By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer
Jim Thome has given the Minnesota Twins the kind of productivity that many employers can only wish for from their workforce.
Sure, Thome is making $1.5 million this season, a sum most people will never see. Relative to Major League Baseball's rich marketplace, though, Thome's 16 home runs in 204 at-bats has been quite the bargain.
Even better for the Twins is that Thome, who turns 40 later this month, turned down the opportunity to return to Chicago when the White Sox decided they wanted more flexibility with their lineup -- mainly the chance to use several different designated hitters.
The Twins lead the White Sox by three games in the AL Central standings, entering a critical three-game series at Target Field that starts on Tuesday night.
"I can't react to what they did or didn't do. The bottom line is I'm happy to be here. I'm glad the Minnesota Twins called me, and they wanted me," Thome said on Sunday, after his three-run homer helped fuel the completion of a three-game sweep over the Oakland Athletics.
With his down-home, gentle-giant demeanor, Thome is one of the least likely players to ever criticize or taunt a former team. When asked if facing the White Sox this season has been strange, however, his face lit up.
"It's been fun. I've had a blast," Thome said. "I have a lot of friends there, but you want to beat your friends. That's what it's all about. ... They have a very good team, and we take nothing for granted. I think if you control your own business, hopefully in the end you'll be where you want to be."
With the addition of speedster Juan Pierre, the White Sox have become more of a small-ball-style team this season. They've been looking for left-handed power, though, since trading Thome to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the pennant drive last season.
In less than four full years with the White Sox, Thome hit 134 homers.
"We didn't release Jim. We just don't have him back," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said this winter. "He's a friend. He's a respect player. That's the way we feel about him. It's not easy."
The Twins, who have won seven straight at home and 19 of their last 24 games overall, have resisted temptation to use Thome more often. First baseman Justin Morneau's absence has created more opportunities, but manager Ron Gardenhire must heed Thome's history with back problems or risk a reinjury.
"If you overuse him you're going to probably lose him a little bit," Gardenhire said. "He's in great shape and he's feeling great, and we're trying to keep it that way."
Thome is usually one of the earliest arrivals at the ballpark, when he starts an extensive routine to keep his back loose and limber and his swing sharp and strong.
"I don't want to jinx myself, but I feel good," Thome said. "I think Gardy's done a good job of mixing me in there. With that being said, I want to play every day but I also understand my role right now."
Expressing humility when he passed former Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew on the all-time home run list earlier this season, Thome has stayed true to advertised form as one of the sport's most unassuming stars. When Thome hit No. 574 last month at Target Field, Killebrew's taped congratulatory message to Thome was played on the scoreboard.
"That's something that will go down in my book as one of the better moments of my career," Thome said then.
He's now at 580.
How about 600? Or more?
"I don't want to think about it all the time," Thome said. "I want to play the game and just let the game play itself out and try to win. Ultimately I think that's why we're all here."
He's made an impact in the clubhouse, as well as at the plate.
"It's great for the younger players in here to learn professionalism," teammate Michael Cuddyer said, "because if anybody in this game has room to be cocky and full of himself and arrogant with 580 home runs, it's him. He's the exact opposite of that. It's almost like having a Harmon Killebrew in the lineup. He doesn't demand it, but when he walks in he automatically demands and commands respect."