Thome shows power of Peoria Indian: Third baseman's rural roots are apparent in his blue-collar work ethic and his ability to hit the ball a country mile.

October 01, 1996|By Terry Pluto | Terry Pluto,AKRON BEACON-JOURNAL

CLEVELAND -- Peoria.

You hear that word and what do you think?

Cows. Chickens. Hayrides. Rural Illinois and 4-H clubs.

"Everybody just assumes that I'm a big country boy," said Jim Thome, who is Peoria's most famous citizen these days.

Aren't you? "I grew up in the inner city," Thome said.

You look hard at the Cleveland Indians third baseman. The inner city? In Peoria? You didn't know that Peoria had enough neighborhoods to start dividing up the city. Besides, didn't Thome grow up milking cows and shucking corn?

"My father was a foreman at the Caterpillar plant," he said. "My older brother works construction. We were a blue-collar family.

"About a mile from our house was the ghetto," he said. "It was where the best basketball games were played. I'd go over there all the time. I usually was the only white kid in the games, and they respected me because I kept coming back."

Thome tells you all this in an accent straight out of Huck Finn. He looks as if he just came in from tilling the back 40.

Thome a city kid? Well, as city as Peoria gets, anyway.

So how did he become a baseball player? "It started with my father," he said. "His name is Chuck Thome. He taught me the game."

Guess it didn't happen behind the barn.

"Nope," Thome said with a laugh. "I began playing at the old tennis court in the city. He'd pitch to me, and I remember thinking that I'd never be strong enough to hit the ball over that big fence, the fence that was around the tennis court. Then he'd hit me ground balls."

On the concrete?

"Sure enough," Thome said. "He'd hit me those regular baseballs on the cement. We sure wore out a lot of balls that way."

Today, Chuck Thome's son will be batting third when the Indians open the playoffs at Camden Yards. Thome is coming off a monster season -- .311, 38 homers, 116 RBIs and a team-record 123 walks.

"I look at those numbers and I'm surprised," Thome said. "I mean, I guess it is OK to dream that you might have a season like that where you come close to 40 home runs. But you aren't going to talk about it -- at least not until it is over."

Thome may want everyone to know that he didn't grow up baling hay, but he also knows better than to spread the manure on too thick.

"If I start to get a big head, I have a lot of family and friends back home who know how to knock me down to size," he said. "They remind me who I am."

Thome says he is the son of Chuck, the star softball player and foreman. He is the nephew of Caroline Thome Hart, who is in the Women's Softball Hall of Fame. He's the younger brother of Chuck Jr., an outstanding high school athlete in Peoria.

"When I grew up, my brother was my hero," Thome said. "My dad would compare me to him, all the time. My father was tough on me, pushing me. I remember when I scored 36 points in a state tournament basketball game. It was one point off a school record. I thought my dad would be happy, but that night he talked about the mistakes I made on defense and in rebounding.

"I didn't like it back then. I appreciate it now."

It has been easy for fans to take Thome for granted, to consider him a nice, easygoing guy from Peoria. He is absolutely $l unaffected and unpretentious. He talks about hunting and fishing and truck driving. He bought 100 acres and a cabin in the woods about an hour from Peoria so he and his friends can just get away.

"It's great, you go there with your buddies and you play cards," he said, as if there is absolutely nothing else in this world that he'd rather do.

But inside, this is a driven man.

It comes from his dad and his older brother. It comes from those macho basketball games where he was the minority and had to prove himself each day. It comes from his blue-collar stock, from knowing that a person must deliver a hard day's work for a good day's pay.

In the Great Plains, it is a part of you. It is why Thome went from being a 13th-round pick in 1989 (a draft afterthought) to one of the Indians' most promising minor-leaguers within three years.

It's why he never really doubted himself when he went up and down from the minors in three different years.

It is why he comes across as a nice guy -- because he is one.

"That is Jimmy," said Indians batting coach Charlie Manuel. "I've worked with him for six years. I've never seen him really down in the mouth. Discouraged? We all get that way. But it isn't in his nature to quit."

Because he made his first appearance with Cleveland in 1991, it is hard to believe that Thome is only 26. But fans should understand they are watching him grow up right before their eyes.

Five years ago, he was still 6 feet 4, but only 200 pounds. Now he is closer to 230, and nearly all of it is muscle.

In each of the past four years, Thome has improved. His home runs and RBIs both keep going up.

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