By John Hughes
There are two types of professional athletes/celebrities.
There are those who, when being driven to a major event honoring their life and career, will sit in the vehicle's backseat where they will not be bothered and won't be compelled to chat with a driver (whose life and career are not being celebrated).
And there are those who, in un-celebrity-like fashion, sit in the front seat like a common person and engage in conversation as if talk about towns and weather matter.
Jim Thome sits in the front seat.
Thome is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He played in the Major Leagues 22 years. He hit 612 homeruns, the eighth most ever. He has a career batting average of .276 and 2,328 hits. He drove in 1,699 runs. He was an All-Star five times. He is, literally now, a Living Legend. He was in town November 11 to receive that prestigious title that says so: the Louisville Slugger Musem & Factory Living Legend Award. He joins the company of Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, Derek Jeter and a few others.
The Living Legend Award has as much to do with civic commitment as with athletic accomplishment. Over the years, for example, Thome and his wife, Andrea, have helped raise hundreds of thousands dollars for causes such as United Way and the Children’s Hospital in Peoria Illinois, Thome’s hometown. For his humanitarian efforts, Thome was given the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award in 2001 and the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 2004. He has won the coveted Roberto Clemente Award for giving of himself. A baseball complex is named for him in Peoria. A statue of him stands outside the ballpark in Cleveland.
He is loved for his mastery of the game. But he is also loved in those cities where he played -- Minnesota, Chicago, Philadelphia and, shout it from the cheap seats, Cleveland! -- because Jim Thome is a celebrated athlete who sits in the front seat.
Riding shotgun, he talks of Peoria, where Thome learned to hit a baseball with thunderbolt power. There, too, is where Thome learned blue collar work ethic from Chuck and Joyce Thome. It was a home where five children gathered for family dinners. Reflections of his Midwest sense of goodness are validated by a Central Illinois accent.
Thome is likely to "aw shucks" compliments on his impact on baseball and things done using baseball as a platform. Praise comes easy, though, from those with whom he shared a playing field or a clubhouse.
During the ceremony, adulation came from teammates and managers and the general theme of their comments is coalesced by what his former manager Charlie Manuel said – in effect, “I am a better person because I know Jim Thome”.
During a Q&A after the award presentation a guest asked for advice on what to tell a kid who may have baseball potential.
“Tell him to slow down,” Thome advised. “If it’s supposed to happen, it will.” He went on to say to treat every practice, every game, every at bat as an opportunity to learn.
But what Jim Thome might have best advised were words inscribed inside the ring Thome was given as part of the Living Legend legacy. Thome chose three words: “We before me”.
It is the way Thome played the game when his Cleveland teams were selling out Jacobs Field in the mid ‘90s after years of underperforming to near-empty homestands. It is the way -- one can surely surmise from a few hours around him -- that Thome lives.
It is 5:45 of the morning after Jim Thome has been honored as Living Legend. The Ohio Valley winter has arrived on a 30-degree wind down Second Street. Thome’s ride comes and his driver expects to go inside Thome’s hotel, have him called from his room, then bring out Thome's luggage to the SUV. Instead, Thome is already standing outside his hotel.
"I was going to come in and help with your things," his driver says.
"Oh, I didn't want you to have to wait," says Living Legend Jim Thome. Then he carries his own luggage to the car.
And then he gets in the front seat.