General, Indians

Reflecting on Hall of Famer Jim Thome

Last week Jim Thome received the call everyone in Cleveland knew was coming. The BBWAA voted the big lefty into the Hall of Fame. A man whose power and performance helped shape a generation of Indians baseball, the 6-foot-4-inch Thome stood tall in a Cleveland uniform. He came up through the Tribe system, became an All-Star, changed positions, slugged a (still) single-season franchise record 52 home runs, left for more money, became a pariah, bounced around, returned home, and received a statue outside the center field gate.

There is much to say about the Pride of Peoria, but for now let’s take a YouTube-fueled look down memory lane at No. 25’s prolific career.

The Thomenator appeared in 55 playoff games with Cleveland slashing .229/.326/.516 with 17 HR, 36 RBI, 25 BB, and 61 K’s. Now I know what you’re wondering: are all Thome’s playoff home runs on YouTube? I’ve got wonderful news:

1995 ALDS Game 3: Thome’s two-run shot gives Cleveland an early lead.

1995 ALCS Game 4: Two-run dinger

1995 ALCS Game 5: Thome’s homer provides the winning margin.

1995 World Series Game 5: Thome hits his first Fall Classic homer.

1997 World Series Game 1: Thome blasts off in Miami.

1997 World Series Game 3: Thome slugs a two-run jack in a high scoring defeat.

1998 ALDS Game 1: Thome tees off against Red Sox.

1998 ALDS Game 3: Thome crashes camera bay in center field.

1998 ALCS Game 3: Thome doubles down against Yankees.

1998 ALCS Game 5: Thome crushes one to right field.

1998 ALCS Game 6: Thome belts grand slam.

1999 ALDS Game 1: Thome crushes tying home run.

1999 ALDS Game 2: Thome’s slam fuels rout.

1999 ALDS Game 5: Thome’s two taters cannot save Tribe from Pedro Martinez.

2001 ALDS Game 3: Thome pours it on against Seattle.

The Tribe went 9-6 in postseason games in which Thome went yard.

Chicks dig the long ball, but those clips don’t fully encapsulate what Thome meant to the club and city. In a lot of ways, he represented the Tribe in the 90’s—and I mean the whole decade. While he only got a cup of coffee in 1991 his appearance provided more evidence that John Hart’s rebuild of the farm system would bear fruit. Albert Belle joined the big-league club in 1989 and by ’91 was beginning to flex his formidable muscles. Carlos Baerga debuted in 1990, and by 1991 had claimed an infield spot. Neither of those players would stay in a Tribe uniform past 1996. Kenny Lofton and Jose Mesa joined the fold in 1992. Omar Vizquel came along in 1994. It was Thome who helped bridge the gap between the final, cold Municipal Stadium years the renaissance Jacobs Field provided. Charles Nagy, I should note, toed the rubber in Cleveland from 1990-2002, but he sadly does not boast the same Hall of Fame resume.

On December 6, 2002 Jim Thome broke the town’s collective heart when he signed a six-year, $85 million contract. The deal offered both more years and money than Cleveland’s five-year, $60 million offer. The slugger who had effectively become a man in Northeast Ohio had left for the East Coast. At the time, people shared sour grapes and complained that all his talk of “tear[ing] the jersey off my back” was worth nothing. Now we can look back and argue it was a smart move. The Phillies offered more years and more money. Moreover, they were better positioned to succeed in the coming years.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how the Tribe and Phillies compared from 2003-05.

200274-88, 25 GB Playoffs80-81, 15 GB Playoffs
200368-94, 27 GB86-76, 5 GB
200480-82, 12 GB86-76, 6 GB
200593-69, 2 GB88-74, 1 GB

From 2003-05 neither the Indians nor Phillies reached the playoffs, but the Phils finished closer to a playoff spot each time. A Clevelander could certainly argue that if Thome had stuck it out then maybe Cleveland hangs onto the Wild Card spot in 2005 instead of collapsing. A Philadelphian could counter-argue that if their front office hadn’t traded Thome in 2005 maybe they could’ve won more than just their lone World Series in 2008. There is no way to perfectly know how the teams’ fates differ if Thome stays in Ohio, but considering the information he had when making the call it’s certainly defensible.

In 2011, the Indians brought everything full circle by purchasing Thome’s contract from the Minnesota Twins. When he showed up on August 26 the club stood at 64-64, 6.5 games out of first place and six out of a Wild Card spot. If the season were a Hollywood script then the veteran’s return would have sparked a remarkable pennant race culminating with an emotional walk-off homer to clinch something. Instead, Thome appeared in only 22 games, with a .296/.390/.479 slash line, three home runs, and 10 RBI. The Tribe went 16-18 down the stretch and missed the playoffs. There was no parade, but Thome’s first game back (dubbed “The THomecoming”) showed that the city forgave him for the free agent spurning almost a decade earlier.

On a personal level, Thome was a key part of my Indians fandom. In 2001, my family and I went to a midsummer Indians game. It’s a safe guess that it was a bobblehead giveaway. I was eleven years old, and beginning to understand baseball’s intricacies and history.

On the way to the ballpark I remember telling my parents that I had never seen Jim Thome hit a home run in person before. They said maybe he would tonight. In the bottom of the second Thome led off the inning. Two or three pitches in he launched what I estimated to be the biggest home run in the history of the world. From our upper deck seats along the third baseline I could see the pill rise to eye level as it sailed into the right field seats. Rocket ships would blush to see that dinger take flight. In the grand scheme of things, it was not the most impactful home run of his career nor was it a milestone. However, to an 11-year-old boy it was highlight of human achievement. Now, I can add that it was Hall of Famer Jim Thome who cranked that blast. Couldn’t have happened to a better guy.