The New York Yankees strolled into town Friday night to begin a four game series with the Twins. While the Yankees have become the Twins’ biggest postseason obstacle in recent years, the Twins’ poor 2011 season has sucked all the playoff excitement out of this weekend’s series. Even if the Twins do manage to win a few games against their Bronx-based oppressors, the competition will remain largely meaningless. But the Yankee visit still holds some intrigue, as two of the greatest players of all time will share the field.
Jim Thome, the newest member of baseball’s 600 Home Run Club, will start at DH for the Twins. The Yankees feature the second-newest member of that club, and the leading home run hitter among active players, Alex Rodriguez. Though Rodriguez is still rehabbing a meniscus injury, he should join the Yankees sometime this weekend. Once he does, fans will have the chance to see the opposite ends of the Superstar Slugger Spectrum.
On one side of that spectrum is Thome, a corn-fed Mr. Nice Guy who quietly goes about the business of smashing long home runs. At the opposite end, Rodriguez is a natural born superstar whose glamorous life is on display 24/7.Thome is a bulky, plodding lefty who steps deliberately to the plate and looks to clobber every pitch. Rodriguez is about 25 pounds lighter, right-handed, and much fleeter of foot (A-Rod has over 300 career steals; Thome has 19). Thome was born in Peoria, the quintessential minor league town. His call to the pros didn’t come until the 13th round of the 1989 draft. A-Rod, on the other hand, has been in the big city spotlight his entire life. He was born in New York City and grew up in Miami. When the 1993 draft rolled around, the Mariners nabbed Rodriguez with the very first pick.
Rodriguez’s career is awash in accolades and honors – and cash. He owns three MVP trophies, and he is such a fixture at All Star games that fans often vote him in without a second thought. Complementing his 12 All Star appearances are 10 Silver Slugger Awards at shortstop and third base. Rodriguez has been well-compensated for his hitting performance, and his signature appears at the bottom of two of the largest contracts in MLB history: a $252 million dollar deal with the Rangers in 2001 and a ridiculous $275 million contract with the Yankees in 2007. This year he is pulling down $31 million to man the hot corner for New York.
Thome, by contrast, has often flown under the radar. Though he played third base for the first five years of his career, most of his time has been spent at first base and designated hitter, positions glutted with sluggers. Thus, Thome has only appeared in five All Star games, he has just a single Silver Slugger (for third base in 1996), and he has been snubbed in the MVP voting every year. And while Thome is certainly not going to stand in line at a soup kitchen any time soon, he isn’t in the same financial league as A-Rod. He has never made more than $16 million in a single season. This year he’s collecting $3 million from the Twins. Fortunately, that’s still more than enough for him to pay for college for all 10 of his nieces and nephews.
While the Thome family may be better educated, the Rodriguez clan can boast of one accomplishment to trumps them. A-Rod won a World Series with the 2009 Yankees. The lack of a World Series ring remains the only glaring omission on Thome’s Hall of Fame resume. Interestingly, up until 2009 it was Thome who had the more impressive postseason track record. He played in the World Series twice with Cleveland – losing a tough Series to Atlanta in 1995 and losing in heartbreaking fashion to Florida in 1997. Thome’s Indians were competitive for his entire stint with the team, and the same held true when he was with the Phillies and White Sox. Meanwhile, after A-Rod signed with the Rangers, he spent a few years missing the postseason entirely.
The two men could not be more different in terms of public demeanor. Thome is well-known for being one of the friendliest players in the game. Fans, players, and the media all fawn over his generous and charismatic demeanor. In 2007, MLB players voted him the second-friendliest man in baseball, behind Sean Casey. Casey has since retired, so if the poll were conducted today, Thome might win.
The same poll ranked A-Rod as the fourth least friendly in the game. For the record, I’ve never met either player, and I certainly do not mean to imply that A-Rod is a jerk; for all I know he may be putting an entire town through college. But his fellow players evidently don’t find him very personable. And when the press covers A-Rod, they don’t talk about how friendly he is. They prefer to focus on his private life. New York and national tabloids never squander an opportunity to photograph him with Madonna, Kate Hudson, or Cameron Diaz. Even people who absolutely do not care about Rodriguez’s dating habits (presumably this includes every sane person in America) are forced to hear about them from time to time. The good news is there is a 0% chance that any trashy celeb magazine will ever write an article about who Jim Thome is dating.
Finally, the most well-publicised contrast between the two: drug usage. Of the 10 MLB players to join the 500 home run club since 1999, only Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., and Frank Thomas have done so without being linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez joins Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, and Mark McGwire among those whose homer totals are tainted by accusations or admissions of drug use.
I won’t delve into the details of the steroid story here, because even the most casual modern baseball fan knows it by now. But the fact is that it’s bound to come up this weekend with both 600 home run hitters in the same location. Thome may not be as glitzy or glamorous as Rodriguez, and he can’t match many of A-Rod’s truly amazing on-field feats. But Thome absolutely crushes Rodriguez in the role model department. He has gotten to where he is through a combination of hard work, fair play, and natural talent. And that is why baseball is lucky to have him.