600 homers or not, Thome was already Hall-worthy

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Jim Thome joined an elite club on Monday night when he became the eighth player in MLB history to hit 600 home runs. Now that the Minnesota Twins designated hitter has reached such a special milestone, be prepared to hear the question: “Does this make Jim Thome a Hall of Famer?”

I’ve got news for you: Thome didn’t need the milestone. He was already worthy of Cooperstown.

This has nothing to do with Thome being a good guy both with the media and in general (he’s one of the best), and it has nothing to do with his charitable contributions to society (he’s paying for all 10 of his nieces and nephews to go through college). Plenty of players give good interviews and do nice things for people.

No, this has to do with the sheer numbers and impact on the game. It has to do with quietly putting up strong statistics year after year for 21 seasons, compiling one of the most impressive power hitting resumes in baseball history.

Knock Thome, if you will, for spending the bulk of his career as a DH. After all, it’s only fair to give more credence to players who can hit and play defense. Give him demerits for striking out more than 2,400 times, for only being an All-Star five times, for never winning an MVP award or a World Series.

But then remember the 1,700 walks (eighth all time), the .403 on-base percentage (better than Rickey Henderson), and the respectable .277 batting average (better than Joe Morgan). Thome’s hulking presence might remind one of Paul Bunyan, but he was never an all-or-nothing axe-wielding hacker a la Dave Kingman or Rob Deer.

In examining the numbers, Baseball-reference says Thome’s career compares most closely to those of Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, and Willie Stargell. All of those players are in Cooperstown except for Thomas, who will be once he gains eligibility, and Sosa, a fellow member of the 600-homer club whose career has been tainted by a connection to steroids.

Thomas is an interesting comparison because like Thome, his career was spent mostly at DH. He was rightly feared as one of the best hitters of his era, notching three seasons with an OPS over 1.000, including the monster 1994 campaign of 1.217. Thomas’ career OPS is an impressive .974, but Thome’s is just a notch behind at .960. Thomas’ OPS+ is a whopping 156, but Thome’s is 147. The gulf between the players is not as wide as you might imagine.

As far as the steroids era, there is no way Thome can escape it. Type “steroids Thome” into Google and the search engine spits out more than 700,000 entries, some of which cite the steroids era as dampening excitement for the slugger’s march to 600 home runs. While Thome has never been connected to performance-enhancing drugs, it’s impossible for any player, particularly a power hitter, to avoid being tarnished by the era. It’s not fair, it’s just the way it is.

But until there is some evidence of cheating – remember, Thome’s name did not come up in the Mitchell Report, the BALCO scandal, or in any other PED investigation – we’ve got to take the man and his legacy at face value.

Prepare a place in Cooperstown, because Jim Thome has earned his place in the Hall.

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CC Sabathia won’t visit the White House if the Yankees win the World Series

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Over the past couple of days the subject of athlete activism, always present to some degree in American sports, but recently revived by Colin Kaepernick and a few other football players in the form of silent protests during the National Anthem, exploded into a headline dominating news story. Lighting the fuse: President Trump directly inserting himself into the controversy.

He did so during a speech on Friday night and during a series of tweets Saturday and continuing into this morning in which he urged NFL owners to “fire” or suspend players who do not stand for the national anthem. He also attempted to disinvite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from their traditional White House visit because of their star player Stephen Curry’s public opposition to him, though Curry had already said he wouldn’t go.

As Ashley wrote last night, the silent anthem protests have now come to baseball, with A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell becoming the fist player to kneel during the National Anthem. Before that, at least one baseball executive, Orioles Vice President John P. Angelos, came out strongly on the side of players and against Trump. Joe Maddon said some less-than-enlightened words on the matter. Major League Baseball issued a statement on the matter. It was, not surprisingly, somewhat empty, taking something of a both-sides-have-good-points tack. It’s understandable, I suppose. I suspect Major League Baseball and its owners would prefer to not have to comment on this at all. The league does not do this sort of controversy well.

Ballplayers, however, will likely continue to speak up. The latest: Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who was asked yesterday whether he would visit the White House if the playoff-bound Yankees won the World Series. From the Daily News:

“Never. I just don’t believe in anything that is Trump. So there wouldn’t be any reason for me to go at all. I just think it’s stupid. I just think it’s dumb that he’s addressing players and stuff that he shouldn’t be. But it is what it is, and that’s the country we live in these days . . . I’m proud of the way that everybody has Steph’s back and just athletes in general these days, the way everybody has been stepping up has been great.”

Baseball players, as we’ve noted many times over the years, tend to be a more conservative bunch than football or basketball players. There are a lot more white players and a lot more players from southern, suburban and exurban areas. A significant number of racial-ethnic minority players were not born in the United States, so U.S. politics may not necessarily preoccupy them the way it may players from the United States. As such, political protest like we’ve seen in the NFL and NBA was never going to start in baseball in 2017.

But that does not mean that it was not going to come to baseball. Contrary to what so many fans seem to think, sports do not exist inside some bubble into which the real world does not intrude. Athletes are citizens just like you and me with social, political and personal concerns just like you and me. And, at the moment, a government official is demanding that they lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views and the manner in which they are expressed. I suspect most of us would get upset by that if it happened to us. Certainly a lot of people I know on the conservative side of the political expression worried about government overreach and freedom of speech. At least before January of this year.

So I am not at all surprised that baseball players like Sabathia are beginning to speak out. He will not be the last. Others will join him. Others, as is their right, will push back and say they disagree with him. If and when people feel inspired to tell them to “stick to sports,” or “stay in their lane,” perhaps they should ask why the President of the United States decided not to do so himself. And ask why he thinks it’s appropriate for athletes to lose their jobs for their political views and why private entities like the NFL should be patriotic institutions rather than businesses which put on sporting events.

 

Bruce Maxwell first MLB player to kneel during National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.