Twenty years ago this very month, Jim Thome took a ninth-inning, two-out, one-ball pitch to deep right field, sending the ball crashing into a sea of empty, blue plastic chairs that littered the upper deck at the old Yankee Stadium, merely fading into the night along with the hopes of the men in pinstripes. New York reliever Steve Farr allowed the two-run shot to the rookie from Peoria, Illinois – a tall, lanky 13th-round draft pick at that – which put his team behind by a run in the waning hours of the night, allowing Steve Olin to record his 17th save of the season for the seventh-place Tribe.
This very victory was just the 56th of the team’s season; they would win just one more contest before finishing the year a woeful 57-105. As Mike Hargrove watched his third baseman with a navy blue numeral six stitched to his back round the bases and ultimately cross the plate in front of catcher Matt Nokes and home plate umpire Joe Brinkman, only to high-five the recently plated Reggie Jefferson, there was no way that any of the five men knew what the next two decades would hold, specifically for the two of the three men proudly wearing Chief Wahoo on their heads. That season was bleak beyond words. The next 12 would be magical.
The days of the 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pounder are long gone. The images of the early-90s Thome may as well be placed in the time capsule along with the high school photos which featured hair that would make Jon Bon Jovi jealous. Now, 50 pounds the heavier and all the wiser, Thome finds himself in the atrophic years of his career. This very week, the future Hall of Fame slugger ditched the knee-high socks for a freshly tailored light grey suit as he spoke at Cleveland’s City Club, the 99-year-old civic center aimed to provide a place for activists and laureates of various distinctions to engage with audiences of varying size. As far removed as Thome was from his first career home run, 603 later to be exact, he was even more so from the others who have graced this very stage before him. Thome was the first active baseball player to speak at the City Club since Babe Ruth did so in July of 1925 — a humbling experience, per his very words.
Alongside Thome was another man who is undeniably bound to join him in Cooperstown one day, long-time Indians broadcaster Tom Hamilton. While a subsequent discussion would take place, it was Hamilton’s opening remarks which set the stage for what was to come. Correcting the City Club representative who would introduce the two men, Hamilton verbally scratched out the number eight, as in eighth all time in home runs withing Major League Baseball, promptly reminding those in attendence that Thome had a “career without any astrisks,” placing him fifth all time behind the likes of Ruth, Aaron, Mays and Griffey Jr.
Drawing a crowd roughly twice of the typical City Club event, Thome and Hamilton were two men talking baseball, focusing mostly on the days of old, including but not limited to word association with other men like Eddie Murray (legend), Albert Belle (tenacity), and Kenny Lofton (electric). And while the flashbacks of a young, mid-90s Indians team drew smiles from all of those in attendance, the goosebumps which Thome spoke of upon his return to Cleveland this past August will remain a lasting memory.
Thome spoke of his desire to return to Cleveland after he had left in a highly-discussed free agency prior to the 2003 season. The Indians were coming off of a 74-win season after seven consecutive seasons of win totals between 86 and 100. Financial decisions had to be made and Thome was a 31-year old who had just finished his 12th season with the team, hitting a club record 52 home runs in the process. Thome, though, would leave for Philadelphia where he would play three seasons before heading to Chicago, Los Angeles and Minnesota. While he would admit on this day that one has to make decisions and live by them, when Thome was told that the Indians wished to re-acquire his services, the always-smiling slugger would say that it not only did he always dream of returning, but his arrival back in Cleveland – and the ovations with which he was met – provided a sense of closure.
Once the discussion would come to an end between Hamilton and Thome, the two men turned to the crowd where the long-time Indian would be peppered with questions as well as comments. Where the media would stick to minutiae, it was this very audience that would talk about the off-the-field things which Thome has done for the city of Cleveland or for specific individuals. One elderly man would stand up mid-way through the event, using his time to thank Thome for an instance which took place many years earlier; during the team’s heyday, Thome stopped an autograph session which was taking place within a suburbial Giant Eagle to spend time with this man’s mother who was wheelchair bound and in her last days. With a line of fans waiting to approach Thome’s table, the All-Star got up from his chair, walked over to the woman and signed all of the items she had brought along with her. Instead of merely turning around and going back through the robotics of a professional athlete appearance, Thome walked out of the grocery store with her and her son (who was now in attendance at this very event), sending them on their way by telling the woman that she would be in his prayers.
In stark contrast to the athletes which many want to paint as “typical” in the modern era, Thome spoke repeatedly of surrounding himself with “good people,” who presumably have his best interest in mind, including his wife Andrea, the countless members of his family who packed a third-baseline suite at Progressive Field during the night of his 600th home run ceremony, and his early-to-mid-90s roommate Sandy Alomar Jr – they all helped pave the way for a former basketball player who quickly realized that his future was hitting a quickly approaching ball made of twine very, very far in the opposite direction.
Though well outside of the target demographic, Thome hopes to continue his career during the 2012 season; hopes are that a contending team comes calling, regardless of location or financial compensation. Meanwhile, a statue at Progressive Field has been commissioned in his honor, placed at the location of the landing spot of a 511-foot blast which came off of the bat of the man who the statue resembles. Perhaps the erection of said memorial is a bit premature as Thome has not yet retired let alone entered the Hall of Fame as a Cleveland Indian. That aside, unless one prefers to live in lore, commemorating players who graced the field just south of Lake Erie rougly a century ago, the man who returned to Cleveland for one last hurah is undoubtedly the best hitter to wear Wahoo on his head during his prime since Harry Truman gave way to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A third baseman who would ultimately move to first base to make room for Matt Williams, later to the designated hitter spot to make way for younger first basemen, Thome – and his aw-shucks, Midwestern frame of mind – is the consumate baseball player and even better human being. Steve Farr, Reggie Jefferson and even Joe Brinkman can be names placed within a sports trivia question. James Howard Thome, though, will be a name remembered well beyond the time the other three fade deep into the record books. Deeper than the home run that dented an unsuspecting and now-destructed chair way back in October of 1991.