More Tales of Thome

Indians legend Jim Thome turned 48 on Monday, capping off nearly a full month of celebration for the longtime big league slugger. Just over a month earlier, he was honored in Cooperstown, New York, as part of the newest Major League Baseball Hall of Fame class, and two weekends ago, that accomplishment was recognized at Progressive Field with a jersey giveaway day in Cleveland when the team also formally retired his number 25.

In honor of the birthday of the Indians’ newest Hall of Famer and the eighth former Tribe player to have his number retired by the club, here are a few more tales from the latter years of Thome’s first decade of action in the Majors with the Tribe.

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DATE: Wednesday, May 14, 1997
LOCATION: The Ballpark in Arlington

SITUATION: Thome kicked off the Tribe’s scoring in the top of the fourth inning with an opposite field solo home run off of Texas’ right-hander Bobby Witt on a 1-0 pitch to put the Indians up, 1-0. They fell in ten innings on a game-winning sacrifice fly from Billy Ripken.

The home run for Thome was the 100th of his Major League career.

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DATE: Friday, April 10, 1998
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: A back-and-forth game between the Anaheim Angels and the Cleveland Indians headed to extra innings after the Halos tied the game in the top of the ninth with an RBI-single from Garret Anderson off of Mike Jackson. The Indians could not do anything in the ninth against Rich DeLucia and Troy Percival, but Percival would leave the mound disappointed in the tenth.

Manny Ramirez singled through the left side of the infield with one down and moved to second on a walk by Brian Giles. Travis Fryman struck out swinging on a 2-2 pitch for the second out, but T-25, the Thomenator, found a 1-1 outside pitch favorable and sent a liner down the left field line and onto the Home Run Porch for a walk-off three-run home run to give Cleveland an 8-5 victory and their fourth win over Percival on late inning homers.

Thome had doubled and struck out three times in his first four plate appearances before the homer. He had struck out three times the previous day in the club’s home opener. Thome shared with the The Plain Dealer (April 11, 1998) after the game, “I just didn’t want to strikeout again.”

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DATE: Friday, October 9, 1998
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: The playoffs had not always been a fun place for Thome to hit, as he owned a career .209/.311/.419 slash with eight homers in his first 39 games following the Tribe’s 1998 ALDS win over Boston. Thome dropped those numbers further, starting the ALCS matchup with the Yankees with a 1-for-8 effort with four strikeouts.

That changed in Game 3 from downtown Cleveland. Bartolo Colon coughed up an early run on a first inning RBI-single by Bernie Williams, but Thome greeted tough New York lefty Andy Pettitte by clobbering a 3-1 pitch 421 feet to the Indians bullpen in center to lead off the second, tying the game at one. After flying out in the third, Thome came up again in the bottom of the fifth against Pettitte in a 3-1 game after Ramirez’s homer two batters prior. Travis Fryman walked before Thome, who jumped on Pettitte’s first pitch and drove it out of the park to right to make it 5-1. Mark Whiten followed with a homer of his own in a three-homer inning and the Indians won a 6-1 final to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“I didn’t think that one [the second homer] was going to go out,” said Thome in the October 10, 1998, PD. “I was trying to help it out by blowing in that direction.”

It was the tenth postseason homer of Thome’s career. Four of his five hits at the time that postseason had left the yard.

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DATE: Saturday, July 3, 1999
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: The Kansas City Royals and the Indians met for a doubleheader on July 3, with the Indians winning a 9-8 final in the opener as Thome went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI. The club opted for a different approach in the nightcap, using an eight-run second inning, powered by a most majestic of drives from Thome.

Trailing 2-0 after an inning and a half, Thome sparked the rally in the bottom of the second. Facing right-hander Don Wengert, Thome pummeled a 3-1 fastball to dead center. The drive cleared the center field wall to the right of the bleachers, bounced off of a pillar, and split the iron fence separating fans from spectators on Eagle Avenue.

The recovered ball was exchanged for a bat and ball autographed by Thome, in addition to four tickets.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball hit that far,” skipper Mike Hargrove was quoted in The Plain Dealer on July 4, 1999.

The homer was estimated to have traveled 511 feet, far surpassing the longest homer on record at the park – Mark McGwire’s 485-foot blast off of the Budweiser sign on the scoreboard two years earlier.

“It was a fluid swing. It was nice, it was not jerky,” shared Thome with The Plain Dealer in a July 4, 1999, story, while also acknowledging that his lingering back spasms did not hinder him on that swing. “Maybe I should slow down, and swing like that more often.”

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Thome’s 3rd inning HR in the ’99 ALDS vs. BOS

DATE: Thursday, October 7, 1999
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: After their Game 1 win over the Boston Red Sox to start the ALDS, the Indians looked to take a two-game lead and got a mighty blow from Thome to secure a big 11-1 victory.

Following a six-run third inning that put Cleveland up, 6-1, the Indians threatened again in the fourth against reliever John Wasdin. Walks led the way, as Travis Fryman and Kenny Lofton each reached on free passes and Omar Vizquel loaded the bases with a single. Roberto Alomar’s sac fly was followed by a Manny Ramirez walk to reload the bases for Thome. He launched his fourth grand slam of the season and his first in this postseason. It was his second of his postseason career following one off of New York’s David Cone on October 13, 1998, in Cleveland’s 9-5 Game 6 loss in the ALCS.

It was the 14th home run in Thome’s postseason career, moving him into fourth place on the Major League Baseball all-time playoff home run list. With his second career playoff grand slam, he became the first player to accomplish the feat in MLB history.

“I am a guy from Peoria, Illinois,” said Thome that night in a quote from the next day’s Plain Dealer. “Never, ever, growing up as a kid did I think my name would someday be mentioned in the same sentence with guys like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Reggie Jackson.”

Thome finished one in back of Mantle (17) and two of Ruth (18) when his career ended. His career granted him another opportunity to be mentioned in a sentence with those sluggers when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2018.

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DATE: Monday, October 11, 1999
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: The Indians coughed up that 2-0 series lead to the Boston Red Sox to be eliminated in the ALDS in Game 5, but it was not due to Thome’s efforts. He hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning off of Bret Saberhagen to put Cleveland up, 3-2, after one. After the Red Sox rallied back for five runs in the third inning off of Charles Nagy to take a 7-5 lead, Thome put the Indians back in front with his second two-run home run in as many at bats, taking Derek Lowe deep to give the Indians an 8-7 lead.

Boston tied the game in the next half inning, added a three-run homer off of Paul Shuey in the seventh, and tacked on another insurance run in the ninth, while Pedro Martinez completely shut down the Indians offense with six unbelievable shutout innings of no-hit relief to give the Red Sox a 12-8 series clincher.

Thome’s home run would be the last hit in the game for the Indians, bringing an end to the first century of American League baseball in the city of Cleveland. It gave him 16 postseason blasts in his career, third all-time.

“Even when we were up, 2-0, in the series, we knew they wouldn’t say die,” Thome said in a Bill Livingston piece in the October 12, 1999, run of The Plain Dealer. “Yeah, I had a good series, but individual things don’t mean a thing in the postseason.”

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DATE: Saturday, April 15, 2000
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: Ten games into the 2000 season, Thome had already knocked three balls out of the park, but his first one of the year in Cleveland would turn out to be a milestone shot off of one of his closest buddies in the game.

Former Tribe pitcher Mark Clark stood on the mound in Cleveland for just the second time as a visiting player after spending three seasons as Thome’s teammate with the Indians from 1993 to 1995. The Rangers backed him with five first inning runs and one more later off of Cleveland starter Bartolo Colon to take a big lead, but Thome helped to make it a ball game in the bottom of the sixth in his third at bat off of Clark. A one-out single by Omar Vizquel, a walk by Roberto Alomar, and an RBI-single by Manny Ramirez put the Indians on the board. Thome stepped in against his best friend and offseason hunting and fishing partner and jumped on a first pitch sinker that lacked drop, depositing a 401-foot three-run shot to the bleachers to make it a 6-4 game while sending Clark to the showers. The Indians dropped a 6-5 final, with Clark earning his second win of the year. After the game, both players had some comments about the encounter.

“I know there is more than a little adrenalin going for me when he comes to the plate,” shared Clark in the April 16, 2000, edition of The Plain Dealer. “I knew he was up there thinking dead red. I knew he would be swinging from his shoelaces. I guess I humped up a little too much. I left it up and away.

“I’m sure I am going to hear about this for a while,” continued Clark. “What I am going to remind him of, though, is that I punched him out on three pitches with two on in the fourth.”

“There was a lot of adrenalin going on my part,” said Thome. “He is my best friend, but it is tough facing him. In fact, I try not to look out at him. I might start laughing.

“Mark pitched a great game. As much as we are friends, though, I really don’t like to see what he did against us.”

The home run for Thome was the 200th of his Major League career.

“I’m going to make Mark sign this thing for me,” Thome joked when acknowledging that he had received the ball from a member of the Indians’ public relations crew.

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DATE: Sunday, April 16, 2000
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: Esteban Loaiza and Jeff Zimmerman had shut down the Indians on two hits with eleven strikeouts and three walks through the first eight innings, while the Rangers had managed just an unearned run on a third-inning single by Ivan Rodriguez off of starter Chuck Finley. John Wetteland, who earned the save the previous afternoon, returned to the mound looking for another one-run save, but this time, the Indians burned him.

Roberto Alomar grounded out on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth, but Manny Ramirez, chilled after three strikeouts against Loaiza, worked the count full before launching a drive over the wall in left-center to even the score for the Tribe, wearing their alternate blue home jerseys.

“When Manny hit that ball, there was a lot of adrenaline,” shared Thome in the April 17, 2000, release of The Plain Dealer. “But things seemed to settle down. I could take a deep breath because we were back in the game.”

Thome took the count to 2-2 before lining a screamer to right-center that glanced off of the Tribe’s bullpen roof and off of a protective fence shielding relievers for the walk-off shot, giving Finley an unlikely complete game win.

“If you had told me we were going to win this game by hitting two home runs off John Wetteland in the ninth inning, I would have said you’re crazy,” said Thome.

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Thome w/D. Justice in ’97 Spring Training – AP Photo/Scott Audette

DATE: Friday, August 4, 2000
LOCATION: Jacobs Field

SITUATION: With the Anaheim Angels in town for three games with the Tribe, a packed house at Jacobs Field saw an ugly slugfest finish with a happy ending for the hometown crowd, with Thome at the center of the festivities once again.

The Indians took a 4-1 lead after one, only to allow four runs in the second to fall behind, 5-4. A five-run third inning put Cleveland back on top with a sizeable 9-5 lead, but the Angels would chip away with four runs between the fourth and seventh frames to tie the game, 9-9.

Bob Wickman, working for a fourth straight game, allowed three singles in the ninth to put Anaheim up for the first time since the second inning, 10-9.

A familiar foe took the mound in Troy Percival, the Angels closer, who was on to get three final outs after the Anaheim bullpen had set down 15 of the previous 16 batters. He would get one, retiring Robbie Alomar on a fly ball before walking Manny Ramirez on five pitches (he was lifted for pinch-runner Bill Selby). Thome came to the plate looking to be the hero and he did exactly that, driving a 2-2 pitch out for a towering two-run walk-off home run to right-center.

“I told Grady Little (Indians bench coach) that I did not have to worry about pinch-running for Jim Thome if he got on,” said Indians manager Charlie Manuel in the August 5, 2000, run of The Plain Dealer. “I told him that I wouldn’t need a pinch runner, that [Thome] was either going to make an out or hit one out.”

It was the second time that Thome had delivered a game-winning homer off of Percival, following his feat on April 10, 1998. His third and fifth career walk-off homers of 13 total came against the Halos’ righty. Percival hit the disabled list after the game with a sore right elbow, apparently unrelated to his hurt pride.

“He was throwing 97 to 98 and I was staying on his fastball,” Thome said in the same print. “He left a breaking ball over the plate and I just reacted.”

The homer proved profitable for a member of the Tribe’s bench bunch, Jolbert Cabrera, who had entered the game for an ill Omar Vizquel in the top of the third and went 1-for-3 with a homer himself.

“I already knew that was going to happen,” Cabrera shared in the next day’s Plain Dealer in a Paul Hoynes story. “I bet somebody on the bench $100 that Jimmy would win it with a homer. I’ve got a lot of faith in Jimmy.”

The name of the bettor with less faith in Thome was not revealed by Cabrera.

Photo: Getty Images

For more short stories looking back on the early days of Thome’s career, click here.

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