- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Realistically, Jim Thome arrives in Cleveland too late in the season (and about five years too late in his career) to rescue his former team. The Indians got off to a 30-15 start on the strength of superb starting pitching and some spirited late rallies, but that seems like an awfully long time ago. They’re now 6 1/2 games behind Detroit in the American League Central, with a lineup that’s been decimated by injuries, and their staff just yielded 29 runs in four games with Seattle. Barring a sudden turnaround in September, they’ve boarded an Acela train to oblivion.
But if you’re partial to closure and final scenes of heroes walking off into majestic sunsets, the Thome-Tribe reunion makes for a heck of a story.
As an added bonus to Cleveland sports fans, the acquisition of Thome from Minnesota on Thursday steals some attention from the city’s NFL team. While the Eagles were toying with Colt McCoy and the Browns in their preseason game, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti landed the guy who was supposed to be the cherry on top of the Philadelphia Phillies’ roster.
Thome’s final destination has been an intriguing, under-the-radar work in progress for the past month or two. Everybody knew that the Twins would hang on to him until he launched career home run No. 600. But once that milestone came and went on Aug. 15 and the Twins faded from the race, the only question was where he'd go.
Philadelphia was the most natural fit for Thome if he wanted to have one final postseason fling, but the complex mechanics of August waiver deals made a return to Citizens Bank Park virtually impossible. Thome had to pass through every American League club and then every NL team to reach Philadelphia. He still has some thunder in that bat and he’s owed a reasonable $600,000 the rest of the way, so there was no way he was going to slip all the way to the Phillies.
Ultimately, fate and time produced the best possible alternative. Thome waived his no-trade clause and landed back in his baseball home with the organization that drafted him in the 13th round in 1989. In Cleveland he eventually blossomed into one of the game’s most revered sluggers. He learned how to hit under the guidance of current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, his mentor in the minors and in Cleveland, and they developed a baseball “bromance” of the first magnitude.
“I know him just like my son, really,” Manuel said recently in the aftermath of Thome’s 600th homer. “I spent that much time with him. He's very dedicated. Everything he's done, he's a credit to the game. His attitude is off the charts. He's totally genuine and totally legit.”
Regardless of what happens to this Indians team the rest of the way, Thome’s return gives Cleveland fans another chance to reflect on the glorious 1990s, when the city and its franchise provided a model for doing things the right way. The Indians made the playoffs six times in a seven-year span, sold out 455 straight games at Jacobs Field and came tantalizingly close to a title before losing to Atlanta in the 1995 World Series and then dropping a heartbreaker to the Marlins in 1997.
Thome never finished higher than sixth on an MVP ballot as an Indian. But he holds the franchise record with 334 homers, ranks third to Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle in career slugging at .567 and is third behind Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson with a .414 on-base percentage.
In 2002, Thome said someone would have to “rip the uniform off my back” before he would leave Cleveland, then signed a six-year, $85 million deal with the Phillies as a free agent. The outcry wasn’t exactly LeBron James-esque, but some Indians fans found it impossible to forgive. As Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist Bud Shaw recently observed, “In Cleveland, there's no statute of limitations on holding a grudge.”
A lot has changed over the past nine years. Roberto Alomar just entered the Hall of Fame. Ramirez torched his reputation by using performance-enhancing drugs. Sandy Alomar Jr. is Cleveland’s first-base coach, and Charles Nagy, the pitcher who surrendered the climactic hit to Edgar Renteria in the 1997 Series, is running Kirk Gibson’s pitching staff in Arizona. Jacobs Field became Progressive Field, and the Indians are no longer a hot ticket -- they rank 25th in the majors in attendance this season.
But management bought itself some goodwill Thursday by bringing back Thome. He’ll be a nice role model for Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and the kids, and a serviceable bat to replace the injured Travis Hafner at designated hitter. If you believe all the recent tributes to Thome as baseball’s premier “man of the people,’’ the ushers and concessionaires in Cleveland have reason to be happy, too.
Jim Thome has come full circle, and it’s only fitting that he’ll wear an Indians cap on the field before it appears on his Hall of Fame plaque. One day soon, Thome is going to drive a ball into the seats and take a home run trot to the accompaniment of raucous cheers from some old friends. It will be a sight to behold.
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