Thome doesn't disappoint

On a night when Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome could've made home run history together only the latter did so.

Originally Published: June 14, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- It looked like the perfect script -- until the lineup cards went up.

It looked like the perfect script -- till the weather front from hell showed up.

On one side of the field Monday at Citizens Bank Park, you had a man with 499 home runs (Junior Griffey, ladies and gentlemen).

On the other side of the field, you had a man with 399 home runs (Mr. James Thome, friends and neighbors).

Jim Thome
APThome might not reach Ruth or Aaron, but 500 homers is well within his range.

And through a fascinating, almost spooky quirk of meteorological fate, you had a makeup game (from an April 14 rainout) bringing their mutual pursuits of home run history to the same time, the same place and the same ballpark on a South Philadelphia street corner.

Amazing. There had never been a game in baseball history that featured both a 500th homer and a 400th homer. So how perfect was this? It looked like destiny. It looked like magic. It looked like ...

Oops. Never mind.

You can lead the perfect-script authors to a keyboard, folks. But you can't make them type.

So Griffey -- after playing 36 games in a row and starting the last 35 of them -- decided this was a beautiful occasion for a night off. It wasn't easy, but he successfully sat out every darned minute of a game that lasted over seven hours and included 3 hours, 54 minutes worth of rain delays before the Phillies finally won it, 10-7 -- at 2:06 a.m.

Literally dozens of people stuck around, just in case. But no Griffey meant there went the 500-homer portion of the milestone watch.

So that left the stage to Thome. At least he knew just what to do once he got there.

He promptly brought tears to his wife's eyes and jolted a SRO crowd into flashbulb-popping pandemonium by thrashing No. 400 in the first inning. After two dramatic, ooh-and-ah foul balls on furious full-count hacks. It was way too storybook to feel real.

Or at least it was until that poetic moment dissolved into a rumble of thunder, a river pouring out of the sky and a messy 158-minute third-inning rain delay that threatened to wipe out the whole glorious occasion.

"I kept watching the Doppler up in the clubhouse," Thome admitted afterward. "But in my mind, I kept trying to think positive."

Good idea. Thome could have joined Willie Horton (who had his 300th homer wiped out in 1979) as the only two men known to have had a milestone homer lost to an uncooperative weather front. But thanks to the power of positive thinking, he joined Mike Schmidt as the only two men ever to hit their 400th home run for the Phillies.

"What a great night," Thome said -- of a long night's journey into morning that most people would have described with adjectives other than "great."

He then traded two hats, an autographed bat, an autographed ball and an autographed jersey to the guy who caught the ball, a gentleman from upstate New York named Todd Stark (no relation).

"Thank you. I know you waited a long time," Thome told Stark, before chuckling: "We all did."

So that was Thome's end of the milestone daily double. As for the Griffey end, suffice it to say Oliver Stone would have loved this one.

Why was this man not in the lineup? Was this about baseball? Or was it some massive conspiratorial plot by the Reds to save Griffey's quest for The Great Round Number until he could return home Tuesday and make them several gazillion dollars?

"Believe me," Reds manager Dave Miley said earnestly, "this had nothing to do with any kind of conspiracy."

And to put those thoughts to rest, Miley couldn't have been more amiable or more conciliatory as he explained why the man all these people had come to see would be unavailable for their viewing pleasure.

His center fielder was just "mentally and physically worn down," the manager said. He'd played 36 games in a row. It had been a long, messy, winless (0-6) road trip for the Reds.

So after the finale in Cleveland on Sunday, Miley reported, Griffey approached the trainer, Mark Mann, to report how fried he was.

Mann then relayed that message to the manager Monday. And later that afternoon, what Griffey described as "a mutual decision" was made to keep him out of the lineup.

"I bet," Miley conjectured, "that this is probably the first time he's played 36 games in a row since 2000."

Well, not quite. It was just the first time Griffey had started 35 in a row since 2000. Technically speaking, Junior last got his name in 36 straight box scores in 2001. But whatever. It had been a while. Point conceded.

The point that was tougher to concede was this: If Junior needed a rest, it sure was convenient that the day of rest just happened to come the day before the Reds headed home. At a time when he just happened to be sitting on 499 home runs.

So some members of the Griffey Watch portion of the Cincinnati media corps were curious whether anyone "from Cincinnati" had put in any calls to any Reds managers in the vicinity with, say, any lineup suggestions.

"Nobody called for us to hold him out," Miley insisted. "He'd played 36 games in a row. He hadn't missed a game since May 5. He just needed a rest. I've been looking for a day to rest him. Just like I talked to Sean Casey today, because we're getting to the point we've got to pick a day to give him a blow, too."

Casey, for the record, didn't pick this day for his day off. But also for the record, he stepped up to testify for his friend, the center fielder.

"Junior always wants to play," the Mayor said. "He wants to play in day games after night games. He's the first one here to work out. He just needs a day off. I know it's tough that he's at 499 when he gets his day off. But he needs that day off for the team. We want him to be out there fresh in August and September. So Miles has been trying to pick a time to get him a rest.

"It just turns out this was the time, and he's at 499, and we're going home tomorrow. But it's not about that. He just needs a rest. I promise. Look, I guarantee that's all there is to it."

It's at this point that we're obligated to remind you that there may not be a player in baseball who oozes with more sincerity than Sean Casey -- on this, or any, subject. So if this were Court TV, they'd be telling you about now his testimony was a major blow to the conspiracists. Heck, he guaranteed it.

As for Griffey himself, he took the stand to ask his media inquisitors to accept the explanation they'd been given and "leave it as it is." If he was so determined to hit this home run in Cincinnati, he wondered, why would he have allowed 22 members of his family -- including his father -- to fly in from Ohio and witness this non-event? Good question, actually.

He also said he was eminently available to pinch-hit (not that anyone took him up on the offer, even in a game in which Miley maneuvered catcher Jason LaRue into his first career appearance in right field). And if Griffey truly was available, how were the conspiracy theorists supposed to digest that? Hmmm. Another good question.

But an equally good question was this: How could Griffey have spent Sunday complaining that the 500-homer circus was creating a distraction for his teammates, and insist Monday that he just wants "to get this over with and move on," and then extend the circus by sitting out before he hit the big one?

After all, if the circus was a distraction to his team in Oakland, Cleveland and Philadelphia, it sure wasn't going to subside any if the elephants were still marching when he got back to Cincinnati.

"Look, it's just one of those things," he said. "I've played (36) in a row. We talked about it. And that was it."

Well, that was it for him, anyway. For Thome, though, it was just another cinematic day at the office. And night. And morning, for that matter.

Believe it or not, he and Griffey have never homered in the same game, even though this is the 11th season in which their respective teams have met. So how cool, how Hollywood, how mind-blowing would it have been had they both done that Tuesday -- spewing two magical baseball numbers all over South Philadelphia?

Oh, well. Good try. All we can do, as script writers, is lay out those dots. If the men in charge don't choose to connect them, at least it ain't our fault.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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