12/23/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Thome brings holiday spirit to town hit by tornadoes
Former slugger has committed $100,000 to relief efforts and helped raise more
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- A common question exists for those who occasionally watch Jim Thome in television interviews or have only heard of his personal lore.
Is the Hall of Fame worthy slugger and current special assistant to White Sox general manager Rick Hahn as nice as he appears to be? The answer by those in the know would surprise many.
Jim Thome actually is even nicer than he seems.
"There are times when he doesn't take the garbage out and gets in the doghouse," said Thome's wife, Andrea, with a laugh. "But it would be hard to find a human being with a better soul."
"It's like you wouldn't believe it unless you met him," said White Sox senior director of community relations Christine O'Reilly on her admiration for Thome. "There are no words to describe him."
"He is the type of person, one of the very few that I met, that I said, 'I want to be friends with this guy after baseball,'" said Mike Huff, a former White Sox outfielder who serves as an occasional broadcaster and also holds the position of the Bulls/Sox Academy vice president of sports. "Not just during it."
These words of praise illustrate that Thome has the holiday spirit even when the calendar doesn't read November or December. Being a good teammate, a good husband and a good father all stand out as important traits, but Thome transcends this perpetual positive vibe and uses it to help others.
Tornadoes devastated the city of Washington, Ill. on Sunday, Nov. 17, with Mayor Gary Manier stating that 1,086 homes were damaged and 532 destroyed. It's a city where Randy Thome, one of Jim's brothers, currently resides, and is also located just 15 miles from the Thomes' beloved hometown of Peoria.
Accompanied by Mayor Manier and former NBA player and Washington resident Doug Lee, Thome toured the area just three days later. His visit produced a $100,000 personal commitment to the city from the Thome family alone -- a donation that was added to by Thome's former teams, such as the White Sox, Twins, Indians and Phillies.
Andrea knew before the visit that Jim wanted the family to contribute. She understood the donation would be significant when she talked with her husband after his return from Washington.
"I could see it in his face," Andrea said. "We knew what we gave had to be substantial enough to help more than a few."
"Immediately they reached out and said, 'We are going to do something. Do you guys want to be a part of it?'" O'Reilly said. "It's like full immersion with him, and it all comes with such sincerity. That's what sets him apart. It's the right thing to do but he can't help himself from needing to do something and wanting to do something."
After serving as one of the instructors for 61 players between the ages of 7-14 Sunday morning during a clinic at the Bulls/Sox Academy, Thome addressed the shock of his Washington trip and his family's ensuing action. The eloquent and easy-going Thome actually had a tough time putting the experience into proper words.
"I've never seen damage of a tornado," Thome said. "I've never been in one but it put everything in perspective after. Obviously having it hit so close to home, then realizing what are these families going to do, 10 days or seven days away from Thanksgiving?
"You put things in perspective as easy as, 'OK, I'm going to brush my teeth at night and put my toothbrush [away].' Your toothbrush is gone. That's the little things it puts in perspective of the damage that was done. There were cars in trees. There was just debris everywhere. It looked like the whole half of the town of Washington was leveled."
Thome expressed gratitude for the teams jumping in with their help, adding the Blackhawks, Cubs and Bulls to the mix for this worthwhile and necessary aid. He also said that the allocation of the money is being currently discussed.
"All those teams stepped up, and then we'll divide the money of where it needs to go in the right way," Thome said. "As this process goes on, the White Sox talked about going down and being a part of the community efforts, beyond the money, just showing your face and being interactive with the community and letting them know truly how much we care what happened. Because that could easily have hit anywhere. Really it hit in our state, and we're all affected by it.
"Just show support and let them know we care. My brother is on the board there, so he fills me in of what's happening. They just like the fact that our area has shown the support. Anywhere I go in Peoria, people's comments are, 'We didn't realize how much Chicago really cares about us downstate.' It's great to see Chicago step up like that."
Friends of Jim and Andrea have sent checks to the Thomes wanting to pitch in, which is especially touching at this time of year when everything financially can get a little tight, as Andrea pointed out. O'Reilly describes Andrea as her husband's "guiding light," and she would probably get no argument from Jim.
They are both cut out of the same giving cloth, a spirit that emanated long ago from their respective parents, with Andrea providing an example when she started in Toledo television during her last semester of college.
"My mom said, and I remember this vividly, that the only reason ever to want the spotlight is so you can stand close to someone who needs to be in it," Andrea said.
The Thomes have two kids, Lila, 11, and Landon, 6. But as a player, Thome had the ability to make everyone feel a part of the family.
Gordon Beckham often gets asked to sign a picture of his first big league at-bat, and in the background is Thome, who made it a point to watch Beckham from the dugout railing. During a Spring Training, '09 contest, Thome stayed an extra inning after his work was done just to make sure he could catch Beckham hitting.
They only played three months together, but Beckham quickly learned what many others know to be true: Nice guys like Thome often finish first and make a sizeable difference.
"He's a guy you want to hang out with if you can: a man's man and the nicest guy in the world," Beckham said. "He's a special person that you model yourself after. Just a class act. He has an easy way about him that translates in baseball and off the field."