams, everyone of his teammates was in awe of how dedicated he was to the craft. I did a story on him near the end, when he was in Minnesota for a short while, and even then, Twins players would say, "He's the best teammate I think I've ever had."
On Sunday, Thome shows the sensitive side that everybody knows. He talks about how, in his imagination, he'd long been "in his Little League uniform playing alongside Musial, Mays, Ernie Banks and Ruth, and every game went into extra innings. … I never forgot that dream, even as I became a Major League player, because I could always see the dream's reflection in the faces of the kids in the stands, or whenever a child would come up and say hello."
He looks out into the stands for some of those kids.
"I still can't believe this has happened to me, a 13th-round Draft pick out of Central Illinois," Thome said. "To every kid who is dreaming of standing here one day: Take it one moment at a time. Don't sail too high or sink too low. Learn to be good at handling failure. Be the first one to the ballpark, be the last one to leave, work hard, don't complain, be a great teammate, and above all, treat people with respect."
He'd said those exact words dozens and dozens of times before Sunday. He had to say them right. It was important. Excellence is always important to Jim Thome.