Players Like Thome Do Not Come Through Cleveland Often

On Wednesday, Jim Thome is expected to become one of the newest members of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame and Museum. In his first year of eligibility, it is all but certain that Thome will join a select group of former Indians to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Only 12 other players to enter the hallowed halls have played the majority of their careers with the Tribe. The Thomenator would become the 13th. That is hardly unlucky.

It seems likely Thome could soon join an even more select group of player who once played in Cleveland with a future jersey retirement ceremony. The Indians tend to only retire the jerseys of players who have been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame wearing a Tribe cap. The exceptions are Frank Robinson, who broke the managerial color barrier with Cleveland and Mel Harder, who some would argue should be in the Hall. Otherwise, only five other jerseys are officially retired by the Tribe.

The word “officially” needs to be put in there because Thome’s No. 25 has actually been unofficially retired. Jason Giambi was the last to wear the number for Cleveland in 2014. During Thome’s statue unveiling that summer, Giambi said no one would wear Thome’s No. 25 on a Tribe uniform again.

Once Thome enters the Hall and, if he get his number officially retired by the Tribe, he will be the fifth Indians player ever to have all three accolades, counting the statue that already exists of him. He would join Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Larry Doby and Robinson as the only Indians to ever be enshrined in the Hall, have a retired jersey, and a statue around Progressive Field.

That group covers two of the best eras in franchise history with Boudreau, Feller, and Doby all having been a part of the 1948 World Series championship club and Thome having been a big part of the 1990s Indians teams that went to two Fall Classics.

So, who could be next to join such elite Cleveland baseball company? Omar Vizquel stands out. He played with Thome and was another huge part of the Tribe’s 1990 successes. He has not hit any of the three accolade discussed above and does not appear likely to get into baseball’s Hall this year, also his first year of eligibility. The defensive wizard should eventually get there, but his case has been a great source of debate already. If he does, the fan favorite from those 90s ball clubs should be considered for a statue and jersey retirement. Vizquel is going to be met with a tougher road to the Hall than Thome as Vizquel did not have a lot of offense in his bat, compared to his former teammate who cleanly crushed more than 600 home runs in an era stained by steroids. Thanks to being clean, Thome has earned a lot of respect from the writers who hold the keys to enshrinement.

Vizquel joining the ranks of the five great Indians would still mean only two eras of baseball with players highly decorated in retirement. Right now, the Indians are in something of a third golden era for franchise.

The present-day Indians have had five straight winning seasons, two straight division titles, a trip to the 2016 World Series, and three postseason berths in a half decade of strong play under manager Terry Francona. There does not seem to be an end in sight to the run of successful seasons. Cleveland had eight straight above .500 campaigns from 1994-2001. This new age of great play has a chance to top that. The big question is, will anyone from these current squads some day have a statue at Progressive Field, be enshrined in Cooperstown, and have a retired Indians jersey?

Right now, oddly enough, there is not anyone for the Tribe that fits. The closest is Corey Kluber. He has two Cy Young awards and has been dominant for four seasons. That is the problem, at least on the Hall of Fame end, as Kluber does not have enough great years on the mound to have yet earned a bust in Cooperstown. He probably needs at least another 5-8 years as an elite-level pitcher to get to that point. Set to turn 32 in April, that means Kluber will have to pitch well and do so into his late 30s to be deemed Hall-worthy.

If Kluber does get to the Hall level, he will have done the majority of his work with the Tribe. He is signed through 2021, his age 35 season. If that proves to be his last with the Indians and he finishes out his career elsewhere, Klubot will have logged most of his numbers and likely his best seasons in Cleveland.

Kluber may have a ways to go to get a Hall of Fame level but he is by far the closest Indian to reaching historic heights. Guys like Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer have the talent to get there and are off to good starts. However, none of them has had more than a couple of years of All-Star caliber campaigns, let alone Hall, statue, or jersey retirement consideration. What really hurts Kluber the most is that he was a late bloomer. He did not kick down the doors to stardom until his age 28 season. If he had broken through a couple years earlier, he could be over 100 wins by now and well on a Hall of Fame path.

Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley are both multiple-time All-Stars with the Tribe, but are not record setters like Thome or award winners like Kluber. Cody Allen could become the team’s all-time saves leader if he stays in Cleveland beyond 2018, when he becomes a free agent. However, he has not even been an All-Star since taking over closing duties in 2014. He has been very good, but is not at that great level.

Other All-Stars like Andrew Miller and Edwin Encarnacion are simply too new and will not have the years in Cleveland to see statues or their number in the rafters at Progressive Field.

All of this is to say that the current Indians, even on their great run, have no one close to reaching the levels of Thome or even Vizquel. No current Indians are all that close to an enshrinement in Cooperstown and things that come with that post-career. Guys of that magnitude, who enjoy truly great careers and have their best seasons in Cleveland, are rare. That is especially so in this day of free agency when teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can throw gobs of money at their own free agents who are over 30, while the Indians really can not.

If I had to guess, I would think Kluber will enjoy another four years of great success with the Tribe. At 35, he would not command a long-term contract and could actually be a great player who stays in Cleveland for a full career. He could win 200-plus games and win even a third or fourth Cy Young award while wearing an Indians uniform. If that scenario plays out, he would have to get into the Hall on the basis of a hardware run and his length of time as a truly special pitcher. With his time doing that in Cleveland, he would go down in history like Thome.

Still, in an age where the Indians are playing great for more than a handful of years, it is only one player who could be immortalized as a Cleveland icon, at least at this point. It just shows that when a special player comes around, fans really need to take the time to appreciate him and enjoy watching him play.

Should Thome earn enough votes for Hall induction come Wednesday, the memories of his monster home runs will flood the minds of Tribe fans. He was a unique talent who still loves returning to Cleveland. He was truly elite and was elite for a long time in the Wahoo Red, White, and Blue.


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