CLEARWATER, Fla. During his two seasons with the Minnesota Twins, slugger Jim Thome never played in the field. His 664 plate appearances all came as either a designated hitter or pinch hitter.
"He didn't even have a glove when he was with us," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I looked in his locker for one more than once. I couldn't find one."
Now back in the National League with the Philadelphia Phillies, Thome has had to pick up a glove once again. Before the visiting Twins took batting practice Wednesday at Bright House Field, the 41-year-old Thome put on his glove, played catch in the outfield and took some reps at first base.
Any Twins fan who made the trip from Fort Myers likely had to do a double take.
"He didn't play catch. You have to play catch at least once before I put you in defensively," Gardenhire said of Thome's time with the Twins. "He didn't do that. Our goal was just to get him at-bats, as many as we possibly could and keep him available."
Thome hasn't played first base regularly since his last stint with Philadelphia. He spent 134 games at first base in 2004 but saw that number drop to 52 games in 2005. He's been dealing with back problems since playing for the Twins, but Thome has been willing to once again play some defense in order to get his bat in the Phillies' lineup.
"I think the key for me is getting my body to react again to playing the field and being out there more than I have in the last six or seven years," Thome said. "It's going to be a phase where I'm going to have to go through some times physically to get to where I want to get, and we're working hard at that."
The Twins faced Thome for a series last year after they traded him to Cleveland, but it was a different scene Wednesday in Clearwater. Seeing the swarm of Twins players approach Thome as they took the field was a sign of how the potential Hall of Famer is respected around the league.
After Thome spent time talking with several of Minnesota's coaches, he was greeted with hugs from Justin Morneau, Ben Revere and others.
"Seeing these guys, they're like my brothers," said Thome, who hopes to make the trip to face the Twins in Fort Myers on March 28. "You build relationships. You build that close kind of brotherly family, whether you're there a year or two or three or 10. You always, I think, have an interaction with your teammates, and these guys were very special."
In 2010, Thome's first year with the Twins, Minnesota finished 94-68 to win the American League Central. Thome played a big role in the Twins' success that year, as he hit 25 homers and drove in 59 runs. Among the highlights for Minnesota that season was Thome's walk-off home run against the Chicago White Sox at Target Field.
Last year, Thome became the eighth player in baseball history to hit 600 home runs, doing so with the Twins in mid-August at Detroit. Just a few weeks later, though, he was traded to the Indians the team he spent his first 12 seasons with from 1991-2002.
This winter, Thome signed a one-year contract with Philadelphia after the Phillies contacted him early in free agency. Despite being limited in the field, he headed back to the National League and to Philadelphia, where he played for manager Charlie Manuel from 2003-05.
"I got a chance to go back to Cleveland at the end of last year. And then the first week of free agency, these guys called," Thome said of the Phillies. "I told my wife, I said if it got into January and February and a team hadn't called, I would have been content on retiring. I was."
Thome, in his 22nd big league season, isn't sure when he finally will retire. When that happens, he has a chance to finish his illustrious career as No. 7 on the all-time home run list. Currently sitting at 604 home runs, Thome is just five away from tying former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa. Thome has hit fewer than five home runs just twice in his career during his first two seasons in the league in 1991 and 1992.
One thing that's eluded Thome his entire 21-year career, however, is a World Series ring. Now on a Phillies squad that won 102 games in 2011, Thome might finally have a shot at that championship.
"I know you can't play forever. I know that," Thome said. "I think everyone knows my dream is to win a World Series. It should be every player's dream to win a World Series.
"To be on this journey and be back with a team that I left Cleveland to come over here, and you watch and being around these guys every day, how they've won and how they approach the game I think it makes you young again, but it also drives you to whatever your role is, trying to fit that and be a part of a winner. That's what I look forward to."
The Twins won't get the chance to face Thome in the regular season, and he wasn't in the Phillies' starting lineup for Wednesday's game. But he had the chance to once again catch up with his old teammates and coaches.
It was an opportunity for which both sides were grateful.
"I think if you sit back, probably when you're all said and done, and you start talking about some of the greatest players you ever had a chance to be out on the field with, his name definitely comes right up in there," Gardenhire said. "He's the whole package. He brought a lot to the table, but the way he respects the game of baseball probably more than anything."
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