Editor’s note: Baseball is back after the longest off season in history. But real fans know that the game that’s played on the field is no more real than the one that lives in our heads. Here’s what’s been on one fan’s mind during the long build up.

1. Sept. 30, 2008

Put Jim Thome in the left-handed batter’s box.

The rest of the details are true. The rest of the details are immaterial. The rest of the details will follow. Stare out the window and wait, and they’ll come, like the leaves, like the snow, like the spring.

For now, though, put Jim Thome in the box. His stirrups high, helmet covered in pine tar, eyeblack heavy, he levels his stick toward the opposing pitcher, something out of a novel, a screenplay, but Jim Thome is not from a screenplay. He has hit 540 homers before this night and every one has been real, as real as anything in this world, and he’s about to hit another one, and it will be very real, and Jim Thome with his stained helmet and his short pants tucked into high stirrups and his eyeblack and his square jaw and his country-strong build and his timeless gaze and his bat leveled out at the pitcher are not for show, they are real, so very real, and Jim Thome isn’t challenging the pitcher, he isn’t calling his shot, he is waiting, waiting like he has 540 times before, waiting to see how the man on the mound will come.

Can you see it? Is it real? Do you believe?

The Twins have chased the White Sox all summer. Chicago had the division put away, up 2.5 with six to play. Then they came into Minneapolis and got swept. Ron Gardenhire lives to manage in September. His teams seem to live to play for him, then. He’s the kind of guy who leads  trump in a game of euchre, smoking out all the real cards, then taking a trick on the last hand with his nine of clubs. The Twins finished a half game up, forcing the White Sox to make up a game with the Tigers. A weak Detroit team limped into Chicago, got shelled and went golfing. All square after 162 games. By virtue of a coinflip, Minnesota headed to Chicago. After six innings of Game 163, we’re still all square.

Gardy’s nine of clubs this night is Nick Blackburn, a tall Texas righty with a power sinker and a stubborn streak wide as the panhandle. For six innings, on short rest, he’s matched zeros with White Sox rookie John Danks, also starting on three days’ rest. Blackburn has a stubble beard and a hard look and he hasn’t gotten to this point pitching around anyone. He’ll come three quarters and he’ll come where Thome can see him and he’ll come over the plate. This is a great matchup for Jim Thome. There are 40,354 fans in the stands on the South Side of Chicago and they are all wearing black and they are standing, now, as Jim Thome leads off the seventh and takes his place and this at-bat will decide the game, and all of that matters but none of that matters. Blackburn will leave a 2-2 sinker a bit up — just a bit, just a fraction up, just above Thome’s  stirrups, high up on his calves— and Thome will crash into it, country strong, send it sailing, carrying on a cold night in Chicago, all backspin and blast, until it disappears into the centerfield bleachers and Big Jim Thome trots around the bases and 40,354 White Sox fans clad in black, already standing, jump around, up and down, high five the strangers next to them, because they know, oh, they know, Big Jim just did it. After 162 games and six innings, the White Sox have the lead, and they will win. They have endured.

This is a true story. Do you believe it? Do you believe two teams can play 1464 innings of baseball to a total stalemate? Can this be true? Do you believe Jim Thome was supposed to step into that left-handed batter’s box and hit that ball into the Chicago night? Do you, perhaps, believe Jim Thome was meant to be in that left-handed batter’s box, and was waiting, simply waiting, staring out the window and waiting, until the Twins and the White Sox and the 40, 354 fans and Blackburn and his beard and Danks and his change and Gardy and Ozzie and the ballpark itself were built up around him, and then, and only then, did he hit his shot? Do you believe? Can this be true? Did Jim Thome find this moment, or did he wait, patiently, in the left-handed batters box, stick out toward the mound, waiting to see how the moment would come, until the the moment found him? Mortals exist on a plane and moments exist in time, but Jim Thome needs only a place.

2. August 17, 2010

There’s a new ballpark in Minneapolis. It’s been built up around the old downtown. There’s a new train running through the city and new uniforms and a new helmet that looks even older. There is all of this, a new batter’s box even. A box built for Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. There are trees lining the centerfield batters’ eye and there are tens of thousands of new fans in the new seats and there are new playersand new baseballs shined up and even the open air feels new in Minneapolis.

Big Jim’s a Twin, now.

The White Sox have chased Minnesota all summer. They limped into Minneapolis down three, and had to have two of three to stay alive in the Central race. John Danks — remember him — took the ball for the Pale Hose and Scott Baker for the Twins, and neither would figure in the decision. Down 5-4, the White Sox claw their way back, scratching one across in the ninth to tie, and another in the top of the tenth to take the lead. Ozzie Guillen — remember him — had to go to his newly annointed closer, Matt Thornton, in the Twins ninth, and now he heads back to the hill to face the Twins.

Delmon Young reaches on a single and puts Jim Thome in the box. Matt Thornton’s a lefty and he throws hard and he’s an All-Star this season. He’ll come three quarters and he’ll come where Thome can’t see him and the ball will be on him before he can start his swing. Jim Thome is 40 years old and some days his back’s too tight to play. This is a terrible matchup for Jim Thome. But the Twins lost Morneau to a concussion in Toronto and Big Jim has taken the starts, hit off tough lefties when his job was to hit righties and played when his body told him not to. Time closes in on even Jim Thome, it seems, but here he is, eyeblack and pine tar and stirrups and steady, level gaze sighted along his bat as 40,714 Twins fans stand in silence, not daring to make a sound as Thornton winds and fires, letting the ball go behind Thome’s head, but knowing even then, he can’t change the trajectory, can’t change the spin, knowing in his gut as the ball leaves his hand he’s just hung a slider to Jim Thome, 580 career home runs, future Hall of Famer.

You can see it. This is real. This is a true baseball story.

The ball hasn’t even cleared the wall in right — the new wall made of Minnesota limestone — before the Twins pour out of the first base dugout, some of them nearly clipping Big Jim, head down, as he cuts first base like they teach kids in Little League, head down because he isn’t calling his shot and he’s not about to show up Matt Thornton. Head down until he rounds third and heads for home, flipping off his stained, old-new helmet to the sight of the other 24 Minnesota Twins waiting to greet him on the other side of home plate, waiting for his big foot — at the end of his massive calves, wrapped in high, navy blue socks — to thump down on home plate, to officially record his 581st home run, his 17th of the season, the shot that beat the Sox.

They’re waiting in the left-handed batter’s box.

3. July 24, 2020

Do you believe?

We have waited so long now to see how the man and the moment will come. The rest of the details matter — this Opening Day was delayed 120 days by a pandemic, Jim Thome’s officially in the Hall of Fame, now, and there’s a statue of him in Cleveland. The rest of the details are immaterial. The rest of the details will follow. The winter’s over — and the spring and part of the summer, too — and they’ll come, now, like a letter from home, from the love of your life, adding up over a shortened summer into a true baseball story.

 


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