DETROIT — When Jim Thome came to the plate, needing one home run for 600, the opposing pitcher wasn’t even aware how close he was to the milestone.
Then Thome sent a towering fly ball over the fence in left field. The scoreboard flashed a congratulatory message, rival fans stood and applauded, and the Minnesota Twins came out of the dugout to greet their slugger.
After reaching No. 600 in grand style Monday night — with two home runs in back-to-back innings during a 9-6 win over Detroit — Thome finally earned some appreciation following a pursuit that seemed to go unnoticed for much of the season.
The 40-year-old became the eighth player to reach the mark, and only Babe Ruth did it in fewer at-bats.
Next stop, Cooperstown?
“I don’t know. That’s not for me to decide,” Thome said. “That would be a dream. It’s pretty special. I don’t think it’s really hit home. To be mentioned and have the Hall of Fame mentioned, that’s just very, very special. That’s just really cool.”
Fighting injuries during a frustrating season in Minnesota, Thome didn’t receive nearly the amount of national publicity that his predecessors who reached 600 homers did. Even Derek Jeter’s accomplishment of 3,000 hits earlier this season dwarfed the attention Thome received for an accomplishment far more rare.
There were reasons for that, of course. Jeter is one of the game’s icons, playing for its most famous team — and perhaps on some level, fans became numb to sky-high power numbers after so many of Thome’s contemporaries reached 600 before him.
Thome is the fifth player since 2002 to enter that club, beginning with Barry Bonds nine years ago. Alex Rodriguez was the most recent to achieve the milestone, last August.
Unlike Bonds and Rodriguez, Thome has largely eluded suspicion of using performance-enhancing drugs. His country-strong physique was never chiseled like some of the hulking sluggers who proliferated his generation.
“You look at how long he’s played in the game and when you’re able to do something like that, it’s preparation, taking care of yourself,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “If you watch him come to the ballpark very early every day and prepare himself to get his body motivated, which we all know as you get a little older, it’s not that easy. But to watch him get himself motivated and get himself up to be able to do these things, hopefully a lot of our guys can learn a lot.”
This season has been a struggle for Thome. He’s been bothered by injuries to his toe, oblique and quadriceps. His milestone homer was only his 11th of the year in his 185th at-bat, and he admitted on Monday night that he was wondering if it was ever going to happen.
It did all right.
Just as Jeter reached hit No. 3,000 in dramatic fashion during a five-hit game last month, Thome arrived at his milestone with flair. His two-run homer in the sixth gave him 599, then he harnessed the power again in that pure left-handed swing, lifting a 2-1 pitch from Daniel Schlereth in the seventh over the fence in left field.
“I wasn’t really aware of it. I knew he was close to 600, but I didn’t know if that was going to be the one,” Schlereth said. “I’m not exactly happy about it, but he’s a great player, and I’m a huge fan of his. He did a great thing tonight, and … I felt kind of awkward, I didn’t know whether to clap or what.”
By the time Thome touched home, Detroit’s fans were well aware of the accomplishment and showed their appreciation. The celebration at the plate included Thome’s father, wife and children, but it didn’t delay the game much.
“Obviously when you’re on the road, the game has to move on,” Thome said. “To stop there and cherish that moment — in the visiting park they give you a standing ovation — is really cool. Throughout the years, there’s been a little bit of heckling here, through the years, for the good. To watch them stand up and cheer is very, very special.”
It was perhaps fitting that Thome reached No. 600 in a matchup of AL Central rivals. He hit 334 home runs with Cleveland and 134 with the Chicago White Sox.
Ruth reached No. 600 in 6,921 at-bats. Thome needed 8,167.
Only seven hitters have hit more home runs than the burly Thome: Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa. Thome, of course, still has time to add to his total — and bolster his Hall of Fame case even more.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn’t need convincing.
“Certainly that’s a Hall of Fame achievement,” Leyland said. “Hall of Fame from the get-go. He’s just a Hall of Fame guy, and a Hall of Fame player.”