NEW YORK -- There was a moment in the big and beautiful career of Jim Thome when you might say he achieved Zen. Of course, Jimmy would never put it that way. "I don't really like filling my brain with a lot of stuff," he told me once, near the end of his career, after the whole self-realization thing had already happened.
That seems a funny quote ... but compare it to this.
"When the mind is perfectly clear," wrote Byron Katie, who Time Magazine called a spiritual innovator, "what is is what we want."
That sounds kind of like the same thing.
Anyway, the moment I'm thinking of a very specific day. It was Aug. 17, 2010. The Twins were playing the White Sox. Thome was playing for Minnesota. The Twins were his fifth team, but that didn't bother him. Thome was just appreciative of the opportunity. He never stopped being appreciative of the opportunity.
"I'm just happy to be here," Thome said that day. "I've been happy everywhere I've been. I'm happy here now."
"Do not dwell in the past," Buddha said. "Do not dream of the future; concentrate the mind on the present moment."
That sounds kind of like the same thing, too.
Thome rested on his knee before the game, staring straight ahead as he took slow, methodical swings with the bat. He wasn't swinging at anything. It was like meditation. That's when pitcher Kevin Slowey walked by and asked, "Hey Jim, how's your charisma?"
Thome grinned that big country grin of his and said, "Charisma's good. Charisma's real good. Something special's going to happen. Something special's going to happen tonight!"
This was a daily exchange with Thome. They asked him how his charisma was. He said it was great, and that something good would happen. Thome's relentless and unbreakable positivity filled every clubhouse he played in. Heck, he had only played 80 games with Minnesota when Twins reliever Glen Perkins was calling him "the best teammate I've ever had."
Everybody felt like that about Thome.
What most of them didn't understand -- couldn't understand -- was that Thome's unique brand of perpetual optimism and joy didn't come easy. Sure, he was a gregarious guy from a gregarious family; he liked people. Thome learned that from his father, Chuck, and especially his mother, Joyce. But baseball was hard, you know? He made it look like play, but it wasn't all play. People didn't know about the grind, the work, the "sweat equity," as Thome likes to call it. People didn't need to know about that stuff. It was personal, but it was there. His back hurt like crazy. The travel was rough. The long days, the intense preparation, the constant effort to stay in shape, sure, it was hard.
And another thing: Thome struck out a lot. I mean a lot. Only Reggie Jackson struck out more times in his career than Thome. And those strikeouts crushed his spirit when he was young. When Thome was 26, he hit 40 home runs for the first time … but he also led the league in strikeouts. Two years later, he led the league in strikeouts again.
"Believe me, I hate striking out," Thome said. "It's no fun. It's embarrassing."
Sometimes in those younger days, when Thome struck out five or six or seven times in a row, he would feel himself going to a dark place. Would he ever get a hit again? Would he ever even connect bat to ball again? That famous confidence and cheer would fade. Only then would Thome hear the familiar southern voice of his beloved hitting coach, Charlie Manuel:
"Jimmy, you are so close. You are about to break out. You are about to make some pitchers miserable."
After a while, Thome realized he had to provide Manuel's voice for himself.
"What can I do?" he asked happily. "The strikeout is part of my game. It's a package deal."
"Those free of resentful thoughts," Buddha said, "surely find peace."
Anyway, back to that day, Aug. 17, the Twins were in first place, the White Sox were chasing them and the game was a beauty. Minnesota took a 4-0 lead in the first inning, the key hits being an Orlando Hudson homer, a Jason Kubel two-run triple and Thome's run-scoring single. It looked like it would be easy.
But the White Sox came right back, hitting two home runs in their next at-bats and tying the game in the fourth. Delmon Young's homer gave the Twins a one-run lead. Alexei Ramirez's homer tied the game again in the ninth. The game went into extra innings and Ramirez's run-scoring single gave Chicago a 7-6 lead headed into the bottom of the 10th.
"When you're young," Thome said, "you come up in a big situation, and you're anxious."
"The worst mistake you can make when you're young," the Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda said, "is to give up on yourself and not challenge yourself for fear of failure."
"But with experience," Thome said, "you want to be in a situation where you can make the difference."
"When you realize how perfect everything is," Buddha said, "you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky."
Thome came up in the 10th inning with a man on. He wanted to be there. He faced Matt Thornton, a monsterous 6-foot-6 lefty with a 97-100 mph fastball. Lefties hit .175 against him that year. Thome still wanted to be there.
On the second pitch, Thornton threw one of those fastballs that lefties cannot hit. Thome was 39 years old but, as he said, "It's fine."
"Old age," the naturalist John Burroughs said, "is always 10 years older than I am."
Thome turned on the pitch, crushed it 445 feet and danced around the bases. When he got to home plate after his 12th walk-off home run, he threw his helmet in the air, as high as he could throw it, and luxuriated in the celebration as his teammates surrounded him.
"Charisma!" Thome shouted.
That tied Thome for the most walk-off home runs in baseball history, joining a pretty decent group of hitters named Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson. Two years later, when Thome was at the very end, he was put in as a pinch-hitter in a June game between the Phillies and Rays. Thome never really liked pinch-hitting. But he hit the record-breaking 13th walk-off homer of his career off Jake McGee anyway.
Today I think back to the 12th one, though, because by then it was clear that this former 13th-round Draft pick who struggled to play third base and had a giant hole in his swing and had overcome injuries and trades and slumps that seemed like they might last forever, this guy was going to the Hall of Fame. Of course, Thome didn't want to talk about the Hall that day or the next. Even on Wednesday, the day he was actually elected to the Hall of Fame, he didn't really know what to say.
"I'm going to need to find a dictionary," Thome said. "I don't know enough words to describe my feelings."
"Do not speak," Buddha said, "unless it improves on silence."
The thing I remember most about that walk-off homer in Minnesota and the time I got to spend with Thome was how he spoke about his mother, Joyce. She had died of cancer five years earlier, and he thought about her every day. Moreover, Thome talked to her every day. What about? Small stuff, mostly. He told Joyce how the kids, Lila and Landon, were doing. He talked about his wife, Andrea, and how lucky he was to marry her. He talked about how much he loved baseball, but she already knew that.
"Jim," I asked him in a quiet moment, "did you talk to your mother after the game?"
"I did," Thome said.
"Did you tell her about the home run?"
Thome grinned that big country grin of his. "Nah," he said. "She saw it."