Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 25: Catching Up With Jim Thome
Steve Eby | On 10, Mar 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 25 days
When Indians legend Jim Thome was first called up to the Major Leagues, he, the Indians, and their fans all had no idea what a ride we were all about to be put on. In fact, even Thome worried about whether or not he would be able to stick around at first.
“I did,” Thome said, “because I wasn’t a very good player…There were many nights that I didn’t know if I would make it.”
Now, Thome’s #25 jersey may never be worn by another Cleveland Indian again.
Coming up through the minor leagues, most considered the young third basemen to be a potential bat for the Tribe lineup, but the biggest concern was with Thome’s subpar defense.
“There were times when I really needed to work, especially defensively,” Thome said. “I had to put in a lot of extra work and hard times defensively to make myself an even adequate defensive player. Early on, I had a hard time defensively.”
Thome’s batting average in the minor leagues continued to climb every year, culminating in a 1993 International League MVP Award where he batted .332 with a career-best 25 home runs. Thome’s power came somewhat out of nowhere, but he gives a ton of credit to his AAA manager and future Major League skipper, Charlie Manuel.
“He was everything to me. Hands down,” Thome said of Manuel. “From confidence, to what he taught me, to the mental side of hitting. We didn’t talk about mechanics a whole lot, but he got me in position when he put me on home plate with my back foot and opened me up, I really saw my power keep progressing.”
One thing that Manuel taught Thome was a technique that became a calling card of the future slugger, as Thome started to point his bat toward the pitcher while waiting for the delivery.
“I did that in Scranton when Charlie Manuel had seen a clip of Roy Hobbs,” Thome said of protagonist in the movie, The Natural. “Roy Hobbs would point his bat and when I got in the box I was really tense. I was tight and he wanted to create that relaxing feeling in the box and it got my trigger ready to hit.”
To this day, Thome and Manuel continue their close relationship.
“I still talk to Charlie about once every two weeks. He’s just been a special guy in my career, no doubt. I was blessed enough to meet him and I’m so appreciative that we crossed paths.”
Thome first appeared in the Big Leagues during the 1991 season and had brief stints in Cleveland in both 1992 and ’93 as well. It wasn’t until 1994 that Thome became a full-timer, as he became the regular third baseman on a team that was certainly on the rise. Along with All-Stars Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, Thome and fellow youngster Manny Ramirez anchored the best young offense in baseball as the Tribe moved into their new stadium. Unfortunately for Cleveland, the ’94 season was cut short due to a player’s strike.
“I think that when the strike hit in ’94 we were ready to win,” Thome said. “I think that’s what actually made our ’95 team better…the fact that we didn’t get to finish our business in ’94. It definitely started the whole renaissance here in Cleveland.”
The franchise’s renaissance culminated in an awesome 1995 season that sent the Indians to the postseason and World Series for the first time since 1954. Jacobs Field started selling out in June and there was never another empty seat for a half of a decade.
“The thing that stands out to me was how our fans knew it from the start,” Thome said. “They believed in it and we believed in it. I think the city believed the fact that it was the time.”
The fans bought in quickly and the Indians rewarded them by winning the American League Central Division every year from 1995 to 1999. During the stretch, the Tribe played in the American League Championship Series three times and the World Series twice.
“Those fans meant so much to us,” Thome remembered. “I don’t even know that they know how much they meant to us. When we got back from the ’95 World Series and we pulled up—and we obviously didn’t win, so there was a little bit of a disheartened feeling—but we saw all of the fans waiting for us. We as players knew that there was something special ahead.”
The second trip the Fall Classic occurred in 1997, the season when Thome switched positions to first base to make room for offseason acquisition, Matt Williams. The switch across the diamond perhaps helped to prolong Thome’s career as he continued to compile impressive and improving power numbers.
After slugging 20 home runs in 1994 and then 25 in 1995, Thome’s power took a big jump to 38 big-flies in 1996. He slugged 40 for the first time in ’97 and jumped up to 49 by 2001. By the end of his free agent season in 2002, Thome had slugged a single season franchise record of 52 home runs, breaking Belle’s record of 50 in ’95. Through the ’02 campaign, Thome also had blasted a franchise-best 334 dingers as well. Thome remembers his long stint with the Indians as the most fun times of his long career.
“No doubt here in the 90’s,” Thome said. “I would say my most fun time was from the strike until 1997. We were dominant. We had dominant teams and we were ready to win. Then. Right there. We had an aura about ourselves—a confidence that you couldn’t teach. We all wanted to be great and we fed off of each other.”
In addition to being the franchise leader in home runs, Thome also tops the Indians charts in several other categories. Thome is the only Indian to ever walk over 1,000 times and is second on the RBI list. Thome also struck out 1,400 times as an Indian—a dubious record that Thome takes with a grain of salt.
“The strikeouts were a part of my game that I didn’t like, but I wasn’t going to take away the aggressiveness,” Thome said. “I think the biggest help to my game was the fact that I walked. I was a hitter that did strike out, but also went through periods of good contact. I had the ability to take the ball the other way, I had power, but the strikeouts were a part of my game that I always tried to improve on, but it was just a part of my game. It was the way that I was constructed.”
Thome left the rebuilding Indians after 2002 to sign a massive free agency deal with the Philadelphia Phillies for 2003. He was traded to the Chicago White Sox following the 2005 season and eventually ended up spending some time with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins as well. All the while, Thome kept slugging home runs and kept moving up and up baseball’s all-time list.
On August 15, 2011, a 40-year-old Thome put the Twins on his back by knocking three hits and driving in five runs in a win at Comerica Park against the Detroit Tigers. What was most significant, however, was in addition to a fourth inning single, Thome also slugged home runs number 599 and 600 in his career—becoming the oldest to do so, less than two weeks shy of his 41st birthday. Thome was just the eighth man in history to accomplish the feat, joining Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in the club. Even though years have passed since he put an exclamation mark on his Hall of Fame ballot, Thome cannot believe what he accomplished.
“How could you ever imagine?” Thome said. “You don’t play the game when you start out and say that you want to hit this many or win this many games. I think what you do is let the process play out.”
In addition to Manuel’s guidance and the talent that he was blessed with, Thome remembers a former Tribe teammate’s advice that stuck with him for a long time.
“Eddie Murray once said something to me that I never forgot about playing,” Thome said. “I asked him what he thought had been the biggest key to his success and he said longevity. The guys that played and have iconic numbers, guys like Hank Aaron, they have had longevity and health. You have to be blessed enough to be healthy. You don’t get better as you get older, but you make the best of what you’ve got.”
Ten days after his historic blast, Thome’s career came full circle as his contract was purchased from the Twins by the Cleveland Indians—who were injury riddled and trying to cling to their fading playoff hopes by acquiring the big slugger. Thome was greeted with open arms from the Cleveland fans and the big lefty slugged another one out of Progressive Field in just his second game—and on his 41st birthday.
“Getting that opportunity to come here was almost like a full circle—you get to come back,” Thome said. “Looking at it now, it was really a neat farewell to me here. It was very special. I remember getting traded, getting on a plane and landing in Cleveland, thinking ‘is this all happening again?’ That night when I got that ovation when I came to the plate was absolutely incredible.”
Toward the end of the season with the Tribe’s playoff hopes thwarted by injuries to key players, the Indians honored their franchise leader in home runs with a Jim Thome Night at Progressive Field where they announced the plans for a statue of the slugger to be constructed and placed in the concourse behind the center field wall. Thome’s statue was unveiled in August 2, 2014 and is a highlight of the new Progressive Field renovations.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Thome said of the statue. “How could you ever imagine, when you play this game, getting the opportunity to have an organization put up a statue of you? I am a little lost for words. I can’t even say that as a player you dream of that. When it happens, it’s humbling. My family is just ecstatic about it. They’re really excited.”
After splitting the 2013 season with Philadelphia and finally the Baltimore Orioles, Thome’s playing career came to an end after 22 seasons. He signed a one day contract with the Indians on the night that his statue was unveiled, officially retiring as a member of the Tribe. Unfortunately, like every other power hitter of his era, steroid questions still come at Thome even though his name has never been associated with one of baseball’s biggest black eyes in any way.
“It was never presented to me,” Thome said. “Maybe I was naïve, but I just played the game. I never seeked to do that and it was never around. At the end of the day, what makes me most proud is that I can stick my chest out and say that I did what I did. Not every guy in that era did steroids. All of the players that played in our era are not guilty. There were plenty of guys that did it the right way.”
Not being able to stay away from the game very long, Thome re-upped with his former White Sox team right after his playing days ended, albeit in a somewhat different capacity.
“I work with Mr. Reinsdorf in Chicago,” Thome said. “He brought me in as an Assistant GM. It’s interesting…that behind the scenes kind of aspect. It’s been exciting. We live in Chicago so that’s been kind of a neat thing. It keeps me home but I still get to be around baseball. In 2013, I had trained to come back and play, but when the opportunity didn’t come up, I thought I’d take a little time but that’s when (the White Sox) called and invited me to come aboard.”
As Thome continues to enjoy his new role with the White Sox, it remains to be seen whether or not Thome can defy the odds and become a diamond in the rough in his new job like he was with his old one. After all, it was the Indians who reaped the most benefit from Thome’s hard work and dedication to his craft.
“Luckily the organization stuck with me and they helped improve my game. I really wanted to be a good player.”
Mission accomplished, Jimmy.
Photo: Brad Mangin/manginphotography.net