Jim Thome honored with Illinois highway sign

- Jim Thome often traveled down U.S. Route 24 on his road to a Hall of Fame worthy Major League Baseball career.

Now that road carries his name.

The legendary slugger drove his old Nova, sometimes a Pontiac Phoenix or a Thunderbird, down a stretch of Route 24 from Griswold Street to Interstate 474 in Bartonville on his way to and from practice and games at Limestone high school.

Fitting, he stood at home plate on that same field Wednesday as that nearby road was being dedicated in his honor.

Henceforth, it is the Jim Thome Highway.

"Words can't describe what this means," said Thome, 46, as his father, Chuck, and brothers and sisters gathered around him at home plate, where they stood next to the road sign that soon will be installed.

"As a kid you don't ever dream of going through the journey that I personally have lived. It's quite something, I have to tell you. I've been blessed to get some awards, and this will go down as right up top, if not THE top.

"Because every time you drive down below on Route 24 I want you to look at this sign and remember: This is not about me, this is not about my highway. This is about all of us in Peoria and Bartonville. We are all together, we are all a unit, and we all worked for the same goals. I want you to know how much I love Peoria, and love Bartonville, and I love coming home. When you see this, that's what I want you to remember."

The ceremony was set up as a nine-inning baseball game format. The national anthem was sung. Dignitaries from Leonard Unes to state Sen. Dave Koehler, state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and Peoria 1st District Councilwoman Denise Moore were on hand.

Thome's family was on the field, while spectators lined up along the backstop, sat in the dugout, and sat in the bleachers along third base.

"To see everyone here ... how much it means to me personally that you would take the time to come here, support our community, support me," Thome said. "I call us all family, because ultimately that's what we all are. This is icing on the cake. It's a blessing to be living this dream."

The slugger -- who finished his career with 612 home runs and is one of only eight players in baseball history to reach 600 -- played for Cleveland, Philadelphia, the White Sox, Los Angeles and Baltimore.

He won a Silver Slugger in 1996 in the American League, was a five-time All-Star, and earned the Roberto Clemente Award in 2002 and the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 2004.

He went to the World Series twice with the Cleveland Indians.

He distributed autographed baseballs from the podium at home plate to several people in attendance. Some of his old high school teammates were on hand, and waved from the grandstand.

Bartonville mayor Rhonda Wolfe noted that she is not running for another term, and jokingly let Thome know the position is up for grabs if he wants it.

The formal proclamation was read by Illinois Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn.

Thome met and mingled, stood up and sang "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," and at the end, went through a picture session in front of the road sign that shared his name.

"I played on this field, and coming back here tonight it's as if I never left," said Thome, who joked that he also sometimes rode a bike down that Route 24 trip to the field and credited it as part of his conditioning program. "There are so many people who helped me on my path. I'm honored to be here, blessed."

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