Jim Thome – The Real King of Cleveland
In some wonderful Romantic twist of fate, my first memories are steeped in baseball. Among the earliest hazy images I can conjure are old Municipal Stadium, Felix Fermine’s horn rimmed glasses, and the look on my father’s face when I caught my first foul ball.
I also remember my first ‘idol.’ No, it’s not Jim Thome.
Steve Farr was a professional reliever and was the son of my mother’s mother, who wasn’t really her mother, but who is called “Grammie Fox.” She lived a couple houses down from us. When Steve was in town with the Royals or Yankees, we would get tickets to the game, right behind the dugout, and he would autograph my cards and show us his World Series ring. When he joined the Tribe in 1994, I think I was the happiest person on the planet.
Now, I’ll be honest, memories I’m really confident about start emerging around 1994. I think it has to do with getting older, the opening of the Jake, the baseball strike, and Ken Griffey Jr. But, 1991 was a big year (I.e Desert Storm on CNN) and I think the following anecdote is true.
In 1959, Brooke Jacoby was given one of the greatest baseball names of all time. In 1984, the Atlanta Braves traded him to the Indians. Then, in 1987, Brooke Jacboy had a career year: he hit .300 with 32 Hrs. Brooke Jacoby was my favorite position player (I don’t think I was/am alone).
So, when he was traded to the Athletics for Lee Tinsley in 1991, I was not a happy camper. Of course, the Tribe traded him because they had a power hitting 3rd baseman coming up soon: Jim Thome. This I didn’t know… yet.
In 1991, while sitting on the porch with the Indians-Yankees game playing in the background, the name Jim Thome exploded into my life after he launched his first major league home run to put the Tribe up in the ninth… against my hero, Yankee closer Steve Farr.
Steve would take the loss for that game.
As if forever living up to this debut, Thome never ceased to capture my attention or excite my imagination. In Ruthian moments, he would make dreams come true: Like the 511 ft home run, to dead center, that actually exited Jacob’s Field; or, when Thome crushed his 51st home run in 2002, saving the Indians home run record from evil Albert (Joey) Bell.
His batting stance alone is epic; stolen from a movie inspired by and dedicated to the home run, “The Natural.” Joe Posnanski tells the stance’s genesis story (or some version of it):
Manuel had Thome watch video from the movie The Natural. He specifically had Thome watch something that Robert Redford, as Roy Hobbs, did before the pitch.
‘See how he points his bat at the pitcher?’ Manuel said, or some such thing.
‘Yup,’ Thome replied.
‘Let’s do that,’ Manuel said.
‘OK,’ Thome said, because he’s an amiable type, and loved Charlie Manuel. He pointed bats at pitchers, and he mashed 25 homers and drove in 102 runs in Charlotte, then he went up to Cleveland and hit seven more homers. The next year he hit all 20 of his home runs for Cleveland before the strike, and the next year he hit 25 and the Indians went to the World Series. The next year, he hit 38, then 40, and so on.
The rest is history.
In Posnanski’s gospel, the provincial ‘yups’ and unquestioning obedience fit the image of Thome that has emerged over the years: the lovable slugger.
Posnanski’s grandiose, Granland Rice sounding nostalgia for the dying breed reads perfectly:
Remember? Baseball used to be filled with them — gentle giants, country strong men who would swing hard, tromp around the bases, maybe wink to a kid in the crowd as they crossed home plate.
And Jim Thome does fit bill perfectly, in the tradition of icons like Harmon Killebrew or Hank Greenberg: lots of Ks, lots of walks, and lots of very long home runs. Of course Babe Ruth is the penultimate example- cigar in his mouth, hat too small and slightly askew, spare tire around his waste, 50+ home runs…
Others that fit the image? “Big Klu — Ted Kluszewski — [who] wore his sleeves rolled up to show off his arms and ma[de] fist[s], smile[d], and sa[id]: ‘You know what that is? A Polish joke stopper.’ They called Willie Stargell ‘Pops.’ They called George Scott ‘Boomer.’ They called Jimmy Wynn ‘The Toy Cannon.”
Thome never had the nickname, but he had everything else.
Later in his Thome tribute, Posnanski recalls:
There are a million ‘Jim Thome is the greatest guy’ stories. He’s won the Clemente Award. He’s won the Gehrig Award. He has been voted the nicest guy in baseball.
In Peoria, Illinois, Thome’s home town, stories recall Thome’s big smile and big heart asearly as little league.
His coach, Gary Trotter recalls: “He had a love for the game from the first day.”
He also has a Lennie Small worthy story that fits the big slugger:
The 7-year-old boy arrived on the baseball field at Bradley Park, right-handed thrower, glove turned the wrong way, but hustling everywhere and with a huge smile.
There it is again: that oafish, yokal, lovable giant charm.
When I got to college, my room mate, a Peoria native, would join me in regular Thome gushing sessions. Recently, after the 600th he recalled the hitting lessons Thome had given him as a kid. Calling him “incredibly nice and genuine” and talking about that iconic “swing… his sort of older school baseball demeanor.”
Those comments will be echoed, for years to come, by baseball fans across the league and especially in places like Philly and Chicago and maybe even in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, he stands as one of the all time Indian greats.
As if his awesomely high red socks weren’t enough, “Thome slugged 334 of his 600 home runs – and all 17 he clouted in postseason games — in an Indians uniform. He spent the first 14 years (1989-2002) of his storied career in the Cleveland organization.”
Thome will never get the recognition he deserves, in part because he was so quiet and uncontroversial and more-so because he played a position stacked with sluggers in an era that tarnished the home run.
Still, his stats don’t lie: he sports a .403 lifetime on-base percentage, 25th all-time for players with 7,500 plate appearances, topping Dimaggio, Wagner, and Rose. He also hit .277 lifetime, higher than names like Ernie Banks, Eddie Matthews, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson and Harmon Killebrew.
Oh yeah, and… Thome hit 600 home runs. Clean home runs. I don’t say this with any for sure insider information, but let it be noted, that in an era of doubt, no one is doubting Thome.
Let it also be noted that he comes from mountain man genes: “his brother, Chuck, is 6-5 and once pushed 300 pounds. His other brother, Randy, is similar in size to Jim.”
While the 500 home run club has been watered down some and inevitably, the 600 club will be too, for now, it remains an elite list of names: Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Sosa, Griffey, Thome.
Go ahead and remove the questionables and the list is even more rarefied: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey, Thome.
The quietest first ballot ‘hall of famer’ ever? Because he leaves no doubt.
Thome was great: a great guy, a great hitter, and a great ambassador for the game of baseball- particularly in an era when so few have emerged.
He drips with the baseball Romanticism fans yearn for; of times paste; of Fenway and heroes named ‘Mickey;’ of cyclonic center fielders named Mays; of big smiles, big swings, and big moments.
In true Roy Hobbs fashion, every time Thome connected with the ball, it felt like the stadium’s lights were exploding.