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Mike Nadel: Thome is one Hall of a guy

Mike Nadel

Jim Thome is Hall of Fame worthy. Right now. Even if he retired today, seven home runs shy of Magic No. 500.

Although his statistics are plenty magical enough to merit a plaque in Cooperstown, the real magic to Thome is his attitude, his respect for the game, his humility, his work ethic and his community service.

It sounds hokey, but that stuff matters. It's supposed to, anyway. The Hall of Fame instructs Baseball Writers Association of America voters to make choices "based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

Speaking on his teammate's behalf, Chicago White Sox captain Paul Konerko said: "All we've heard about is character coming into play in regards to the Hall of Fame. Well, if you're going to use poor character against some people, then you damn well better use it when the character's good. If you don't, it's abuse of your vote."

As a Hall voter for more than a decade, I always have factored in such issues. It's even more important now, in the Steroid Era. When Thome goes on the ballot five years after he retires, I will check the box next to his name and publicly urge my BBWAA colleagues to do the same.

Let this column officially launch the "Jim Thome: A Hall of a Guy!" campaign.

The beautiful thing: One need not make statistical concessions to champion the cause. Thome, who turns 37 on Monday, likely will finish his career among baseball's top 15 home run hitters. His .562 slugging percentage ranks 17th. His .409 on-base percentage is 21st. He also has been an important contributor to winning teams, with 17 HRs, 36 RBIs and 32 runs in 55 postseason games.

And no 'roid rage here. There has been nary a trace of suspicion about Mr. Clean's methods.

The "integrity, sportsmanship, character" portion of the Hall guidelines might as well be The Thome Clause.

The White Sox devote nearly a full page of their media guide to Thome's charitable acts, including the $1 million-plus he has raised for the Children's Hospital of Illinois in his native Peoria. He was similarly lauded for his community efforts in Cleveland (where he averaged 38 homers and 104 RBIs from 1995 to 2002) and Philadelphia (where he had two monster years before injuries ruined his 2005 season).

Teammates, opponents, fans, writers ... everybody loves Jim Thome. Fellow White Sox say he's all about the team. Manager Ozzie Guillen calls him "a gamer." Opponents call him hard-nosed but fair and friendly. Those who have known him for decades say money hasn't changed him one iota.

He's so modest, he actually blushed when I told him Wednesday that I was writing this column.

"Fifteen years ago, I never would have fathomed being seven home runs from 500 or being part of a Hall of Fame discussion," he said. "I was just a Midwest kid hoping to survive. I was never truly gifted. I had to work hard. Working through the ups and downs is part of the long process. I'm still just a Midwest kid trying to survive in this game."

Survive? He's thrived. His achievements, both on and off the field, compare favorably to those of many recent Hall of Famers.

Much like Cal Ripken Jr. and Kirby Puckett, Thome has been a baseball ambassador; statistically, Jim's average season leaves those of Cal and Kirby in the dust. Thome certainly has had a bigger impact on the game than Ryne Sandberg and Wade Boggs did.

Many BBWAA voters acknowledge Thome's character and integrity but simply believe his batting average is too low, his strikeout totals are too high, his speed is too absent and his career has been too one-dimensional.

If you really want to get any White Sox angry, instead of mentioning the AL Central standings - which show Chicago and Kansas City tied for last place - bring up ESPN's Buster Olney, who on Tuesday said Thome might need 600 homers to sway Hall voters.

"(Bleep) him!" the ever-gracious Guillen said. "Quote me: He is stupid."

Olney isn't stupid. He's a good reporter and does fine work on Baseball Tonight. But he and other voters might use flawed logic to downgrade Thome's accomplishments.

Designated hitters get no love from voters, and many consider Thome a DH. In fact, of Thome's 493 homers, 310 have come as a first baseman, 93 as a third baseman and 90 as a DH or pinch-hitter. Only during these past two seasons with the White Sox has he not regularly manned a position.

Though he was no Gold Glover, has Thome been any more one-dimensional than slap-hitting shortstop Ozzie Smith was during his Hall of Fame career in St. Louis?

Some voters will punish Thome for playing in the homer-inflating Steroid Era, but White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker reminds everybody that pitchers have been at least as likely to use performance-enhancers.

"If anything, his numbers ought to be more valued - because of what some of the pitchers he's faced were taking and what he wasn't taking," Walker said.

Predictably, Thome is staying above the fray.

"I respect everybody's opinion, and I take it as a huge compliment that anybody even would consider me," he said. "The only thing I can control is the way I approach the game. I talk about the 'baseball gods'; if you go about it the right way, they'll reward you.

"One thing for sure: I'll never lobby for myself. I'll let other people do that."

Assignment accepted.

Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.