Healthy Thome among early arrivals to camp

Friday, February 18th 2005, 6:44 pm
By: News On 6

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) _ Jim Thome couldn't wait to start spring training.

The All-Star first baseman arrived early for camp, a week before the Philadelphia Phillies hold their first full-squad workout on Tuesday. Thome is healthy after being nagged by hand injuries most of last year and he is eager for a new start.

``You can only train indoors so much,'' Thome said. ``You get the itch and want to be down here. It's important to get down here and prepare for the long year.''

Thome hit .274 with 42 homers and 105 RBIs in his second season in Philadelphia after signing an $85 million, six-year contract in December 2002. His production was more impressive considering he struggled at times to even hold a bat.

He missed most of spring training after breaking the tip of his middle right finger during fielding drills, sat out six games in May with ligament sprains in his right index finger and left thumb, and needed cortisone shots a few times to get through the season. He also missed a couple games with a bruised chest late in the year.

After taking three months off, Thome started hitting again in January and reports no problems.

``Everything feels great,'' he said.

Though he's doing well physically, Thome went through a difficult emotional period in the winter after his mother died.

``When you go through what I went through this winter, you have to become a leader with your family,'' he said. ``That alone speaks for itself. Not to get into details, but there are things in your life that you go through that make you become a guy that has to step up in certain areas.''

Thome is thrilled to be reunited with his close friend, Charlie Manuel, who took over as manager after Larry Bowa was fired following a disappointing season in which the underachieving Phillies finished in second place with 86 wins.

Thome thrived in Cleveland when Manuel was the Indians' hitting coach and then manager from 2000-02.

``I've been with him since I was just a baby, and I owe him a lot for my career,'' Thome said. ``He's helped me out. He's made me feel that I could accomplish anything and I wanted to work harder to become a better player. When you achieve those goals and you have a guy who's pulling for you, a respect factor comes in. I've always respected him.''

Manuel wants Thome to be more of a leader among his teammates. The Phillies for years have lacked a strong presence in the clubhouse. Thome accepted the challenge, though he's not certain he will be more vocal.

``We have so many guys who lead by different examples,'' Thome said. ``What I think he's trying to say is that he wants each character to come out and make us feel good about what's going on in the clubhouse. If that means that we can joke around a little bit and let people see us having fun, then we'll do that.''

The Phillies didn't have much fun last year when they failed to live up to their high expectations. Bowa's intense demeanor created an uncomfortable atmosphere for some of the laid-back players. Manuel's positive attitude is a welcome approach for them.

``Last year is over with,'' Thome said. ``Every year is different. Everybody in here knows what they have to do and what is projected of them to make our team better in the end. A good team prepares from Day 1 to win, and that's what we're doing.''

Thome, who turns 35 in August, is 35th on the home-run list with 423 and hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. In his final two seasons with the Indians, Thome hit 49 and 52 homers. He has 89 homers in his first two years in Philadelphia, and has driven in more than 100 runs six straight seasons and eight of the last nine years.

``As you get older and as you get going through your career, you're always going to have to make adjustments, whether it's your workout regimen or your diet,'' Thome said. ``You want to be to where you're not leaving any stone unturned.''

Manuel expects Thome to be productive for several more seasons.

``Jimmy is a special case because he loves to play the game,'' Manuel said. ``He's very easy to coach. He's a special player.''

Notes: LHP Aaron Fultz, trying to earn one of the final spots in the bullpen, once dated Manuel's niece more than 15 years ago when he was in high school in Tennessee. ``I was trying to decide if it was good or bad,'' said Fultz, who had a 5.04 ERA for Minnesota in 55 games last season. Manuel said he's happy his niece ended up marrying a doctor. ... Manuel was impressed with the way starter Vicente Padilla and relievers Billy Wagner and Terry Adams threw Friday.