Batting for Brandon
By RANDY MILLER
phillyBurbs.com




LEARWATER, Fla. - Jim Thome, still 17 months away from leaving the Cleveland Indians for the Phillies, is at the plate in the eighth inning at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

It's a partly cloudy, 84-degree July evening in the Windy City - a great night for baseball. Watching in the stands behind home plate is 15-year-old Brandon Thome, Jim's nephew and biggest fan.

Crack. There she goes. Long drive to right.

Instinctively, Brandon attempts to stand up and watch the flight of the disappearing baseball. He wants to see this ball leave the ballpark like no other.

"I got so excited," the teen recalled the other day. "Everybody gets up when someone hits a home run. I tried to stand up, but I was just sitting there."

Brandon was a pitcher and first baseman on his junior varsity high school baseball team. Then life as he knew it changed in a few seconds. He cracked his spinal cord during a swimming accident and lost all feeling below his waist and in his fingers.

He is a quadriplegic.

There are about 200,000 Americans with spinal cord injuries, according to the Spinal Cord Injury Information Center. Approximately 11,000 new spinal cord injuries occur each year.

The spinal cord allows the brain and body to communicate. When someone loses movement in the lower body, he's a paraplegic. When movement is lost in the hands, too, as with Brandon, he's a quadriplegic.

Brandon will never forget the day he went for a swim at a friend's backyard pool near home in Peoria, Ill. He attempted a back flip from the deck of the 4-foot deep, above-ground pool, timed his jump wrong, cracked his head on the pool bottom and remained underwater until a friend realized something was wrong.

His father, Randy Thome, 44, also will never forget that day.

"June 19, 2001, 1 in the afternoon," Randy said. "I work for an electric company. I got a call. I beat the ambulance to the hospital."

Jim Thome was told about his nephew's accident after driving home from the ballpark following a night game against the Minnesota Twins. His team lost a tough, one-run game that night, but the outcome meant nothing when his wife, Andrea, passed along the awful news.

The next morning, Jim hopped a flight from Cleveland to Peoria to visit Brandon in the hospital.

"I don't think he knew what was going on," the slugger recalled. "I don't even like to talk about that. He's so young and had so much ahead of him. That was very difficult."

Within a few weeks, Brandon was sent to a rehab center about three hours from home at Chicago's Northwestern University Hospital.

While there, Jim and the Indians went to Chicago for a two-game series against the White Sox. Before the first game, Jim visited Brandon.

What happened is reminiscent of a scene from "The Babe Ruth Story." In the 1948 film, a sick youngster asks Ruth to hit him a homer, and Ruth obliges.

It makes a good movie story, but nobody really knows if it happened. What Jim did for his nephew over the course of two days is fact.

The first day, Jim was leaving the hospital when Brandon asked for a home run.

"I'm thinking, 'It ain't going to happen, but I'll try,' " Jim said. That night, in the fourth inning, he blasted a three-run homer.

The next day, exactly one month after the accident, Jim again appeared at the hospital, this time with teammate Bob Wickman. When the visit was ending, Brandon asked, "Hey, how about two today?"

"I don't know. That's kind of tough to do," Jim replied.

That was also the day that Brandon was granted permission to leave the hospital for a few hours to attend his uncle's game. Incredibly, Jim homered to center field in the third inning then added a second in the eighth inning - his final at-bat.

"It was really neat," said Jim, who thought of Brandon running the bases. "It was very heartwarming to see the happiness that it brought at that moment."

Now 17, Brandon is a high school junior. The 6-foot, 180-pound teen has had to adapt to life in a wheelchair.

He doesn't feel sorry for himself.

"I don't sit there and pout about it," Brandon said. "The only way you get better is to have a positive attitude. You can't change anything. I'm just glad I hit my head hard enough to not have mental damage. I was lucky," he said. "That's the way I look at it."

That positive attitude is why Brandon inspires Jim, the opposite of the way it used to be.

"He just loves life," Jim said. "When he had his injury, I remember Brandon telling his dad that he wasn't going to feel sorry for himself. He was just glad he was alive. It made me realize that I need to take a step back and realize how lucky I am in life."

Thanks to Brandon, Thome knew that even before signing a six-year, $85 million contract with the Phillies Dec. 3.

The Thome family always has been close. Jim, 32, and twin sister, Maria, are the youngest of Chuck and Joyce Thome's five children. They're 14 years younger than Chuck Jr., their oldest brother. Randy came along two years after Chuck, and the two used Jim as a batboy for their softball games.

Brandon, the older of Randy's two kids, was 6 when Jim reached the big leagues in 1991. Jim would bring balls and bats and they'd play catch in the back yard.

When Brandon had his accident, Jim read everything he could about spinal cord injuries. He talked to doctors. He called Brandon all the time and visited often.

Jim has been known as a giving man his whole life. Even before his nephew's accident, he was involved with many charities.

In October, after belting 52 homers for the Indians, a single-season franchise record, Jim was named winner of the 2002 Roberto Clemente Award. It is given annually to a major leaguer for work on the field and in the community. A $25,000 check in Jim's name was sent to his new favorite charity - the National Paralysis Foundation.

Jim said one of his proudest moments since becoming a major leaguer was building a log cabin for his family an hour outside of Peoria. It's in the middle of nowhere, a place for family and friends to go to escape the real world. Sometimes people go to hunt, sometimes to relax.

Jim's cabin is a little slice of heaven for Brandon.

"What Brandon loves most is coming to my lodge," Jim said. "Thank God he has that. It's very peaceful. It helps your mind being there, and I think that's great for him."

Even now, Brandon hunts at the lodge. Jim has cleared trails and added ground blinds so Brandon can maneuver a wheelchair to a couple of areas in the woods. He even has a special wheelchair with a contraption that lets him slam his hand on a button to fire a weapon.

The wheelchair was a gift from Buckmasters, a hunting organization that annually sponsors a celebrity handicapped hunt in Montgomery, Ala.

Two winters ago, the Thomes were invited.

After a day of target practice, Brandon went hunting and quickly spotted a buck 200 yards away. He patiently turned his weapon, lined up his site, fired and got a direct hit. Wounded, the deer started running, moving 30 yards before Brandon fired a perfect kill shot.

He'd hunted in the past and got nothing. This time, in his wheelchair, he bagged an eight-point buck.

"Those two or three days, I was like, 'What else matters in life?' " Jim said.

Today, Brandon's rack has been mounted and it's hanging in his bedroom - right next to his autographed Jim Thome bat.

The Chicago Cubs are Brandon's favorite baseball team. He loves Wrigley Field, Sammy Sosa and the Cubbies.

Last fall, when the Phillies were offering big bucks and the Indians were trying to find enough money to keep their star free agent, Jim requested a meeting with the Cubs. He got his wish, but the Cubs were committed to a less expensive rookie first baseman, Hee Seop Choi.

"I think deep down, Brandon was rooting for the Cubs," Jim said.

Jim should have known better. Brandon would never put himself ahead of Jim's well-being.

Jim played in two World Series with the Indians and his team lost both times. A big part of the reason he signed with the Phillies is because they appear much closer to becoming champions than the now-rebuilding Indians do.

"I'm glad Uncle Jim went to Philadelphia," Brandon said with conviction. "He's always wanted to get a (World Series) ring, and with the Phillies, he'll have a better chance."

Told this the other day after practice, Jim shook his head in disbelief, then rolled up his sleeves to look at the goose bumps that appeared out of nowhere on his forearms.

"Brandon said that?" Thome asked, close to tears. "Oh, my God. Wow.''

Jim has made it clear that he's willing to do anything to help his nephew. He offers his money, his time, his connections, anything.

Brandon asks for nothing but gets so much in return just watching his favorite player hit a baseball and going to Jim's hunting lodge.

One of the worst things about the accident was that it stopped Brandon from playing baseball. He loves the game as much as his uncle does. He knows all the players, studies stats and loves talking strategy. Besides walking again, one of his biggest goals is to someday find a job that involves his favorite sport.

"I want to stay in the game," Brandon said. "Baseball was my life pretty much. I played it all the time."

Brandon already has his life planned out. He wants to go to law school and ultimately become a sports agent.

"I'd love to see it," Jim said. "He would set the bar for guys in his situation. I was told when the shock wears off after having an injury like his, you still want to feel like you're important. You still want to feel like you have work value. That, for him, is wanting to be a sports agent."

Jim wants Brandon's dream to come true in the worst way and already is setting the ball in motion. He's had his agent, Pat Rooney, call Brandon to discuss the business. He wants Brandon as prepared as possible when he enters the job market.

"We got some other things we're planning on doing to try to help Brandon, to make him feel like he can keep going with this," Thome said. "And you never know, with research."

Brandon is a positive thinker. He'll visit the Phillies' new ballpark someday to watch Uncle Jim. He hopes to enter on his own two feet, not in a wheelchair.

"I always try to think that some day I will walk again," Brandon said. "Maybe not in the next year, but some day."

Randy Miller can be contacted at randarino@aol.com.


March 2, 2003 8:38 AM


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