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Column: Helling always impressed by Thome

FARGO -- It was eight years ago, but Rick Helling vividly remembers the night he gave up a home run to Jim Thome.

A lot of major league pitchers have succumbed to Thome -- 393 to be exact. That number was reached Monday night when Thome became only the eighth player to reach the 600 career home run milestone.

Helling, a Fargoan who has been retired from baseball since 2006, felt fortunate to give up only one dinger to Thome.

"I always pitched well against him and for whatever reason, he could never get on top of my fastball," Helling said. "But he certainly got to it that day."

The day was June 6, 2003 in Camden Yards of Baltimore. Helling, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander who grew up in Lakota and graduated from Fargo Shanley High School, was pitching for the Orioles.

Thome, a 6-3, 250-pound left-hander, was batting for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Helling, who usually had success throwing heat high and inside to Thome, decided to do it again on a 2-2 count in the top of the first inning. Thome, known more as a low-ball power hitter, ripped this pitch down the right-field line and over the fence.

"I was really surprised he got to it and really surprised he was able to keep it fair," Helling said. "You knew every time he stepped into the box, he had the potential to do some damage."

There are a number of ways to analyze the damage Thome has done.

Among those 600 homers, 12 have been walk-off winners, 57 tying and 168 go-ahead. Monday night when he helped the Minnesota Twins beat the Detroit Tigers, Thome produced his 46th two-homer game. (He's also had two three-homer games).

He has now hit 65 homers against the Tigers -- his most against any team -- while the Twins have given up the second-most Thome homers at 57. After hitting 28 homers in the Metrodome, Thome has hit 21 in Target Field.

During the last two seasons with the Twins, he has hit 36 homers. He hit 334 with Cleveland, 134 with the White Sox and 96 with the Phillies.

"What I like about Jim is that pretty much every swing he takes is aggressive," said Helling, who during his 12-year career gave up 247 home runs. "I've never really ever seen him feel for the ball, take a funny swing to try to foul it off. He swings and misses plenty but then again, he has connected 600 times."

Like Thome, Helling played for multiple teams -- the Rangers, Marlins, Brewers, Diamondbacks and Orioles. Like Thome, Helling played in the 1988 American Legion regional baseball tournament in New Ulm, Minn.

Thome was playing for Bartonville, Ill. Helling for Fargo Post 2.

"We never did play against each other," Helling said. "And little did we know what would happen after that."

Helling, who now lives in the Minneapolis area, ended his career with 93 wins and more than 1,000 strikeouts. Thome, meanwhile, keeps on ticking at the age of 40.

That's what impresses Helling the most.

"You hear people saying that he's played for so long that he should reach 600," Helling said. "That argument to me doesn't make any sense. It's a testament to him, if anything.

"To be able to play for as long as he has and be as productive as he has been is a big positive. For those who view that as a negative just blows my mind. What he has done is hard to do. There just aren't many guys who can do that."

Only seven other to be exact -- including Babe Ruth, the only player who reached 600 in fewer at-bats than Thome.

"He's one of my favorite players," said Helling, who wishes he had a chance to play with him. "He's just a great hitter."

Schnepf is the sports editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co. Email him at