Thome’s flair for dramatic as important as his statistics
You don’t remember, you can’t remember, every home run that Jim Thome hit over the span of a more than two-decade career.
But I remember the first one I saw him hit.
The game. The moment. The sound of the ball when it hit the bat.
That’s what I thought of when I heard that Thome had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
You can talk about numbers. Six-hundred-and-twelve home runs. Almost 1,700 RBIs.
The statistics are there. But they don’t tell you everything.
Thome had a flair for the dramatic throughout his career. He hit (I guess this number can tell you something) 13 walkoff homers, a record.
I saw his first one. And it was the moment I knew.
Not that Thome would be a Hall of Famer. But that, after 40 years, the Indians were really going to be something.
It was 1994. Jacobs Field — as the Tribe’s home was called in those days — was all of nine weeks old.
Cleveland was abuzz with its baseball team. After a mediocre start to the season, the Indians got hot. They’d won four straight games coming into the June 15 game against the Blue Jays — the two-time and defending world champions.
My family and our friends from across the street had bleacher seats for the game. Tribe fever was overtaking us all. The rest of the country may have been consumed with O.J Simpson, but Indians fans were buying in, and buying in big. The game was sold out, which was becoming all too normal.
Looking at the box score from that night, a few things stand out:
n The game featured four future Hall of Famers. Roberto Alomar played second for Toronto; Paul Molitor was the DH. Eddie Murray DH’d for Cleveland; Thome played third and hit eighth in the lineup. Manny Ramirez and Omar Vizquel didn’t start. Vizquel was coming back from an injury and was being eased back in to things. Ramirez … well, who knows? Maybe he got on the wrong train. But the rest of the Indians stars were there: Kenny Lofton, Carlos Bearga, Albert Belle, Paul Sorrento, Sandy Alomar. Charles Nagy was the starting pitcher.
* While I often ragged on Thome in later years for his strikeouts, he was only punched out once in six at-bats. The Indians struck out eight times in 13 innings. I’d take that in 2018.
* Nagy threw nine innings, but didn’t get a win because the game went to extras. Jose Mesa, a year away from becoming baseball’s best closer, threw three scoreless innings in relief. Neither of these things happened too often after this game.
As I said, stats are one thing. But I remember the intensity. When the Indians fell behind 3-0 after three innings, no one was worried. Even in ’94, the Indians had gained a reputation for comebacks. But by the bottom of the eighth inning, when it was still 3-0, people started to worry.
The Blue Jays starter, Todd Stottlemyre, was just as good as Nagy. And I was getting annoyed.
Not so much at the game, though I was starting to believe my team may lose.
No, I was angry at the teenage woman behind me, who spent the entire game trying to get Lofton’s attention.
“KENNY!” she bellowed in a voice that was half Fran Dresher, half Victoria Jackson, “WE LOVE YOU!”
Well, yeah. Of course she loved Kenny Lofton. We all loved Kenny Lofton. But she just kept going. After seven innings, my patience was running thin. Ashamed as I am to admit it, the 14-year-old me took some solace in that if the Indians wouldn’t rally, it would at least shorten the time I had to spend listening to an out-of-tune Janis Joplin.
But then something happened. The Indians came back.
Vizquel hit a pinch-hit double. Lofton — perhaps as tired of the fan as I was — ripped another double, scoring Omar. And then Wayne Kirby — who was starting for Ramirez — clubbed a two-run homer. Kirby hit only 14 home runs in his career, and I would bet this was his biggest.
So the game rolled on, tied at 3. What was remarkable — at least in my memory — was how seemingly no one left. The fans weren’t hoping for a win, they were expecting it. As the game turned to extra innings, my mom — the biggest Indians fan in the family — excused herself to use the concessions. Others did as well. As the group headed out of the bleachers, some fans piped up.
“Hey! Where are you going? The game’s not over!”
“We’re just going to get food.”
It was a wild time.
Finally, in the bottom of the 13th, Scott Brow came in to pitch for the Blue Jays. Brow would go on to pitch in 59 games over a four-year career. His lifetime ERA would end up at 6.06, and he only won three games.
But he managed to retire Sandy Alomar for the first out.
At this point, I remember thinking we could be here a while. Not that I cared. I didn’t have school the next day and had next to no responsibilities. My only hope was that the adults — who did have to work the next day — wouldn’t make us leave early.
And then I heard the swing.
Thome’s home runs had a very specific sound, at least to me. While Ramirez’s swing was so smooth his home runs often sounded as sweet as a Motown record, Thome’s were more about work. WHACK.
Nothing sweet about it. But the ball sure traveled.
First I heard the contact, then I heard the eruption from the fans. Then my 12-year-old brother tapped me on the shoulder.
“Zach,” he said “Did you see? As he rounded first base, Thome pumped his fist and went ‘Yeah!'”
Hey, my brother said he saw it. I believed him.”
And that was the moment I knew. The Indians usually lost games like this.
But not anymore. The Indians would go on to win plenty more games. And Thome was a huge part of it all.
The home run that night was just the beginning. As it turned out, Thome would go on to hit 594 more in his career.
This induction should be special to Indians fans who grew up when I did. Murray, Dave Winfield and Roberto Alomar — also members of the Tribe during that era — are in the Hall. But all of them played the bulk of their careers elsewhere.
Thome is the first true “Indians first” player to make Cooperstown from my lifetime.
And look, I’m not gonna pretend I’m the biggest Thome fan. For years, I’d yell at him (or more specifically, the television) for swinging for the fences when a single could drive in a run and win the game. Even as a kid, my favorite players were Belle, Lofton and Ramirez — all of whom I thought were better than Thome.
And even after his career ended, Thome’s legacy has at times bothered me. I still don’t know how Thome got a statue at Progressive Field before Larry Doby.
And despite him being an Indians legend, he did hit nearly half his homers with other teams.
But those are discussions for another time. Thome is one of the best power hitters the sport has ever produced. He’s going where he belongs, Cooperstown.
And he’s going to be wearing a Tribe cap.
That’s sweet. But maybe not quite as sweet as the memory he gave me nearly a quarter century ago.
Just one of so many he — and his teammates on those teams — gave us.