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Gracious tributes from Twins legends Rod Carew and Tony Oliva quickly make Jim Thome feel at home

When Carew compared him to Oliva as a special player and person, the longtime Twins nemesis smiled and seemed touched.

The gesture came out of nowhere. At the Diamond Awards Thursday night, Hall of Famer Rod Carew had just accepted the Kirby Puckett Alumni Community Service Award when he ignored a question from master of ceremonies Dick Bremer and instead acknowledged the newest Twin in the audience.

Jim Thome, the longtime Twins nemesis and one of the best-liked players in baseball, flew in from his off-season home in Illinois to attend the dinner and stick around for TwinsFest on short notice, having signed with Twins just 48 hours before. He sat at a table three rows from the stage, taking in the scene at the Minneapolis Hilton, melding into the crowd of more than 500 even though he was, at 6-foot-4, one of the largest people in it.

When Carew compared him to Tony Oliva as a special player and person, Thome smiled and seemed touched.

Then Friday, Oliva himself approached Thome at the Twins’ media luncheon at Target Field. “This is a classy guy,” Oliva said to several of us before turning back to Thome and adding, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

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Oliva might have been even happier had he been a pitcher, considering 57 of Thome’s 564 career homers have come against the Twins, the most by any Minnesota opponent. (Thome’s 28 Metrodome homers also topped all visiting players.) Still, the graciousness from both Twins greats left Thome almost embarrassed.

“It’s humbling,” he said. “To have those guys say something nice about you means a lot.”

Jim Thome

Jim Thome

Thome’s humility and selflessness are refreshing in a sport often dominated by egos and posturing, especially around contract time. He has won awards named for Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig, honoring community involvement and service. He helped raise more than $1 million for a children’s hospital in his home town of Peoria, Ill. He said he looked forward to learning from fellow left-handed hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, a gracious thought and a street that will be paved both ways.

At 39, Thome accepts that he is no longer an everyday player, mainly due to a cranky lower back that limited him to four defensive appearances since 2006 and none the last two years. (Thome’s back may prevent him from backing up Morneau at first base, so expect 15 or 20 or so appearances there from Michael Cuddyer.)

He also surveyed the landscape, noted the number of aging former All-Stars still unemployed, and jumped on the Twins’ modest offer of $1.5 million plus incentives. Thome just completed the six-year, $85 million free-agent deal that brought him to Philadelphia in 2003, and he’s made far more than $100 million in his career.

“Money to me was not an issue,” Thome said. “I wanted to play. The bottom line is, at a certain point, you’re not going to make the money you’ve made.”

And get this: Thome feels that not playing every day will actually help him at this stage of his career, a notion that some fading star players never accept. When Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called Thome two weeks ago to recruit him, and laid out Thome’s likely role — pinch-hitter and occasional DH — Thome was cool with it.

“Everybody wants to play,” Thome said. “But you also have to understand what’s good for the organization you’re going to, and what’s good for your career.”

Said Gardenhire: “You’re talking about a Hall of Fame guy. I wanted him to know exactly where we were at. I didn’t want him to think he was going to be the future DH. If someone is going well, I’ll find a way to get you in the lineup. But [Jason] Kubel is my DH, and Delmon [Young] is my left fielder.”

But what does Thome have left? Lefthanders ate him up last year (.209 in 91 at-bats, though with five homers). As a pinch-hitter, he was 4-for-25 for the White Sox and the Dodgers (.160) with no extra base hits and three RBI. Thome said unfamiliarity with National League pitchers hurt him with the Dodgers, but doesn’t explain his 0-for-8 pinch-hitting for the White Sox.

Maybe the lumberjack-sized Thome, who hit 23 homers as a DH for the Whities, will be better off the bench with the Twins. He can’t be any worse than the kids, stiffs and automatic outs usually at Gardenhire’s disposal. (Rookie Jose Morales’ 6-for-15 last year was a surprise, and an aberration.)

If nothing else, Thome gives opposing pitchers and catchers something to think about. Does a manager spend his left-handed relief specialist on Thome, or somebody else? As baseball’s active strikeout leader, he’ll be pitched to, not pitched around. And adding someone with Thome’s presence and lengthy postseason experience to the Twins clubhouse is a plus for hitters from Kubel to Morales to even Mauer and Morneau, who for all their greatness have yet to play in a winning postseason series.

And another thing . . .
Expect more rumor and educated guesses about Joe Mauer’s contract from media outlets coast to coast now that talks between Mauer’s agent, Ron Shapiro, and Twins General Manager Bill Smith are finally under way. Shapiro never discusses negotiations, a policy he reiterated to me last fall. And Smith, who gets asked about Mauer everywhere he goes, won’t even acknowledge they’re talking, which seems extreme.

“Nothing good can come from talking about it,” he said. “If I say we’re talking, the next thing you’ll ask, ‘Why isn’t it done?’ And if I say we’re not talking, you’ll ask, ‘Why not?’ ”

Smith did say that Mauer’s situation differs from those of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. If you read between the lines, Smith sounds more confident he can get a deal done here because Mauer, unlike the other two, said the magic words: I want to be a Twin.

“I strongly believe that if a player wants to be here, we’ll find a way [to keep him],” Smith said. “Morneau, [Michael] Cuddyer, Joe Nathan, they all said they didn’t want to go anyplace else. They love playing in Minnesota. They liked the organization. They liked the city. All those guys wanted to play here. That’s why they’re here.

“I have all the respect in the world for Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, but I think they wanted a little bigger stage, and I think they were prepared for a bigger stage. They have incredible charisma, and they were prepared for New York and Southern California. When you play the number of years they played, you get to be a free agent, and you get to choose. They earned it.”

As for Mauer, Smith called him “A wonderful person and a wonderful player from a tremendous family.”

Look: Mauer said repeatedly he wants to win a World Series, preferably in Minnesota. The Twins are trying to prove to Mauer they share that goal, with the signing of Thome the latest evidence. Target Field gives the Twins the revenue and perks (like the use of a suite for Mauer’s family) to get this done.

Jim Pohlad’s deadpan joke at the Diamond Awards, asking anyone who found his lost wallet to give it to Mauer, offers the best sign that this will get done. You don’t go there unless you’re reasonably sure Mauer will stay.

With more than $88 million committed to 14 players and an Opening Day payroll of more than $90 million looming, Smith said the Twins are content with minor-leaguer Jason Pridie or infielders Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert as possible backups to center fielder Denard Span.

That may sound nuts, but the Twins need to be flexible in case Mauer receives a 2010 salary bump as part of his extension. Mauer is due to make $12.5 million this year. Once the contract is settled, the Twins might move on a more experienced yet cost-efficient backup if Pridie flops.