When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cleveland Indians lineup included such players as Duane Kuiper, Tom Veryzer, Jerry Dybinski, Andre Thornton, Buddy Bell, Toby Harrah, Rick Manning, Dennis Eckersley, Bert Blyleven, Bernie Carbo, Joe Charboneau, Don Hood, Rico Carty, Boog Powell, and Rick Wise. Some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. Some greats and a couple Hall of Famers, and some who were fortunate enough to play baseball at the highest level for a few years and then went on to have a whole other life outside of baseball.
My favorite player was first baseman (later designated hitter) Andre Thornton. I’m not sure why my nine-year-old self glommed on to him. Did I play first base because he played it, or did I notice he was our first baseman after I decided that’s where I wanted to play? Memory fails now. But he was my hero. He had a calm but powerful presence. For a kid who might now be called ADHD (back then they said I was “enthusiastic”), calm was something to which I aspired but rarely achieved. As far as powerful, well, little girls aren’t supposed to be powerful. Thornton was one of our better players for many of my growing up years–an All-Star in 1982 and 1984, Silver Slugger Award in 1984 too. He also won the Roberto Clemente Award in 1979, which is given to “the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” This was two years after his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash that he and his young son managed to survive. Maybe it was his courage after the crash that made him my favorite player.
Thornton played on some pretty bad Cleveland teams. He joined the team in 1977, when they finished 6th of 7th in the AL East with a 71-90 (.441) record. The club’s best record in the 10 years he played here was .519 in 1986. Through it all, Thornton played his heart out, was active in the community, and was known a model for class and dignity. If you’re looking for a role model, he’s a fine choice.
Why am I writing about the Indians of 30+ years ago now? I guess because I just watched the Tribe lose big for the fourth time in a week (fifth loss, fourth OMG What Is Going On? loss). That was something I routinely did when I was a kid. The difference between then and now is that this team knows it can win. It has the tools to win–it spent the first seven weeks of the season doing a whole lot of winning. That’s a huge difference. For years, the Indians were expected to lose. My brother and I would watch the games religiously, and every win was a cause for celebration because there weren’t that many of them. I think some of the incredulity surrounding their tremendous start this year is that few people believed that the Indians–the Indians?–could be so dominant. But they can be. They have been. Hopefully this losing streak is a blip. If Acta can use it to pinpoint and correct the weak spots in the lineup and the rotation, they’ll remain in contention. Who knows? Maybe the first seven weeks of the season were a blip and this is the real 2011 Cleveland Indians. If so, I’ve just lived out at least one childhood fantasy–watching the Indians strut around first place for an extended period. I still haven’t gotten my signed Andre Thornton bat, but one thing at a time.