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Former teammates applaud Thomas

Former teammates applaud Thomas

ST. PETERSBURG -- On a 1-2 pitch from Minnesota's Carlos Silva during the first inning of Thursday afternoon's contest with the Blue Jays, Frank Thomas launched a drive into the Metrodome's left-field stands to become the 21st member of Major League Baseball's 500 home run club.

But Thomas might end up as the first of four or five new members to reach this exclusive fraternity before the 2007 season comes to a close. The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez currently sits at 492, and with the way he has been crushing the baseball, Rodriguez could reach the 500 mark by the All-Star break.

Manny Ramirez has 481 home runs, followed by Gary Sheffield at 472. Jim Thome ranks slightly above the pair, entering Thursday's series finale against the Devil Rays with 482 career blasts. Thome verbally applauded Thomas for this latest impressive accomplishment, although he didn't have the chance to watch it live on television.

"I had just gotten in [to the clubhouse], and they said he did it," said Thome, who needs 18 home runs to hit the 500-home run plateau. "That's awesome, a great achievement.

"There's a special group of guys in there, you know. I've said that. I think it takes a long time in order to accomplish something that; you have to play a long time. Ultimately, you have to be pretty healthy in order to something like that.

"It's pretty cool, it is," Thome added. "I didn't really come up with him, but playing in the same division for years, it's neat to see somebody accomplish that. It's a great feat, for sure."

Thomas spent 16 seasons with the White Sox, holding career franchise records in 11 separate offensive categories. The Big Hurt, an apropos nickname given to Thomas by White Sox television announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson for the way he roped the baseball, launched 448 long balls with Chicago despite never hitting more than 43 in a single season.

His departure after the 2005 season came with more than its fair share of acrimony and controversy, although Thomas was warmly received by the White Sox faithful upon his return to U.S. Cellular Field last May with Oakland. Thomas and the Blue Jays, the third team of his illustrious career, make their only trip to Chicago from July 27-29.

These home run numbers put up by all of the sluggers chasing 500 in 2007 become even more impressive when factoring in how they reached this goal the right way. In this day and age of accusation and innuendo regarding performance enhancers, Thomas and Thome have followed the path of hard work to success.

"You just kind of went out and tried to survive, and come back the next year and do the same thing," said Thome, playing in his 17th Major League season. "That's what is kind of neat about the accomplishment Frank got. Over the period, to do that, you have to play a long time."

"Think of how many people have played the game and how hard it is to hit a home run. It's an impressive feat, especially since there have never been any rumors or controversy around the guy," said White Sox pitcher Jon Garland of Thomas, who homered twice off the White Sox right-hander upon his return to Chicago last season. "He consistently put up good numbers."

Garland left a congratulatory message on Thursday on Thomas' cellphone voicemail. Mark Buehrle, involved in his own piece of personal history regarding a possible new multi-year deal, took time out to give a pat on the back to his former teammate.

"I liked the guy when he was here," said Buehrle, whom Thomas took deep during the first game of a four-game set one month ago in Toronto. "Obviously, getting to 500 home runs is a great feat. I might text him right now and tell him that it took him long enough."

With the severity of the ankle injuries Thomas dealt with during the team's championship season, some believed he might never play again, let alone be highly productive. Thomas always saw himself playing until at least he turned 40, while also wanting to reach 600 home runs.

In order to reach goal No. 2, the 39-year-old Thomas might need three or four years. But even if his home run total finished somewhere in the 500s, Thomas' body of work should be get enough to add Hall of Famer to his resume five years after he retires.

"A lot of hard work, a lot of time in the cage, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of just in general, not just when you succeed, but there are a lot of times you fail," said Thome of what 500 home runs means. "That's the even keel you have to keep. Just as easy as you can go bad, you can go the other way tomorrow. That's how you have to approach it."

"To do it [hit 500 home runs], the way he did it, and the other 20 guys throughout their careers, guys like Jim Thome, it's impressive," added Garland, who has one career home run. "Hitting the baseball is one of the toughest things to do."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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