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11/20/09 4:51 AM EST

Thome open to return to White Sox

Former Chicago slugger set to explore free-agent market

CHICAGO -- If White Sox fans made the judgment regarding Jim Thome's immediate baseball future, then the prolific slugger would be chasing 600 career home runs at U.S. Cellular Field in 2010.

That judgment came from a sample size of South Side fandom in attendance Thursday night at the Champions for Children's charity event hosted by Kerry and Sarah Wood at the Palmer House Hilton. With each autograph signed by Thome, the individual recipient offered up some words of encouragement ranging from 'We want you back next year' to 'You belong in Chicago.'

Thome simply smiled and thanked the fans, primarily offering up a 'We'll see' in response. It was the same sort of response Thome presented when briefly questioned by the media in attendance.

"Obviously, it's real early in the stage of all this," said Thome, who was joined by his wife, Andrea, in downtown Chicago on Thursday. "It's new for me. I haven't been through too many of them. We will see what happens as we go on."

The last foray into free agency for Thome came prior to the 2003 campaign, when Thome moved from making history as part of the vaunted Cleveland franchise in the American League to launching home runs off of National League hurlers for Philadelphia. That contractual agreement stood at six years, $85 million, with a $13 million option for 2009.

Of course, that contract finished out through parts of four seasons with the White Sox and a little more than one month with the Dodgers in 2009. Thome was moved by White Sox general manager Ken Williams to Los Angeles at the start of September in an attempt to put the 39-year-old in a better position to capture that elusive first World Series title.

Everything from the suddenness of the deal to his limited role as an NL pinch-hitter was part of a late-career learning experience for the owner of 564 home runs.

"To be honest, it was a little crazy," said Thome, who was informed of the deal after a White Sox loss at the Metrodome on Aug. 31. "I had 45 minutes to an hour to decide.

"You are with a group of guys you love. One of the toughest things about baseball is you have to make these sorts of decisions but you want to get input from everyone. And my teammates were great. Paulie and A.J. and Jermaine and Buehrle, they were all great. They were like, 'Look, go try to win a championship,' and it really was a good experience.

"Getting to meet (Dodgers manager Joe) Torre," Thome said. "Pinch-hitting was a challenge in regard to something in my career where I had to work and learn a new thing."

Those final Dodgers numbers came out to four hits and three RBIs in 17 at-bats for Thome, who added one hit in three at-bats, a walk and a hit by pitch during the postseason. The Phillies eliminated Los Angeles in the National League Championship Series, but it was a good move for Thome in more ways than the obvious thrill of playoff baseball.

"You know what, I was telling my agent the other day how good I felt," Thome said. "Going to Los Angeles, maybe it helped me heal a few things at the end of the year."

Pat Rooney, Thome's agent, also was in attendance at Thursday's charity event for Children's Memorial Hospital and talked about the right fit being an important factor for Thome in choosing his next team. At 39, Thome might not get more than a one-year deal and his base salary certainly will be below last year's $13 million.

Yet, there are plenty of American League teams who need a designated hitter with a .249 average, 23 home runs and 77 RBIs, as Thome put up in 2009. Tampa Bay, Seattle, Detroit and Minnesota could be among them.

Playing in Chicago also would seem to be a natural fit, with the White Sox looking for another left-handed bat for their lineup. And the loyal fans aren't the only ones who hope for Thome's return.

"Everybody knows how about I feel about Jim," White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker said. "I'm very fortunate to have been around him and I hate to even use the word coach because you don't coach Jim Thome. You hang out with him. He's that good.

"I don't get involved in the money part. I'm going to let [general manager] Kenny [Williams] and [White Sox chairman] Jerry [Reinsdorf] work it out. If it's my preference, he'll be back. But we will wait and see and let it play out."

Williams hasn't ruled out a Thome return but certainly made it seem as a topic to be broached a little later, rather than sooner, during the Hot Stove period. As far as having a gut feeling in predicting a White Sox return, Thome espoused his version of the wait-and-see approach.

"Baseball can be a weird thing, and you never know how things are going to play out," Thome said. "Everyone knows how I feel. I love Chicago, but I don't know the direction they want to go.

"Ultimately, if things work out, I would love to come back. It's a great city. It's home. It has been a great place. Jerry, Ozzie, the whole organization, they have all treated me great."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.