Thome finished the season with 47 homeruns and a career high 131 RBI in his first season in the National League. The 47 homeruns came just one short of tying Mike Schmidt's all-time Phillies record for homeruns in a single season and gave Thome the 2003 National League homerun title.
Thome had a knack for hitting homeruns at key times. Fourteen of Thome's homeruns either tied the score or gave the Phillies the lead in a game and he homered in each of three games during a critical series with the Marlins in September at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies were 29-12 in games that Thome homered in during the season.
With the signing of Thome, the Phillies added a key piece to their organization. He gave the Phillies a bona fide homerun threat and a clubhouse leader. Thome gained the respect of the players on the Phillies team and fans who flocked to see their new hero. "He's our Barry Bonds and he's such a big homerun threat," commented catcher Mike Lieberthal.
Coming into the season, many experts expected that Thome would need more time to adjust to National League pitching. The adjustment period was brief as Thome came up just five homeruns short of his 2002 career high total of 52 homeruns in a season. Experts also didn't warn the Phillies about two other upsides of Thome's signing.
With the emphasis on Thome's bat, nobody told Phillies fans about the glove that Thome brought to the Phillies lineup. With other defensively strong players like Travis Lee and Rico Brogna having played first base for the Phillies, there was some thought that Thome might be a step back. That proved wrong as Thome consistently made diving stops on balls hit down the line and saved errors for his infielders by scooping throws out of the dirt.
The other added feature of Thome's signing was his personality. The unassuming gentleman from Peoria, Illinois was always gracious and willing to sign autographs for fans and give time to the media both before and after games. The first glimpse of Thome's personality came during his initial visit to Philadelphia when he stopped to sign autographs and just spend some time with workers building the Phillies new ballpark across from Veterans Stadium. Throughout the season, Thome often found time to sign autographs and never placed himself above the fans. He was also available to the media in an age when ducking reporters has become a favorite hobby of players.
With all of his contributions, it's easy to imagine how dismal the Phillies season would have been without Thome in the lineup. For that reason, Thome should get at least some consideration for MVP. In fact, one of the other main candidates thinks Thome's name will get strong consideration. "He deserves MVP votes and recognition," believes Albert Pujols of the Cardinals. It's likely that Thome won't come too close to winning the award, but as Pujols stated, the recognition and consideration should be there. Pujols Cardinals were the victims of one of Thome's onslaughts in August when Thome hit five homeruns in one week, including three against the Cardinals. That exhibition led to Thome's selection as the NL Player of the Week.
As the Phillies look forward to 2004 and beyond, they know that first base is certainly not a problem. Thome is of course, signed long-term. That signing, worth $85 million to Thome, is one that nobody regrets. During last winter's negotiations, Thome talked about wanting to be happy with where he was playing and wanting to be on a team that would contend for post-season play. Thome has talked about how happy he has been with his decision to play in Philadelphia and the Phillies appear to be on the right path for playing in the post-season in the not too distant future. As for the Phillies, they are elated with the signing. "We got him to be the go-to guy, and that's exactly what he's been. He was the man in Cleveland when they were successful, and he's definitely the man in Philadelphia," commented Larry Bowa.
With Thome's power, the obvious comparisons to Mike Schmidt have come around. During the closing ceremony for Veterans Stadium, the torch was seemingly passed between the two sluggers. As Thome stepped toward home plate to greet Schmidt after Schmidty's re-enactment of his final Phillies homerun, it was Schmidt, who grabbed Thome's hand and raised it high in the air. Showing that kind of respect doesn't always come easily for Schmidt and it was very symbolic of the respect that both current and former players have for Thome's talents.
The torch has been passed to Thome and he has seemingly taken the torch in an easy sort of manner. With his first National League season under his belt, look for Thome to become more of a team leader in 2004 as the Phillies truly become Jim Thome's team. Thome's personality is not the sort to come to town looking to make waves and he was probably more silent than he will be in the future. Thome's leadership has already made him a clubhouse leader and his personality and the respect that he's received from other players will allow him to embrace that role more in the future. For Jim Thome, a true team leader isn't born of a big contract; He is born out of respect that is earned on the field. Thome earned that respect from his teammates, who are glad to have the slugger on their side as the Phillies look to open Citizens Bank Park.