It’s been two decades and Jim Thome still recalls specific details about a young Daulton Varsho running around the Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse.
Varsho’s father, Gary, was bench coach for the club when Thome played there in the early aughts and brought his son to the ballpark often. Thome quickly developed an affinity for the wide-eyed eight-year-old and spent plenty of time flipping balls to him in the batting cage.
“I remember him having a good swing,” says the Hall-of-Fame first baseman, who spent 2003-05 with the Phillies and returned to the team in 2012. “You could tell he had the genetics. You could tell that he loved to play. He loved to hit and he just wanted to learn and be around the game and soak it all in.”
Thome’s role in Varsho’s life has evolved from mentor to more of a friend over the years. That’s why he made sure to message the 26-year-old outfielder when Varsho was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in a deal that sent Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Gabriel Moreno to the Arizona Diamondbacks just before Christmas.
“It was a cool little moment there, a bonding moment where you appreciate looking back,” says Thome. “I smile because I had an opportunity to spend some time with him and now he’s a big-leaguer.”
Thome established a reputation as one of the game’s premier sluggers during his 12 seasons in Cleveland. He left that organization following the 2002 season and signed with the Phillies, where he instantly struck up a friendship with Gary Varsho.
Thome says he looked up to the former major-league outfielder and respected his leadership qualities. Gary had a unique ability to make others feel cared for and that manifested in the bench coach joining Thome in the outfield every afternoon for his conditioning routine.
The six-foot-four, 250-pound Thome was into his 30s by then and had a program of intermittent running and walking that helped him stay in optimal shape. Gary made sure that Thome never went through it alone, building up a sweat of his own as he took part.
Gary would bring Daulton, the youngest of his three kids, to the ballpark and leave him to fraternize with the players. That proved instrumental to his future.
“It was cool as a kid just being around them, knowing that I’m in a big-league clubhouse,” Varsho told Nevada Sports Net in June of 2021. “But now, thinking about it, watching them work and going through their daily things, I think that’s what helped me ease myself into pro baseball a little bit.”
Spending time with Thome, a fellow left-handed hitter was particularly special.
As Varsho grew older and started on his journey in professional baseball, his path crossed Thome’s several times. The retired slugger happened to be there when Varsho took part in a pre-draft workout for the Chicago White Sox in 2017 and Thome was also in attendance when Varsho played in the 2019 All-Star Futures Game.
“Jim Thome, he’s the best baseball player, best human being that you can ever meet in your life,” Varsho said. “He’s down to earth. Great, great human.”
“He has great talent,” says Thome of Varsho, who clubbed 27 home runs in 2022 for the Diamondbacks during his first full MLB season and brings a much-needed left-handed power presence to the Blue Jays’ lineup.
“He’s got great bat-to-ball skills. I think the one thing the fans of Toronto are going to realize is this kid can really hit. And he’s kind of an old-school player who really plays the game hard.”
Varsho was among the best defensive outfielders in the sport last year and, amazingly, also got into 31 games as a catcher. He’s slated to play left field for the Blue Jays but provides a level of versatility that Thome dubs extremely rare.
The 52-year-old says he’s looking forward to watching Varsho’s career unfold with the Blue Jays, but also adds that he’s excited for what Gary is experiencing as the father of a big-leaguer. Thome can somewhat relate as his own son, Landon, is a freshman in high school and hopes to one day pursue his own career in the sport.
“It’s a true feel-good story when these kids, like Daulton, had an opportunity to watch their dad and grow up in the game and then now fulfill their dreams,” says Thome.