Jim Thome has a chance to move into some select company this season.

Thome, along with Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, could hit his 500th career home run this season. Thome considers it an honor merely to be mentioned in the same breath as players of that caliber.

"You understand how hard the work is to get where you're at," Thome, who needs 28 homers to reach the milestone, told the Chicago Tribune. "It's not easy. It's definitely kind of neat. What's neat is the guys mentioned and the guys in that club. You know what good players they are. To be that close to an elite club like that is an honor in itself."

Colorado first-base coach Glenallen Hill, a teammate in Cleveland when Thome reached the Majors in 1991, says getting to this place in his career tells you a lot about Thome.

"I just say it's a pretty good indication of what kind of player he is," said Hill. "He's very old-school, a guy who is excited about playing, and he's a guy who will rise to the challenge and find a way. An awesome, awesome baseball player who's very dedicated to the game, and I just love the guy.

"He was eyes and ears coming up. He listened, paid attention, watched and studied the game. He was able to process good and bad information and take what he needed."

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has nothing but good things to say about his DH.

"Some people maybe have better numbers than him, but their reputation isn't there," Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "This kid has the package to be a Hall of Famer. It's not because he's playing for me or helping me. It's just the way he is.

"He's so loyal to the game, it's unbelievable. That's what people need. That's the type of player people want to see in the Hall of Fame."

First baseman Paul Konerko said one of the reasons he passed up an offer to leave the White Sox as a free agent after the 2005 season was the acquisition of Thome.

"Jimmy's reputation around the league was that there was nothing bad about him, that he was the best teammate, a great guy," said Konerko. "A lot of times you hear that stuff about guys, and you get let down when you play with them. He's better than advertised."

For Kennedy, the choice to return was easy: In the spring of 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals sent pitcher Kent Bottenfield and prospect Adam Kennedy to the Anaheim Angels in exchange for All-Star center fielder Jim Edmonds in a trade that in time benefited both clubs. But now, seven years later, Kennedy is back in St. Louis where he is anxious to show Cardinals fans why the team used a first-round pick on him in 1997.

"Absolutely," Kennedy told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "I feel I've got a lot to prove to (Manager) Tony (La Russa) and his staff, to show them the things I learned from the Minor League staff when I was here."

And in the end, coming back to St. Louis was not a difficult choice to make.

"I know that when I started that whole process of free agency, I put together a list of what's important, what would be the top priority," said Kennedy. "We had three (teams) at the top of our list, and when one comes in fairly early with respectful conversations, especially here, it was a pretty easy decision."

General Manager Walt Jocketty, who both traded and re-signed Kennedy, said that even back in 2000 he knew that one day he might try to get Kennedy back in the fold.

"I know he had talked to (David) Eckstein and Kennedy was excited about getting back to work with him (the two were teammates in Anaheim) and about getting back to this organization. In fact, when I traded him, I told him someday that I hoped to get him back."

Dunn, Jacoby making a good team: Cincinnati outfielder Adam Dunn is having a fantastic spring that included a .438 batting average coming into Monday. Hitting coach Brook Jacoby says Dunn is a very tough out right now.

"He's using the whole field," Jacoby, the Reds' new hitting coach, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "You can't pitch him in a particular area and get him out."

Dunn is pleased with his spring thus far.

"It's good to start off good," he said. "But my goal is to be comfortable in stuff we're doing and get my body ready for the season."

This is not the first time that Jacoby has had the chance to work with Dunn, as the two also had time together when Dunn was in the Minor Leagues and Jacoby was a roving instructor.

"The good thing with him is I've worked with him before and I like him a lot," Dunn said. "It's a lot easier when you trust somebody that much."

The history the two have makes Reds manager Jerry Narron very comfortable with their relationship.

"You can have the greatest coach in the world, but if the player doesn't believe in what he's teaching, a lot of times it doesn't do any good," said Narron.

Redmond's attitude infectious: Minnesota catcher Mike Redmond, who admits he was as surprised as anyone when he became the Florida Marlins' backup catcher in 1998, has made a career out of impacting those around him with hard work and a good attitude.

"He has an impact on everybody," Twins third baseman Nick Punto told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "He doesn't have the most talent in the world, but there's nobody with more heart. ... It's hard to have a bad day when he's around."

Back in 1998, under then-Florida manager Jim Leyland, Redmond had his sights set a little lower than hanging around the Major Leagues for 10 seasons.

"I just wanted one at-bat," Redmond said. "I'm dead serious. I just wanted to get in the books so I could tell everybody I played in the big leagues."

Redmond's chance almost died when, in his first chance, the last out was made while he was in the on-deck circle, waiting to pinch-hit.

"So after the game, Leyland came over to me, and I was like, 'Oh Geez. Here we go. I'm going to get sent down.' And he goes, 'Red, you're playing tomorrow,'" Redmond said.

Redmond went 3-for-3 in his first start, and the rest is history. For Redmond, he hopes his unlikely stint in the Major Leagues can inspire others.

"I've told many guys, this is why you don't give up this game until they pull the jersey off your back," he said. "Because you never know what can happen."

Springer helped to settle Qualls: When first called up to the Houston Astros in 2004, Chad Qualls was a rookie who may have enjoyed his time off the field nearly as much as his time on the field. But thanks to veteran relievers such as former Astro Russ Springer, Qualls has matured greatly.

"When I first got called up, I was probably a little bit wild," Qualls told the Houston Chronicle. "You start to realize you have to grow up. Russ kind of talked to me here and there and sat me down. He was a great help."

Qualls got engaged during the offseason, a display of his transformed maturity since 2004. Qualls not only credits Springer for his growth, but the whole Astros clubhouse as well.

"Just being around a lot older guys, it kind of makes you grow up a little bit," Qualls said. "Just being around the good nucleus that our team has, it's unbelievable. You start hanging out with family guys that have kids and you realize you have to grow up every once in a while.

"It's just great to have three years in. It's just great to be around a great nucleus, and you just want to grow up."

While Qualls has matured as a person, he has also matured on the mound. He has learned that his sinker is a pitch he can throw with effectiveness in nearly any situation but especially when runners are on base. It is a pitch that gives teammate Brad Lidge great confidence in Qualls.

"He's matured a lot as a pitcher and person," Lidge said. "The biggest thing about Qualls is he realized how good his sinking fastball is. When you need a double-play grounder, I would bet nine out of 10 times he'd get it."

Rangers happy to see Young: When Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young walked into the clubhouse Friday, manager Ron Washington was more than pleased to see his All-Star.

"Very happy," Washington told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I'm so happy that Michael almost made me cry. And there's no crying in baseball."

Why was Washington so happy? Young was hit in the head by a pitch earlier in the week and had to have reconstructive surgery on his left ear. Young didn't have the ear covered when he entered the clubhouse, allowing people to see the purple ear.

"You didn't see it when it first happened," Young said. "Trust me, it looks great. It looks like an ear."

The whole incident made the Rangers very nervous at first. Young is one of the cornerstones on the team and has missed only 13 games in the last five seasons. In each of the past four seasons, he has hit better than .300 and collected more than 200 hits.

"This is our guy," Sammy Sosa said. "You don't want to see your main guy get hit like that. We need this guy."

Young said he would be back playing as soon as he can wear a batting helmet without pain. Young also said the doctor who performed the surgery said his ears will never match again. "It was pretty thrashed," said Young.

Gavin Floyd hit Young with an 81-mph changeup. It was an accident that Young described as "one in a million."

"It wasn't fast at all," Young said. "But whenever the ball is right at you, you can't get out of the way. Eighty-one miles an hour is not 95, but it's still 81 miles an hour."

The damage to his ear was even more of a fluke.

"The ear flap has a hole," Young said. "The changeup caught it pretty much flush. The ear flap bent in, did a number on my ear and popped back into place."

2005 a distant memory for Baldelli: Rocco Baldelli would like to forget about 2005, a season in which injuries kept him off the field the entire year. Instead, he wants to think the numbers he put up in just over half a season in 2006 show more of what kind of player he can be for Tampa Bay.

"I think I had to prove to myself that I could still play," Baldelli told the St. Petersburg Times. "With really a new knee and a new elbow, I had to prove to myself that I could compete -- that I could still run and still throw and do those things."

Baldelli, who suffered knee and elbow injuries in 2005, was ready to come back in 2006 before hamstring problems cropped up during Spring Training, forcing him to delay the start of his season until June 7. Once in the lineup, Baldelli put up impressive numbers, hitting .302 with 16 home runs and 57 RBIs.

Manager Joe Maddon has always been impressed with Baldelli. He said Baldelli has more power, arm strength and speed than he originally thought he had.

"He's got this combination of grace and power, and that's different," Maddon said. "You don't see that often."

Cook gets Opening Day call: Aaron Cook has had a very impressive spring so far, so impressive that he has been named the Opening Day starter for the Colorado Rockies against Arizona.

Cook ensured the assignment with 5 1/3 shutout innings of work Saturday against San Francisco.

"We have been tilted that way since early on," manager Clint Hurdle told the Rocky Mountain News. "We were weighing between (Cook), Jeff (Francis) and Rodrigo (Lopez), just because (Lopez) has some experience doing it.

"Aaron has worked hard. He has battled some adversity on the field and battled huge adversity off the field. He is one of ours, he is home grown. I told him today that I was proud to give him the ball."

Cook has battled hard to become the Opening Day starter. He was out of baseball from August 2004 to August 2005 due to blood clots in his lungs. Last season, his first full year in the Majors, Cook was 9-15 with a 4.23 ERA in 32 starts.

"It was day to day when I was coming back from the blood clots," Cook said. "I started out just being happy to pick up a baseball again. Then I was happy to pitch again. I was kind of hoping this day would come sooner or later. This is my year."

Jackson the veteran?: It may be hard to believe, at the ripe old age of 24, Conor Jackson, with one year and 67 days of Major League service time, is one of the veterans of the Arizona Diamondbacks infield.

He has played in 180 Major League games, but that is a lot when compared to teammates Stephen Drew (59), Carlos Quentin (57) and Chris Young (30). Jackson, however, doesn't consider himself a veteran.

"I don't really like that tag, though," Jackson told the Arizona Republic. "There's a lot of respect in this game and we all kind of came up together. So to me, I don't see myself as any kind of anchor or veteran to this group."

After hitting .200 in 40 games in 2005, Jackson established himself last season by hitting .291 with 15 home runs and 79 RBIs. Jackson, however, says there is still a lot of room for improvement.

"I've got a million more things I've still got to learn," he said. "It's just repetition and getting comfortable, which is something guys like Carlos and Stephen and Chris will have to do, too. They're going to have their ups and downs. I've certainly had my share."

Jackson's ability to get through those ups and downs has impressed left fielder Eric Byrnes.

"He's a very, very even-keeled player for being so young," Byrnes said. "He is almost like a veteran in that regard. He may not like you saying that about him, but it's too bad. Regardless, he's going to be a leader among this group because he's already been there, he's already had a good year and he knows how to carry himself."

Bloomquist running wild this spring: Willie Bloomquist's big spring just keeps getting better. Bloomquist added his seventh steal of Cactus League play when he stole home on the back end of a double steal in Sunday's win over the Brewers.

"I've done it before, when it's like that," Bloomquist told the Seattle Times. "But never straight, like with a pitcher in the windup, doing it Jackie Robinson style. I haven't done it like that."

Bloomquist had two hits and raised his average to .452 for the spring. He said the extra steals were the result of extra opportunities and not of any increased focus on running.

"I'm just getting on base more," he said. "I like to run, so when I get on base, that's what I do. I've just been fortunate to get on base more than usual. So, the more I get on, the more I'm going to steal."

Bloomquist played six positions for the Mariners last year. He figures to repeat his super-sub role in 2007.

"The first thing I look for in filling a role is a player being versatile," manager Mike Hargrove said. "If you can fill that with one or two players then you can really look more specifically at needs you have off the bench. And we're fortunate in having Willie Bloomquist, who's about as versatile a player as there is in baseball today."

-- Red Line Editorial