The Greatest Summer Ever: Jim Thome

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #7 Jim Thome.

Jim Thome was not supposed to be this good.

The Indians drafted the tall, skinny third baseman from Peoria, Illinois in the 13th round of the 1989 MLB Amateur Draft with a hope that Thome might one day develop into a Major League player.  That same year, Thome laced up his spikes for his first taste of professional baseball and hit a very unimpressive .237 for the Gulf Coast League Indians rookie team.  In 292 plate appearances that summer, Thome hit zero homeruns.  Initially, it seemed that Thome might be a swing and a miss as a Tribe prospect.

The following season, Thome started showing his potential and flexing his batting muscle.  Jimmy batted .340 between Burlington and Kinston in 1990 and followed that up by batting .319 between Canton-Akron and Colorado Springs in ’91.  Thome’s power still remained somewhat human, as he slugged a respectable 16 homeruns in ’90 but his total dropped to a subpar seven for the ’91 campaign.  Still, with his batting average soaring, Thome was called up to Cleveland to show the 105-loss Indians what he could do for 27 games as a September call-up in 1991.

Thome hit .255 with nine RBIs in 98 at bats for the Tribe in his first Major League experience.  Jimmy knocked his first career homerun, a clutch, game-winning blast into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium in the top of the ninth inning off of Steve Farr, on October 4.  It was the first of what the Indians hoped was many clutch homeruns that the young man would hit, but even they never could have dreamed of how good and clutch Jim Thome was about to become.

Thome split time during 1992 and 1993 between the minors and Cleveland.  He was average at best during his time with the Big League club those seasons.  Jimmy batted .205 in ’92 with two homeruns, and .266 with seven homers in ’93.  His minor league numbers those two years, however, were outstanding.  Thome batted .329 and .332 those seasons, and he really flexed his muscles for the first time in ’93 by blasting 25 homeruns and driving in 102 runs that summer for AAA Charlotte.  For his efforts, Thome won the International League MVP award that summer and made the Indians 25-man roster for the start of the ’94 season.

It was during the 1994 season that Thome showed that he was in the Majors to stay.  Jimmy batted a respectable .268 for the Tribe that summer but dropped everybody’s jaws when he hit 20 homeruns.  Thome hit his first career walk-off homerun in June, and he blasted three homeruns in a critical July 22 game against the Tribe’s division foe, the Chicago White Sox.  Nobody saw this kind of power and outstanding hitting coming.

“I remember Jimmy’s consistency,” Indians manager Mike Hargrove said.  “You can’t be a great hitter without having good discipline at the plate.  Jimmy was a very disciplined hitter.  When you look at his career on-base percentage, you’ll see that Jimmy was a disciplined hitter and when a pitcher made a mistake, Jimmy could make them pay…It was fun to watch because you knew that if he stayed with that approach he could do things that could make him a Hall of Famer.”

Entering the 1995 season, it was obvious that Thome was not only the Indians third baseman of the present, but of the future as well.  The young slugger continued to pile up clutch hit after clutch hit for the Tribe during the start to their magical summer.  On June 7, Thome showed his knack for hitting in the clutch once again.

It was a beautiful 81° that Wednesday evening at Jacobs Field.  Most schools were letting out and the Indians were sitting atop the American League Central Division with a record of 26-10.  They were winners of four straight games and were hosting the AL East’s last place Detroit Tigers.  36,363 fans filed in to watch their Tribe on the perfect summer evening.  The Tribe started Charles Nagy that night, while the Tigers countered with their big lefthander, David Wells, in what proved to be as good of a pitching duel as was advertised.

The Indians were able to strike first off of Wells.  To lead off the bottom of the second inning, Eddie Murray, who was getting a rare start at first base that night, led off the inning by blasting a 2-1 pitch down the leftfield line and onto the homerun porch for a 1-0 Indians lead.  The homer was Murray’s ninth of the season, 467th of his career, and his fourth in the last nine games.  The Indians added another run in the bottom of the third as well.

Tribe catcher Tony Pena led off the bottom half of the third by driving a fly ball over the head of Tiger centerfielder and future Indian Chad Curtis.  By the time that Curtis was able to fire the ball back in, Pena was standing on second base with a leadoff double.  Kenny Lofton, who always did the little things well, followed by moving Pena to third base with a soft groundout to the first baseman.  Wells followed by giving the Tigers exactly what they needed when he retired shortstop Alvaro Espinoza with a popup, but Tribe second baseman Carlos Baerga then came through with a clutch two-out double down the left field line to score Pena and give the Tribe a 2-0 advantage.

In the meantime, Nagy was pitching brilliantly.  Nagy had given up a double to Tiger legend Lou Whitaker in the first inning, but stranded him by striking out another future Indian, Travis Fryman, and getting a groundout from the powerful Cecil Fielder.  Charlie then set down the Tigers in order in the second and third innings.  Whitaker, who was becoming a bit of a nuisance to Nagy, doubled again to lead off the fourth, but Nagy again stranded him when former World Series hero Kirk Gibson grounded out to end the inning.

Nagy continued to roll, pitching scoreless baseball through the seventh inning and Wells settled in and kept the score at 2-0.  It was the top of the eighth inning that ruined Nagy’s night.

The inning started off harmless enough, as Nagy continued to dominate the Tiger bats by getting right fielder Danny Bautista to ground out to Espinoza and catcher John Flaherty to strike out swinging.  With two down, Curtis extended the inning by grounding a single back up the middle to bring up the Tigers hottest bat.

Whitaker, who was the only Tiger hitting Nagy hard all day, wasted no time in keeping his hot streak alive.  He blasted Nagy’s first pitch of the at bat deep into the Cleveland night and the right field stands to tie the game at 2-2.  Even though he was frustrated by allowing Detroit to tie the score, Nagy retired the next batter, Fryman, on a groundout to short and was replaced the following inning by reliever Eric Plunk.  Nagy’s great pitching was wasted that evening, as he would receive a no-decision that night.

Wells, meanwhile, was rolling into the ninth inning.  Having not allowed a run since the bottom of the third, longtime Tiger skipper Sparky Anderson decided to stick with his starter for the ninth.  The Indians followed by putting the scare of a lifetime into both Anderson and Wells.

Baerga led off the ninth by lacing a single into leftfield, which was immediately followed by Wells throwing a wild pitch, moving Carlos to second. With the winning run at second and a base open, Anderson elected not to pitch to one of the American League’s best hitters, Albert Belle, and intentionally walked him to get to Murray.  “Steady Eddie” tapped a slow grounder to the shortstop, Alan Trammell, who was able to flip the ball to Whitaker and retire Belle, but the relay was too late to get Murray at first.

With runners at the corners and only one out, Anderson made a smart, but unconventional move.  Sparky elected to intentionally walk the bases loaded with second base open in order to pitch to Tribe designated hitter Dave Winfield rather than the youngster Manny Ramirez.  It was tough to argue with the veteran Anderson, as Ramirez was one of the game’s brightest young stars and Winfield was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.  With another hot young star on deck in Thome, Winfield made Anderson’s decision look like a thing of genius when he lined a drive off of Fryman’s glove at third that started a very unusual 5-2-4 double play and the Tribe’s rally was dead.

With the game now headed to extra innings, Plunk stayed in the game and was dominant.  After setting down the Tigers in order in the ninth, Eric struck out Bobby Higginson looking to lead off the 10th.  He then K’ed Bautista by getting him to swing and miss at a 2-2 pitch, and followed that by freezing Flaherty to end the inning.  Plunk had struck out the side and given the Indians another chance to win the game, this time in the bottom of the 10th.

Having been stranded on deck in the ninth, Thome came up to lead off the next inning.  For the evening, Wells had shut Thome down, causing the powerful third baseman to go 0-3 with a strikeout.  “(Thome) was a homerun hitter,” Hargrove said, “and homerun hitters have a propensity to strike out and Jimmy wasn’t shy in that regard.”  In the tenth inning, Thome was not facing Wells, however.

Anderson turned to his bullpen and right hander Brian Maxcy.  Pitching in only his seventh Major League game, the rookie had a record of 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in his five innings of work for Detroit.  He did not have his good stuff on this night though.

Maxcy struggled with his control from the first pitch and fell behind the Tribe’s powerful lefty 3-0.  Showing unquestionable faith in his young third baseman, Hargrove gave Thome the green light.  Thome absolutely demolished the 3-0 Maxcy fastball deep into the night and by the time it landed in the right field seats, Maxcy was halfway to the dugout.  Jacobs Field roared as Thome circled the bases and the Indians had their 10th victory in their last at bat in only the 37th game of the season.  Jimmy had blasted his 10th homerun of the season and the 40th of his career.  Thome was greeted at home plate with a mobbing from his teammates, who now boasted a record of 27-10, best in the big leagues.

Thome’s fantastic season continued throughout the summer, as Jimmy batted .314 with 25 homeruns and 73 RBIs for the 1995 Indians.  His first taste of the postseason was filled with clutch hits as well, as Thome crushed four homeruns during the Tribes run to the World Series.  The most memorable homerun for Thome was the bomb that he hit at Jacobs Field in game five of the World Series off of Atlanta reliever Brad Clontz to give the Indians some insurance and a 5-2 lead.  The homerun provEd Huge when Braves slugger Ryan Klesko hit a two run homer in the top of the ninth, but the Tribe hung on for a 5-4 victory.

After 1995, Thome continued to have amazing success in Cleveland.  Thome won his only career Silver Slugger Award in 1996, and then Jimmy found himself playing a new position after the Tribe acquired third baseman Matt Williams from the Giants for the ’97 season.  “Jimmy was a better player once we moved him to first base from third,” Hargrove said.  “Moving to first base helped him relax and really become the player that he eventually became.”

Jim Thome’s outstanding Cleveland career lasted through the 2002 season when he left via free agency to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies rather than to stick around to watch the Indians rebuild their fallen dynasty that he had helped build.  Thome ended up playing three seasons in Philly, followed by just over three for the Chicago White Sox, a half season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and just under two with the Minnesota Twins.  Throughout all of his stops, Thome kept smashing homeruns.

In August of 2011, Thome became only the eighth player to hit 600 career homeruns, when he blasted two homeruns in Detroit as a member of the Twins.  The other members of the “600 Club” are a “who’s who” among baseball history’s best players; Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

A couple weeks after his historic 600th blast, Thome was dealt by the Twins back to where he belonged…Cleveland.  The Indians reacquired Thome on August 26, the day before his 41st birthday, in hopes that Jimmy could help the Tribe get back into the playoffs.  Thome was unable to carry the team to the postseason, but did provide more memories for Tribe fans, as he hit a homerun in his second game back and also hit a homerun on “Jim Thome Night” in late September.  Before that game, Thome was honored by the Indians and will forever be a part of Progressive Field lore as a statue of him pointing his bat will always remain in left-center field behind the bleachers.

Thome finished his 13 year Indians career as the franchise leader with 337 homeruns.  He also drove in 937 runs for the Tribe, hit .287 and drew over 1,000 walks.  Thome is truly one of the greatest Indians of all time and is well deserving of the statue that is forthcoming.  It is likely that he will one day have his #25 retired above the mezzanine level and will certainly eventually be inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame.  With so many career accolades, Thome will likely be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and when he does, it is almost a lock that he will be wearing a Cleveland Indians cap on his plaque.

After the 2011 season, Thome left Cleveland for the second time to sign as a free agent with the Phillies.  Thome’s second tenure in Philly didn’t last long, as he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles on June 30.  His first game as a member of the O’s was, ironically, against the Indians.

The walk-off blast that Thome hit off of Maxcy on June 7, 1995 was the second of Thome’s career, but it was hardly the last.  Jimmy made a career out of hitting clutch homeruns and when he sent the Tampa Bay Rays home with a walk-off shot on June 23, 2012 while playing for the Phillies, Thome set the MLB record for most career walk-off home runs with 13.  Thome had previously held the record of 12 with some elite company.  Five other players had hit 12 walk-off bombs in their careers and all five are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The five names that are now tied for second place are Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson and Ruth.

Not bad company to keep for a guy who wasn’t really supposed to be very good.

Tomorrow:  Dennis Martinez

Previous Entries:
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
#12 Omar Vizquel
#11 Charles Nagy
#10 Orel Hershiser
#9 Julian Tavarez
#8 Eddie Murray

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