NFL playoff field set:

Homecoming for Thome

CHICAGO – Late Sunday night, when the rain finally cleared, Jim Thome hit a home run. Remember, now, there is a difference between a home run and a Jim Thome home run. A home run clears the outfield fence. A Jim Thome home run clears the stadium's ZIP code.

This particular Jim Thome home run, the 431st of his career, traveled an estimated 431 feet. It looked longer, probably because a 3-hour rain delay had almost hijacked Opening Night, and the remaining 5,000 or so amphibious fans at U.S. Cellular Field would have cheered a pop-up. Anything to see their Chicago White Sox.

By 1:10 a.m., when the defending champions closed out their 10-4 victory against Cleveland, the crowd had gotten more Sox than showers, more fun than a Second City show – and, more than anything, their first dose of Thome wearing black and white.

Healthy, playing in his home state, opposing his old team for the first time in his career, Thome was a bundle of emotions. Excited that his back and elbow aren't sore. Gracious that he now plays 2 1/2 hours from his hometown of Peoria. Anxious that he'd be facing Cleveland, where he spent his first 12 seasons.

Relieved that the White Sox took a gamble on him, and that he repaid them in kind with his tie-breaking three-run homer in the fourth inning.

"It was really special," Thome said. "Against the team we played, to come home here, the crowd, the way they showed up tonight, it was great. It really stands up there as one of the tops for sure."

Part of Thome's charm is that he uses phrases like "the tops." He really is that genuine, that sincere, and his innocence bleeds into his baseball manifesto, which is like that of a kid learning to play: Swing hard, hit far.

While with the Indians, Thome tortured White Sox pitching. In 420 at-bats, he hit 41 home runs. Eighteen of them came at U.S. Cellular.

"Hopefully," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said, "he hits another 60."

Thome's take: "I would say very slim."

Still, it's tantalizing to imagine a healthy Thome batting in front of Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye. No team in baseball can match Chicago's quintet of starting pitching, plus Brandon McCarthy, who didn't allow a baserunner in three innings after the rain delay. To trot out a lineup with 120-homer potential in the heart of the order would be unfair.

Yet those thoughts danced after Thome yanked the first pitch he saw from Fernando Cabrera, a fastball with a priority-mail stamp affixed to it.

"When he hit it," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said, "it looked like it was never going to come down."

When it did, Thome was almost around second base. Normally a trotter, he half-ran. Generally a head-down guy, he craned his neck toward the dugout to lock eyes with his new teammates. As Thome crossed the plate, he slapped Konerko's hand like it was a Whac-A-Mole.

"I can't hit a 5-iron that far," center fielder Scott Podsednik said. "I'm in awe when a man can."

Power came naturally to Thome, who joined the Indians in 1991 as a 20-year-old third baseman. He often reached the food-court patio in center field at Jacobs Field, and in 1999 he hit the mother of all Jim Thome home runs, a 511-foot shot off Kansas City's Don Wengert. Two years later, he hit 49 home runs, then followed that with a 52-homer season.

In the era of the devalued homer, Thome was among the most prolific hitters. And he parlayed that into a six-year, $85 million deal with the Phillies in the 2003 offseason. Thome hit 89 home runs total in his first two seasons and gave the Phillies not only a power presence but an identity.

Last year, it all crumbled. Thome's back, always balky, flared up. His right elbow required surgery. He hit his last homer June 23. He played his last game June 30. The Phillies, with Ryan Howard at first base, sent him to the White Sox in November.

Slowly, Thome returned. He played a few minor-league games to feel out his swing. He adjusted to a full-time designated hitter role. In his first two spring training at-bats, he hit home runs. He followed with two more multi-homer games. And he saved the best for Sunday.

"You can feel it," Thome said. "It gives me a sense of our '95 team in Cleveland (which went 100-44 and lost in the World Series to Atlanta). As spring training played out, this club is winning first, and that's what impresses me the most."

What else does he expect? These are the champions, as they displayed proudly with a banner in left field next to the one celebrating their 1917 championship. With that and the fireworks and the videos reminiscing about last season, the crowd of 38,802 enjoyed a healthy nostalgia trip.

How quickly they forgot. All it took was one swing, one true-blue Jim Thome home run, to help them realize that, if possible, this season could be even better.