Santana’s Departure to Philadelphia Mirrors Thome’s 15 Years Earlier
Vince Guerrieri | On 20, Dec 2017
OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one: An Indians slugger settles in at first base after changing positions, becomes a mainstay of some quality Tribe teams, and ends up signing a fat contract in Philadelphia.
Thome was drafted in the 13th round by the Indians in 1989, breaking in with the team as a third baseman as a September callup two years later. That team lost 105 games – the most losses in Indians history – but good times were just around the corner.
Four years later, the Indians had a new manager, a new baseball-only ballpark and a roster laden with talent. Thome wasn’t an afterthought anymore, but still batted in the bottom of the lineup, behind sluggers like Eddie Murray and Albert Belle. Two years later, both were gone and Thome switched to first base to accommodate the free agent signing of Matt Williams.
The roster turned over a little more in the late 1990s for the Indians, but Thome remained a constant. He was beloved by fans and loved being in Cleveland, even marrying a woman from North Royalton. But the Indians’ success came in part by drafting well and signing players to below-market value. Thome was going to be a free agent after the 2002 season, and had already established himself as a great slugger (and mostly untainted by allegations of performance-enhancing drug use that had become widespread by that point). His 52 home runs in 2002 led the major leagues – and were (and remain) the Indians team record. Would he leave too?
As it turns out, he did – and to the unlikeliest of places. The Phillies had made it to the seventh game of the 1993 World Series, but had only finished with a winning record once since then. But they pursued Thome doggedly, offering a five-year, $70 million deal and then upping it to six years and $85 million. It was the biggest contract they’d ever given out – and the biggest free agent acquisition since they signed Pete Rose a generation earlier. They were moving into a new stadium and they were looking for the same magic Thome and the Indians had when they moved to Jacobs Field. In fact, Thome said after the signing that he called former Indians General Manager John Hart, then with the Rangers, for advice. Hart told him the Phillies at that point were like the 1994 Indians.
As it turns out, Hart was right – but Thome wasn’t around to see the results.
In 2003, when Thome made his debut, a prospect named Ryan Howard was clubbing baseballs in the Florida State League. Howard, drafted two years earlier, was a first baseman like Thome. And since it was the National League, neither of them could see any significant time as a designated hitter.
Injuries limited Thome to 59 games in 2005, the year Howard was named Rookie of the Year. The die was cast and after the season, Thome was dealt to the White Sox. Except for a month-long stint with the Dodgers in 2009 and a brief return to Philadelphia in 2011 (where, ironically, he spelled Ryan Howard at first base at times), he spent the remainder of his career in the American League, primarily as a designated hitter.
In 2007, for the first time since 1993, the Phillies won the division – the first of five straight National League East crowns. The following year, they advanced to the World Series, where they beat the Tampa Bay Rays. They made another World Series appearance the following year – after beating Thome and the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
Eventually, the core of the Phillies got old or left for greener pastures, and the team fell down in the standings as the Washington Nationals ascended. But the Phillies are now rebuilding, and the signing of Santana is a definite sign that they’re ready to contend again.
In 2016, Thome was inducted into the Phillies’ Wall of Fame – two years after the Indians built a statue and two years before his likely first-ballot Baseball Hall of Fame induction. His time there was just four years, but Charlie Manuel, who was his manager in Cleveland and Philadelphia, said you could draw a straight line from Jim Thome to the World Series win five years later.
“Jim Thome signed the biggest free-agent contract in Phillies history, and overnight changed the way that people look at the Phillies,” Manuel said. “Not just people in Philadelphia, but all over the country. ”
Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images