If you have been at a little-league field in the past 20 years, there's a good chance that you have seen a young player attempt to emulate the batting stance of Jim Thome. As it turns out, there's quite to how the future Hall of Famer got his stance.
Charlie Manuel, whose coaching career overlapped with Thome's playing career on many occasions, recently joined Jim Salisbury of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia for an extended conversation. During the conversation, Manuel told the story of a classic baseball movie inspiring Thome's batting stance:
"I came into our locker room early," Manuel said. "I didn't let my players turn the TV on after a certain time. I came through the clubhouse that day, they had 'The Natural' on. I told 'em to turn it off. Some of the players said, 'Hey, Charlie, we're watching The Natural can we watch the end of The Natural? I said, 'Not really, what's the rule?'
"I saw Robert Redford standing there pointing the bat with one hand, bringing it back. I looked over at Thome, I said, 'you can finish watching the movie. From now on that's going to be your load.' I took him down in the cage and worked with him. The game started and the Phillies had a left-handed pitcher named [Kyle] Abbott. He was pitching that day. I told Jimmy, 'From now on that's your stance.' He gets up there the first time up, Abbott throws him a breaking ball away and he hit a home run to left center... I mean a long ways. He come up the next time he hit another one to right center. I think he had three hits that day."
There's many layers to this. The most obvious is that Thome's batting stance, which went on to become one of the more recognizable stances in the history of the sport, was inspired by perhaps the most reconizable baseball movie ever made. That's pretty cool.
Perhaps more interesting are the amount of connections in this story. Manuel, who made an important tweak to Thome's approach in Triple-A, ended up being his hitting coach with the Cleveland Indians for six seasons. Manuel served as Thome's manager from 2000 until his firing in July of 2002, just two months before Thome would play his final game of his first stint in Cleveland. Thome signed a six-year/$85 million deal to join the Phillies after the 2002 season, where Manuel had landed as a special assistant to then-general manager Ed Wade. Thome would play under Larry Bowa for two seasons, before the Phillies eventually replaced Bowa with Manuel for the 2005 season, allowing him to manage Thome for the 59 games he played in 2005. Thome's absence allowed Ryan Howard to win the 2005 Rookie of the Year, leading the Phillies to eventually trading Thome to the Chicago White Sox after the season. After his second stint in Cleveland, Thome returned as a pinch-hitter under Manuel for the Phillies in 2012. This proved to be Thome's final season in the majors, and Manuel's final full season as a big league manager.
The most interesting connection? As Manuel noted in the story, the day he had Thome make the changes to his batting stance, the Indians were playing against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, who were the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate at the time. Imagine how the fates of both the organizations playing in that Triple-A game that day may have been different if 'The Natural' wasn't on TV prior to the game.