A quick look back at 2011, an Indians season of pleasant surprises, wild finishes and unexpected “What If’s”. For me, one moment stood out from all the rest.
James Howard Thome. We know him as Jim.
A small town boy, from where else but Peoria, who learned to hit by smacking rocks into a neighbor’s yard across the street and dreamed big dreams of being a major league ballplayer.
A skinny young third baseman drafted late who made himself into a strapping slugger with a proud Ruthian point of the bat (a timing mechanism) and then a sweep of the hands high beside his left ear, stance locked and loaded, ready to unleash a fierce assault on the ball.
Thome played during the Steroids Era but was never tainted by its stench. He made himself a great power hitter through hard work and passion, not designer drugs and whizzinators. Just a humble man, easy to like and admire.
One of my favorite all time Indians players.
Thome debuted with the Tribe as a raw 20 year old late in the 1991 season. He hit one home run in 27 games and only two more the next year (40 games) and seven in 1993 (47 games). No one recognized the burgeoning slugger about to explode.
In 14 of the next 18 seasons Thome hit at least 30 home runs and more than 20 three other times. He smashed 52 in his last year with the Indians (2002), an astounding rate of one home run per 9.2 at bats, and enters the 2012 season eighth in major league history with 604 career homers. His exploits helped bring the best run of baseball to Cleveland in over fifty years.
Life is not always fair or golden. Stuff happens, relationships and illusions end.
Still, I never understood why Thome left Cleveland for Philadelphia after 12 years with the Indians. Depending on which version you believe, Thome and the Players Union took the money and ran or the Indians played poker, let Thome walk too far along the free agent bridge, and lost.
Either way, it did not change the lingering pain or sadness. How could Thome not always be an Indian? Then again, how could Victor Martinez not always be an Indian? Baseball decisions seldom reflect the soul of a fan.
Thome spent the next nine years in Philly, Chicago, Minnesota and Los Angeles. But my heart beats in only one place so as much as Thome was my hero, I rarely followed him on another team and simply swallowed hard when he came back in a White Sox uniform. I disliked the boos but I shared the anger and heartache.
In an interview on STO some years ago Thome said he would go into the Hall of Fame as an Indian, if elected. There should be no other way.
The Indians reacquired Thome from the Twins on August 25, 2011, not long after he eclipsed the 600 career home run mark. Reportedly Minnesota had some reservations about dealing within the Central Division but Thome was amenable and the Twins owner said make it happen, he deserves this.
I tried to tell my wife about how the Indians once swaggered and bludgeoned opponents into submission with the likes of Belle, Thome, Ramirez, Lofton, the Alomars, Vizquel and the rest and how trailing late was almost a game within itself. A three or four run deficit was simply a speed bump, a challenge seldom unmet. I described Thome’s patented moon shots which would make even Pronk shake his head and his rising three irons far over the outfield fence, one of which nearly left the stadium and would have hit the parking deck across the street.
A beginning fan, she listened politely but knew only the recent Tribe, a team which in good years almost always almost wins and in bad years is often horrible. She saw only a 41 year old player with a bad back who moved stiffly, awkwardly and whose bat no longer seemed able to catch up to good pitches.
Thome homered in his second game as a new Indian, a sixth inning shot which tied the game in a 8-7 win over Kansas City, but three weeks passed before his second homer, at Minnesota in a 7-6 win. The ghost of the Thome all Indians fans remembered remained elusive.
Aware his career time dwindled before him, Thome seemed to embrace his role of clubhouse mentor and veteran sage and the young players seemed awed and genuinely happy for his presence. I told myself this was enough and all I could expect. But I wanted more and sensed he did, too.
Thome Appreciation Night came on September 23. Nearly 37,000 fans rose to pay tribute and although rain muted the pregame ceremony Thome appeared proud and humbled by the sustained ovations. In a class move and show of respect, Twins Ron Gardenhire and Michael Cuddyer watched from their dugout.
As the game started my wife asked why I seemed so apprehensive. Fate was in the balance, I said. Would the baseball gods buy in? Or would the long fog of Cleveland’s disappointment prevail?
In the end the game hardly mattered and few recall Carlos Santana won it 6-5 with a walk off pinch hit home run in the bottom of the ninth. The night belonged to Thome.
In his first at bat he lined an RBI double into the left field corner.
Then it happened. With a man on in the third inning and the Indians trailing 4-2 Thome stabbed his front foot into the ground, a power fulcrum, drove hard through a Pavano fastball on the outer half and blasted the ball high and deep into the night and far, far over the center field fence where only the special ones land, among the bronze plaques in Heritage Park. A perfect moment frozen in time, a classic Thome home run.
Wondrous tears filled my eyes. For Thome, for the Indians and for all we fans on His Night and Ours. I pointed numbly at the television screen, speechless, but my wife knew what I meant. She saw and felt it, too.
The legend was true. On this night Thome was again Thome.
Reality struck only a month after the season. After all, this is Cleveland.
Thome left once more for Philadelphia. I guess he had his reasons. Yet another abandonment but this one did not hurt as bad. The Prodigal Son had already come home.
One of the all time greatest Cleveland Indians.
AB R H RBI HR BB AVG OBP OPS
2011 (Clev) 71 11 21 10 3 11 .296 .390 .869
Clev (13 yrs) 4,711 928 1,353 937 337 1,008 .287 .414 .980
Career 8,259 1,566 2,287 1,674 604 1,725 .277 .403 .959
— 2002 Roberto Clemente Award
— 2004 Lou Gehrig Award
— 2006 AL Comeback Player
Slugging % .556 22nd All Time
OPS .959 17th All Time
BB 1,725 8th All Time
HR 604 8th All Time
Indians Career Leader in HRs (337) and BBs (1,008).