Thome ‘Honored, Humbled’ To Have ICC Diamonds Named In His Honor
As Jim Thome stepped to the mound for a ceremonial first pitch on Wednesday, Illinois Central College president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey told the crowd the retired slugger said he’d rather hit the first pitch.
Alas, the ICC product and Baseball Hall of Famer with 612 home runs to his credit didn’t take a swing. But that didn’t make the Thome Fields dedication ceremony any less of a hit.
“It means everything,” Thome said of ICC naming its baseball and softball diamonds in his honor.
“Look at this great program, this great facility; (I’m) just honored, humbled, honestly. To look back at your career and know that it all started here, it's very cool to know that these walkways, these pathways are where kind of it all started. It’s great.”
Even after decades playing in the most famous baseball stadiums in the country, Thome found the East Peoria site that now bears his name quite impressive.
“These are little things, but there’s flowers. The dugouts are well-kept. The field looks amazing,” he said. “The whole complex — at the end of the day when you leave, what you feel very proud of is that they're taking exceptional care of this facility, and you're so glad to have your name on it. It's emotional; it's very, very special.”
Thome got a chance to meet with Cougars players before Wednesday’s reception, dedication, and baseball exhibition. He took the opportunity to offer his advice on how to succeed.
“Always believe, and dreams can come true, honestly. I think dreams come true (by) not looking too far ahead, but understanding the process,” said Thome.
“Trying to get better every day, that's what's baseball is all about. It doesn't happen overnight, but when you get that chance and you see that next step, that's when the hunger and the desire kicks in to want to keep doing more and just keep that kind of focus as you progress, both mentally and physically."
Thome said having the diamonds named for him creates a bond with all the current — and future — ICC players.
“Now, we're forever teammates, and it's really cool. I look forward to the next kid in baseball that gets drafted and to be able to follow his career. It's very, very cool.”
After graduating from Limestone High School in 1988, Thome opted to play baseball and basketball for the Cougars. A year later, he was drafted by Cleveland in the 13th round to start a journey that produced five All-Star selections in a 22-year Major League career capped off by enshrinement in Cooperstown.
“What I take away from my time here is this was my path. This was where I should have gone; with my comfort level, I needed to stay in Peoria after high school,” Thome said. “Now looking back, maybe I can help young kids in their journey or in their path.”
Quirk-Bailey said Thome is the perfect example of someone ICC students should emulate.
“What Jim Thome represents to ICC is someone who chose us. We were his first pick; we were the right place for him to launch his dream,” she said. “He just exudes the principle of, if you work hard, and you dream big, anything is possible. So naming these fields after Jim will represent that to our students for generations to come.
“The best part of that is he is one of the most generous, nicest, down-to-earth guys that you'd ever want to meet. So it's that top of stardom, coupled with that humility, that really brings the whole package, in terms of letting people actually know what can happen with their lives.”
Cougars athletic director Rob Buss said having Thome on campus for the day was enormously beneficial for the program, as is having his name attached to the site.
“It means a lot, not only because of the player that he was, but the person that he is,” said Buss. “He spoke with our athletes this afternoon, and they were sitting on the edge of their seats. Just the knowledge and information he's able to bestow on them is priceless for us.
“He’s just genuine: he loves to be here, and he loves ICC. You can't ask for more than that from a guy with his resume.”
In his one season as a Cougar, did Thome ever imagine the big-league success that awaited him?
“No, no. I mean, it's the process, it's the long journey. It's having great teammates and those teammates not only be good teammates, but also be great players,” he said. “When you have good teammates that are great players, you listen to them and you want to get better.”
Much like his appreciation of the small details at the complex, Thome said his fondest memories of playing for ICC were the simple moments.
“I would say the van rides, little things like that,” he said. “Getting on a bus or a van and going to Lincoln Land or going to Rend Lake or going to Parkland, and ‘Hey this guy's running a little late, that van’s going to leave. Is he going to make it?’ The dinners after baseball, all those little things.
“The world today is all about cell phones. My suggestion is put them down and get to know your teammates. Understand that, man, you can have a conversation with someone one-on-one that's just great. That's what I take. We had great camaraderie and great brotherhood here.”