September 8, 1995. I had never been a part of something so electric, nor have I ever been since. I sat, on the third base side of the cathedral of the Cleveland Indians, Jacob’s Field, with my mom and dad. I was twelve years old, and already had a steady understanding that this night was beyond special; this night was 41 years in the making.
The Cleveland Indians were standing on the doorstep of their first division title in a very long time. And I was there.
Like many boys my age, I watched the game intently, trying to figure out whose swing I would emulate at my next little league game, or how I’d wear my socks, over or under my pants.
Both questions were answered by the same player.
I’d wear my socks over my pants, and I’d take the signature point-at-the-pitcher-with-my-bat my first time up. I wanted to be Jim Thome.
His night was nothing really special. Thome went 0-4 with a strikeout, but I didn’t remember that until I just looked it up. What I did remember was the final at-bat, or at least the result.
Jeff Huson, the Orioles third-baseman (and the other part I didn’t remember) popped up to Thome at third base, in foul territory, and with a close of the glove, the stadium erupted.
Fast forward a bit.
August 2, 2014: Thome signed a one-day contract with the Indians to officially announce his retirement from baseball, with the team that drafted him all the way back in 1989, in the 13th round.
He got a statue and threw out the first pitch to former teammate and current Indians coach Sandy Alomar. Right before that, Jason Giambi ran out and gave him his #25 jersey. It was unofficial, of course, but it appears that number will never be worn by anyone else in an Indians uniform ever again.
With that official retirement, the clock on Thome’s countdown to eligibility to Cooperstown began. In some circles, there was never any doubt that he would earn his rightful place in the Hall. In others, some wondered just what the fate of the slugger will be in the hands of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
The merits of a nearly quarter-century in the game will have to be debated. Among the other first-ballot players this year, Thome sat with Chipper Jones as the possible shoo-ins. Former teammate Omar Vizquel was also eligible for the first time, and he received 37% of the vote.
Thome received just under 90%, and his legacy was set in stone. Well, bronze.
Standing eighth on the all-time home run list (612) didn’t hurt, especially since Thome’s name has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs like some of the other current members of that top ten. He falls short of the 3,000 hit mark (2,328), but only one current Hall of Fame first basemen eclipsed that number (Eddie Murray).
His .276 career batting average may only be higher than both Harmon Killebrew (.256) and Willie McCovey (.270), but Thome also outhit both of them in all major categories (hits, RBIs, HRs, and SLG). In short, the numbers matched up.
Perhaps more importantly, Thome stands the test of time as to what makes a baseball player in Major League Baseball. He comes across as genuine, preached self-sacrifice, and for the most part, remains beloved by a very fond fan base.
Others would argue that he played in the shadow of better players here (Albert Belle or Manny Ramirez come to mind), but other players left the team for more money just like he did and the ever-elusive ring. He played for six other teams for nine seasons and never did get that World Series title, nor did he ever help bring one to Cleveland.
The man never talked himself up, never acted out of sorts, or marketed himself as something he wasn’t, let alone marketed himself at all, really. What he did was endear himself to a city who will always fondly remember him for playing the game the right way and giving baseball-loving children everywhere a player to look up to, emulate, and cheer for during those memorable Cleveland summers.
And now, he’s Hall of Fame bound. As he should be.
Featured image courtesy of Erik Drost, via Flickr