CLEVELAND — Jim Thome’s pursuit of 600 career home runs stamps him as a fellow Hall of Famer, according to Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar.
The two newest players enshrined in the hallowed Hall threw out ceremonial first pitches before their former team, the Cleveland Indians, played Minnesota on Friday night. Then they joined a crowd eager to see if Thome could hit the two homer he needs to join the 600 club.
Thome, who hit an Indians’ record 334 homers between 1991 and 2002, is in his second year with the Twins.
“It can’t happen to a better man,” said Alomar, who was Thome’s teammate for three years beginning in 1999. “Whoever knows Jim Thome, knows he’s a class act. He’s a professional. As a teammate, I appreciate everything he did for me and for the team. I’m so happy and so blessed I got a chance to play with him.
“He’ll be a Hall of Famer. He deserves it.”
As a Twins TV broadcaster, Blyleven has watched Thome’s career unfold. He compared the 40-year-old lefty to another former Minnesota slugger.
“Like the late, great Harmon Killebrew, he’s a class guy,” Blyleven said. “He’s already eighth all-time (on the homer list).”
Both former greats said Thome should not be lumped in with others in the steroid era whose legacies have been tainted. Blyleven said Thome’s achievements should get more accolades than those accorded to Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds — all linked to steroids.
“He did it the right way,” Blyleven said. “He’s just a big, strong country boy. When it is said and done, if he plays a little longer, he’s going to pass some guys in that group.
“Baseball people know what he has meant to the game. He’s been very, very important.”
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is excited about Thome’s run at history.
“It will go in my highlight book. Forgive me if I have a camera on the bench,” Gardenhire said. “I might take off running like the guy chasing Hank Aaron. I’ll be the first manager to start running around, but I can’t keep up with him and he can’t run.”
Thome’s dad, wife and other family members are at the weekend series in Cleveland, where Thome set the Indians’ single-season record of 52 home runs in 2002 before signing a rich, long-term contract as a free agent with Philadelphia. Thome went to the Chicago White Sox in 2006 and after a 17-game stop with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of 2009, moved on to Minnesota a year ago.
Alomar and Blyleven also played for several teams during their illustrious careers.
Alomar was with San Diego, Toronto and Baltimore before coming to Cleveland at the height of his career. He later played for the New York Mets, White Sox, Tampa Bay and Arizona.
“I enjoyed every day at the ballpark and my time in Cleveland was very special,” Alomar said.
With Thome hitting two spots behind him in the lineup, Alomar averaged 21 homers, 121 runs, 103 RBIs, hit .323 and won the last three of his 10 Gold Gloves at second base.
“I had three great years here,” Alomar said. “There were so many great days. Playing beside my brother (Sandy) was a dream come true.”
Alomar predicted former Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, still active at age 44 with the White Sox, will join him in the Hall.
“Omar was the best shortstop I ever played with,” Alomar said. “It was an honor to play alongside him every day. I know one day I will be waiting for him in the Hall of Fame. He will be there someday.”
Blyleven started his career at age 19 with the Twins in 1970, was traded to Texas and then Pittsburgh, where he won a World Series in 1979. He played 4½ years in Cleveland, winning 19 games and finishing third in the Cy Young voting in 1984 before being traded back to Minnesota in mid-1985 and later finishing his career with the California Angels.
He recalled playing with Alomar’s father, Sandy Sr., with the Rangers in the mid-1970s and could tell then that little Robby and his brother, Sandy Jr., a major league catcher for 18 years, were destined to become players.
“They had their little ‘B’ game in the back and you could see then they could play,” Blyleven said. “Even then, Robby had great hands. He’s one of the best second baseman I ever saw. Pitchers like me like guys like that behind you. Cy Young probably had some guys he thanked, too.”