Thome speaks strongly, carries a big stick

Originally Published: March 31, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. – If there are two things baseball needs right now, they would be ...

1) Somebody hitting 50 home runs this year who has never been suspected of taking anything stronger than a smoothie.

2) That same somebody speaking out publicly, saying it's time for baseball to rip up the penalties in its new steroid policy and replace them with a sentence that will alert the world that this sport isn't the steroid-infested mess it's being portrayed to be.

OK, now it's time to meet the man who could pull off both of those feats.

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

A gentleman by the name of Jim Thome.

He's too perfect.

He's an old-school country slugger who is so clean, by all accounts, he could be the national spokesman for Procter & Gamble.

He is also a man who has already hit 50 (52 in 2002), who has blown past 40 four years in a row and who plays in a park (in Philadelphia) where he can reach the upper deck on a checked swing.

So Thome can handle the 50-homer end of this deal. No debate there.

But that's not all he can handle. Jim Thome also wants to blow away the thundercloud hanging over his sport – and over all the innocent men who play it:

And the way to do that, he says, is to suspend anyone who tests positive for steroids – even once – for a full season. No questions asked.

"As players, we want the fans to know we do care about this and we hold their opinion in high regard," Thome said. "The fans are a big part of what we do and what we're about. And we want them to know we do want stricter penalties if somebody gets caught. It would be a better game if we do it that way – if you get suspended for one year. Without pay."

Thome has spent the last few months thinking a lot about what baseball can still mean to folks who are able to look past the steroid debacle and see the joy this sport brings to many, many people.

People like himself, for instance.

He lost his mother this winter, way too young. But this spring, he has been reminded of how lucky he is to do what he does.

And how much happiness and serenity baseball has brought to his life at a time when he needed it most.

And what it has meant to his father, who has spent the last month in Florida, wrapping himself in a cocoon of baseball and family.

That's the side of baseball Thome sees every day when he puts on a uniform – "so I hate having something like this hanging over our game," he said.

To clear those skies, he is vehement that players are willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy baseball's customers that this sport is cleaner than they think.

"Everyone in the game wants the penalty, if a guy does it, to be so strong that you want him to think twice," Thome said. "I would think a year's suspension would be a pretty good start. It would show our fans we're serious about this, and that we want to better this game."

Another All-Star player told us recently that he thinks that if the union polled the players right now, it could get 1,100 votes for a one-year suspension – and possibly even more – for a first offense.

"I don't think as many guys have done it as they're saying have done it," that player said. "But whoever did do it, they've stopped – because no one wants to get caught now and have their name destroyed. So a year, two years, a suspension for life – I think we'd go for just about anything right now to stop all this stuff."

TRIVIALITY
Miraculously, Bobby Higginson will be a Tiger on Opening Day. But with Frank Thomas and Tim Salmon both on the disabled list, Opening Day will find only three other active American Leaguers who have played at least 10 full seasons with their original teams. Can you name them? (Answer later.)

There have been indications lately that once the union announces that players have ratified the just-negotiated steroid policy – an announcement expected any day now – it will quietly begin talking with MLB about revising the penalties in that agreement.

In the wake of the drubbing those two sides took in D.C., they don't have much choice. Do they?

If the sport really is as clean now as they told Congress it is, they have nothing to fear. Don't do it for Henry Waxman. Do it for all the players who understand the credibility of their sport rides on this.

And do it for guys like Jim Thome, so they can hit their 50 home runs and have it be accompanied by the roar of the crowd, not the pointing of a million fingers.

Trade Rumblings
• The Tigers obviously knew the Mets were interested in Ugueth Urbina – because they pitched him twice against the Mets this spring. But there seems to be almost no shot of that deal happening. The Tigers continue to tell teams their plan is to keep Urbina for now. And there's no chance of a Mike Cameron-for-Urbina deal for two reasons: 1) the Mets wouldn't make that trade straight up, and 2) Cameron has given no indication he'd waive his no-trade-to-Detroit clause.

Ugueth Urbina
Urbina saved 21 of 24 chances last season in Detroit.

• Despite rumors linking the Cubs to Urbina, don't bet your Ernie Banks baseball-card collection on that one happening, either. The Cubs have never thought Urbina was a fit for Wrigley Field. So their plan, according to teams that have talked with them, is to give LaTroy Hawkins every opportunity to close. And if not, they'll go hard after Octavio Dotel in midyear if he hits the market.

• Meanwhile, A's GM Billy Beane continues to tell people that, no matter how impressive Huston Street has been this spring, he's not ready to move Dotel – yet.

"He's just not prepared to do it now, because he's not sure which way his team's going to go," said an official of one team that has talked with Oakland. "But even if they're in it on June 15, Billy's the kind of guy who might still move a Dotel if he thinks Street is ready – except, if they're in it, he'll deal him to get a major-league piece he needs."

• Another arm to file away for your July Rumor Central list is Colorado's Shawn Chacon. Teams that have talked to the Rockies say they're praying Chacon returns to the rotation and gets off to a good start so they can move him.

• Despite all that talk that Florida was on the verge of trading for Bobby Higginson, the Marlins were only interested if they decided Juan Pierre wasn't going to be healthy enough to start the season. The Fish then would have played Juan Encarnacion in center and platooned Higginson and Jeff Conine in right. But that scenario died when Pierre proved Wednesday that he would be ready to go.

• The Yankees got a ton of calls on left-handed reliever Buddy Groom, who had an excellent spring on a minor-league contract. But even though Groom couldn't pitch his way to New York, the Yankees told everyone they had no interest in dealing him. He'll head for Columbus and almost certainly will be the first reliever recalled when (not if) they need one.

• There was a time this spring when the Astros thought they could trade Tim Redding for a significant setup reliever. Instead, they wound up getting just a backup catcher (Humberto Quintero) for him.

"They couldn't get much because he's really gone backwards," one front-office man said. "His stock has fallen too hard."

Wily Mo Pena
Pena

• The Reds talked about Wily Mo Pena with a bunch of teams this spring. But it wasn't so much Pena's brutal spring that scared them off as it was the Reds' price tag.

"They want half your system," one NL executive grumbled. "They asked for three quality kids. You've gotta like the guy's power. But in the long run, what is he? I have no idea."

• No team was mixed up in more trade rumors this spring than the Astros. But it now appears they won't make any major deal. And manager Phil Garner said: "I'm OK with that."

One reason he's OK with it is the sensational spring of outfielder Luke Scott – a guy Houston got from Cleveland last spring for Jeriome Robertson. Scott is a 26-year-old rookie, but his career was slowed by Tommy John surgery. And after a torrid finish to his Double-A season last year (six HR, 20 RBI in his last 26 at-bats), he kept right on raking, hitting .391 (with 12 extra-base hits, vs. only eight singles) in his first 51 spring at-bats.

"If spring training means anything," Garner said, "he ought to start every game until the All-Star break."

• Several teams are puzzled by the Devil Rays' failure to make a deal for a bat – considering all the attractive bullpen arms they had to trade (Baez, Jorge Sosa, Travis Harper).

Teams that have spoken with them say they had a number of outfielders or first basemen on their radar screen (Jay Gibbons, Rob Mackowiak, Nick Johnson, Howard, Pena, Eric Byrnes). But it appears they never got close on anybody.

More Rumbling and Grumbling
• Despite speculation that the Phillies are going to get emerging star Jimmy Rollins signed to a long-term deal before Opening Day, sources familiar with those negotiations say that's almost certainly not going to happen.

• Spectacular as the Braves' rotation might be, scouts following them continue to wonder whether they're going to hit.

"I never bet against Bobby Cox, but this might be the year," said one scout. "I can see them having big potential problems in the outfield."

Ryan Langerhans
Ryan Langerhans could see extended playing time behind Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi.

Ryan Langerhans looms as Atlanta's fourth outfielder, behind Andruw Jones, Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan. But one scout calls him just a modern Joe Orsulak. And The Next Dale Murphy, Jeff Franceur, "is probably a year and a half away."

One guy to watch is third baseman Andy Marte, who is expected to dabble in the outfield in Triple-A.

• One young pitcher who has scouts buzzing is future Tigers ace Jeremy Bonderman, who is about to become the youngest Opening Day starter (22 years, 5 months) since Dwight Gooden started the 1986 opener for the Mets at age 21.

"All I could think about as I was watching him," one scout chuckled, "is that he was the chair-against-the-wall guy [thrown by Billy Beane after Bonderman was drafted by his scouting people] in 'Moneyball.' I'd break a chair over not getting him. That's how good he is."

• Two baseball men who have had conversations with the Phillies say the club has had internal discussions about the upside of moving Ryan Madson into the rotation if their starters don't step up. But at the moment, they can't – because Madson (coming off a 9-3, 2.34 rookie year) is both their youngest and their most versatile reliever.

So down the road, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Phillies deal someone like Brett Myers for a setup man – and then insert both Madson and Gavin Floyd into the rotation.

• Not many arms come along like 18-year-old Mariners phenom Felix Hernandez – a guy with a 97-mph fastball and what one scout called a "classic strikeout curveball."

"Probably the best arm in Arizona," one scout said. "But he's not close to ready."

• Can the Giants still win the NL West without Barry Bonds for a month and a half? Well, it won't be easy. But they just might.

"That lineup is still good," said a scout who has watched them. "They know how to play. And they're in a good division – for them. If they were in the NL East, they'd be just a so-so team. But in the West, they're still as good as anyone."

• The Rangers are counting on pitching coach Orel Hershiser to revive Matt Riley's career the way he turned around Ryan Drese's last year. And while he's at it, he can work on Pedro Astacio, too.

"Orel Hershiser is going to have to be Oral Roberts to get that staff straightened out," one scout said.

• Now that his negotiations with Arizona are dead in the water, it looks as if Stephen Drew is going to play for Camden of the Atlantic League while he waits around for his second shot at the June draft. Might not be the best idea we've heard.

Camden, of course, is right across the river from Philadelphia – where Drew's big brother J.D. is such a local favorite.

• Draft-pick compensation for lost free agents was almost dropped in the last labor deal. Well, it's time to either kill it in the next one or revamp it so it makes some sense.

How can the Astros be getting just a third-round pick (and a sandwich pick) for losing Carlos Beltran – while the Yankees will get a first-rounder for Jon Lieber (who didn't even play in one of the two seasons covered by the free-agent rating system)?

The official explanation is that the Mets finished in the bottom half of the standings – so they can't be forced to give up a first-rounder for any free agent. And since Pedro Martinez was rated higher than Beltran, the Red Sox get the Mets' second-round pick while Houston gets stuck with their third-rounder.

The Phillies, meanwhile, finished in the top half of the standings. So the rules say they lose a No. 1 even if they sign a Type B free agent like Lieber. Bizarre.

Great Spring-Awful Spring (Florida Division)
GREAT SPRINGS (HITTERS): Andruw Jones, Hideki Matsui, Travis Hafner, Brandon Inge, Albert Pujols (no whiffs in his first 53 AB), Pat Burrell, Jose Reyes.

AWFUL SPRINGS (HITTERS): Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Vernon Wells, Johnny Estrada, Vinny Castilla, Milton Bradley.

GREAT SPRINGS (PITCHERS): John Smoltz, Johan Santana, Brad Lidge, Kris Benson, Miguel Batista, Jeremy Bonderman, Josh Beckett, B.J. Ryan, Daniel Cabrera, Joe Nathan.

AWFUL SPRINGS (PITCHERS): Roger Clemens, Paul Wilson, Josh Fogg, Victor Zambrano, Cory Lidle, David Weathers, Ismael Valdez, Jim Mecir, Cal Eldred.

And finally
• Let us be the first on our block to publicly ask the most-fun question arising out of spring training: Can Ichiro hit .500?

The heck with .400. The guy went 29 for his first 58 this spring. So can he really hit .500?

"If he keeps hitting against those Double-A and Triple-A pitchers they trot out there, he might," one scout said, with a laugh.

Trivia answer
Bernie Williams, Garret Anderson and Brad Radke.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com