Fun story about Jim Thome from way back when: In the Indians' clubhouse, a player was working on a crossword puzzle and needed help. "What's a three-letter word for deer?" the player asked aloud.
Without hesitating, Thome happily, matter-of-factly offered his assistance: "Buck," he said. Another player, of course, chimed in, "Try doe." "Oh," replied Thome. "That'll work, too." I relay this story because by no means is this the season Thome expected when he made the decision to prolong his potentially Hall of Fame career. Thome was supposed to be with the Phillies and his mentor, Charlie Manuel. He was supposed to feel physically rejuvenated enough to be playing first base roughly once a week, serving as a prime-time pinch-hitter the remainder of the time. Thome didn't mind being a part-timer, didn't mind asking more of his body than he had asked in several years, didn't mind the thought of lacing them up at the age of 41 with his wife and kids waiting at home, because rejoining a Phillies team that had won five straight division titles and had the most celebrated rotation in the game was Thome's opportunity to get that elusive World Series ring. "If this is going to be my last year," Thome told me in Spring Training, "it will be fun to give it one more chance with an opportunity like this." But Thome knows funny things can happen in this game. And the funny thing about 2012 is that Thome's real chance at a ring comes in a place he never expected to be, on a Baltimore Orioles team nobody expected to contend. Hey, that'll work, too. The Orioles are expected to activate Thome from the disabled list on Friday in Boston, and his presence could be a big part of their final playoff push. The O's have a need for Thome's bat. Nick Markakis is out with a broken left thumb, and Thome's availability for DH duties means Baltimore can move Chris Davis back to a corner outfield spot. What does Thome have left in the tank, particularly after missing more than eight weeks with a herniated disk in his neck? No telling. The Orioles have seen Thome in action just 18 times. He was their primary DH in July, batting .261/.354/.391 with two home runs and six RBI. Before that, his slash line was .242/.338/.516 in the part-time role with the Phils. It would seem that, at this stage, Buck Showalter ought to be careful not to overextend Thome so as to keep his body and his bat fresh. We know that bat can still deliver some big blasts when Thome gets his pitches to hit. What we don't know is if these are, indeed, the final days or weeks of Thome's career. Certainly, Thome hinted that 2012 would be his last go-around before the year began, but he's gone out of his way to push back talk of retirement at various points within the season. This is what Thome said on the Phillies' pregame show the day after hitting a game-winning home run against the Rays in June: "It showed me that I can still play. And to be honest, it really questions whether or not this will be my last year, to be dead honest." And then this is what Thome said when an MRI revealed that he would miss at least a month with the neck injury: "You know what, this maybe changes my thinking a little bit. Maybe I do want to play a little bit longer." So if you're following along, the transcendent moments, however few and far between, keep Thome coming back for more, as do the more challenging setbacks. This, clearly, is a man looking for reasons to keep playing ball. But the biggest reason of them all is that World Series title, and, as crazy as this would have sounded mere months ago and, yes, as crazy as it still sounds today, Thome could have a shot at a title with the Orioles. However this turns out, he'll have no shortage of baseball people rooting him on, for Thome has made friends everywhere he's traveled in his 22 years on the Major League stage. He's loved for his earnestness, for his sincerity and for his aw-shucks charm. "I love Jim Thome," Ozzie Guillen once told Sports Illustrated. "I wish I didn't. I wish I hated him. But I can't hate him. Nobody can hate him." No, you can't. Clevelanders could boo Thome for leaving in free agency a decade ago, but they couldn't hate him. Not really. And when he returned to the Indians late in the 2011 season, he didn't get booed. Rather, Thome was told the Indians have plans to one day erect a statue in his honor at Progressive Field. How many players burn their "hometown" team in free agency and still get the statue treatment? A year ago, my conversations with Thome had me convinced his homecoming with the Tribe would serve as his swan song. He said he was ready to retire if the winter dragged out and the offers weren't exactly rolling in. Surprisingly, though, not only did a team show interest in Thome immediately after season's end, but a National League team wanted him, and the chance to play for Manuel again and potentially win a ring was too good to pass up. That didn't work out. And when the June trade was made, it was awkward to think of Thome's career ending in Baltimore, on a team so many expected to fold in the second half. Well, the O's, to their credit, didn't fold, and now Thome is expected back in action, with an American League East title and October still very much in sight. No, this isn't at all the way Thome envisioned it, but, at this juncture, he'll take a shot at a ring any way he can get it. A ring with the Orioles? That'll work, too.