On Twitter: @Castrovince
Jim Thome is going to be a Cleveland Indian once again. The prodigal son is returning home to the city he spurned in 2002, when wooed by wealth, pressured by the players union and unswayed by Jacobs Field statue specifications.
That he’s joining a pennant chase gasping for breath, with the Indians 6 1/2 back of the Tigers and suffering what seems to be a key injury a day (even on an off day, it was revealed Josh Tomlin will miss his next start with an undisclosed ailment), hardly seems to matter. The fact is, Thome is on the last leg, if not the last pinky toe, of what is likely (read: had better be) a Hall of Fame career, and this would be the most suitable place to cap it.
Should the Tribe be rejuvenated by his presence and get back into the thick of the AL Central standings, well, then, all the better.
Obviously, this transaction — that rare August waiver-wire claim that amounted to actual prominent player movement — is about improving a sagging lineup, one that might be bereft of Travis Hafner’s bat for the remainder of the stretch run.
But it’s also about something else. That word so many use after failed relationships, be they of the reality TV or the actual reality type.
I despise that word. I hate to use it here. The way the circle twists and turns in life, “closure” is often more impermanent than we intend it to be.
Thome, though, is 41, has hit his 600th homer, likely locked down his Cooperstown credentials and has a family waiting at home. If this is, indeed, closure to his career, then I can think of no better place for it to come. It’s going to be a Chief Wahoo cap atop his head on his Hall of Fame plaque, so it might as well be the same cap (well, on days the Indians aren’t wearing the blah block “C,” of course) on his dome for the stretch run.
If you’ve been following along this week, you know that the Twins could have potentially orchestrated their waiver workings to get Thome back in Philadelphia. They could have, as a favor to Thome, withdrawn him from waivers and placed him on release waivers, thereby making him a free agent eligible to sign with any team. He could have then returned to the Phillies and his mashing mentor, Charlie Manuel. Undoubtedly, given the Phillies’ place in the standings and their robust rotation, this would have been the best available option for him to reach the World Series, no matter the role.
Let’s ignore the obvious fact that this scenario would have been universally derided, scrutinized and pooh-poohed in the baseball industry and was very much unlikely. It makes for better drama if we just pretend that Thome, who had a full no-trade clause with the Twins, essentially had to choose between the Indians and the Phillies once again. And this time, he went with his roots.
(Isn’t that a terrific story? OK, good, let’s just run with it.)
Thome agonized over his free-agent decision in 2002, and he would eat his words after claiming they’d have to “rip the jersey” off his back before he’d leave the Indians. Some fans here still have not forgiven him, because hell hath no fury like a sports fan spurned.
But players always leave for the money. No, wait, correction… players always leave Cleveland for the money, and Thome proved no different. And I think on some level — well, many levels — he always regretted that decision. He built strong relationships in Philly and Chicago and Minnesota and even Los Angeles in the years that followed, because a man of Thome’s presence and personality builds strong relationships wherever he goes. But behind the scenes, he made it clear to the Cleveland higher-ups (who never held any grudges over his decision, because of that aforementioned personality and because, frankly, they were in a better position to rebuild without Thome eating up a significant chunk of the player payroll) that he wanted to come back.
Of course, that was never possible, because as Thome aged and found his first-base days to be done, the Indians signed Travis Hafner to the type of gargantuan contract (the largest in club history) they once envisioned for Thome, sans a few million and a statue clause.
Now, Hafner is hurt, but that’s nothing new. What’s new is that the Indians are in contention (but barely), Thome, the franchise home run leader, was readily available at an affordable rate and the stars aligned.
Unlike many emotional moves, however, this one actually makes strategic sense. Thome is coming to a place where he’ll get more than just pinch-hit playing time, and he’s been productive. He’s hit .278 with a .910 OPS, six homers, eight doubles and 21 RBIs in 30 games since the All-Star break. Hafner, by comparison, has hit just .220 with a .642 OPS, three homers, five doubles and 14 RBIs in 31 games since the break.
This is an improvement for the Indians. And it doubles, for those above the bitterness, as a happy homecoming. With so many bodies on the injury report, with Ubaldo Jimenez slinging slop and with so much ground to make up in the midst of a strained and stressful schedule, it’s possible — maybe even likely — that this move is much too little, much too late.
But it feels right. It feels like closure. And hopefully Jim Thome has heard his last boo in that ballpark.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
The Indians already have 18 games scheduled in the season’s final 16 days, but general manager Chris Antonetti is not opposed to taking an already extreme scenario even further.
“We’re actually planning on just postponing all of our games until the last two weeks, when we have everybody healthy,” Antonetti joked Monday. “Forty games in the last two weeks. That’s our new strategy.”
Hey, stranger things have happened for the Tribe in 2011. That the final two weeks might matter at all is strange enough in and of itself, given the expectations surrounding this club going into the year and, more to the point, the rampant injuries endured along the way.
Sure, every team encounters the bumps and bruises of the 162-game schedule. But teams with $48 million Opening Day payrolls aren’t supposed to lose their leadoff man for all but 61 games of the season’s first five months, their No. 3 hitter for seven weeks and their cleanup hitter for a month and still be a factor in the division race.
It’s the absurdity of the division in question — the AL Central — that has allowed the Indians to live off the fumes of their 30-15 start and remain in contention. But a three-game sweep at the hands of the first-place Tigers over the weekend, combined with the losses of aforementioned cleanup hitter Travis Hafner, who is back on the DL with a foot strain, and hot-hitting rookie Jason Kipnis, who is out with a pulled hamstring, raised new questions over whether The Little Payroll That Could, well, can’t. The town that came out on the wrong end of The Fumble, The Shot, The Decision and whatever other debacles people see fit to give the “The” treatment can be forgiven if it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That it hasn’t already fallen is a credit to this club’s resilience and, yes, the Central itself. And given that both of those trends have managed to hold up for three-quarters of a campaign and the Indians still have six games left against the Tigers, it’s best not to write them off just yet.
That said, keep the pen handy, just in case.
While not intended merely for short-term satisfaction, the Ubaldo Jimenez deal has undoubtedly been a dud so far. Add to that the fact that a supposedly sanctifying homestand against sub-.500 clubs (the Mariners, Royals and A’s) began with a 3-2 loss to the M’s on Monday — a night when closer Chris Perez was all over the place in a non-save situation in the top half of the ninth and the last at-bat magic that has carried the Indians so often this season fell flat in the bottom half.
Before the game, Perez himself had said that these games against second-division clubs can be dangerous – as the Indians themselves have proved in the past.
“We’ve been on the other side where we were supposed to get beat later in the year and didn’t,” Perez said. “Teams like this have got guys playing for next year, young guys getting called up and showing what they’ve got for the first time. I guarantee they don’t care what their record is.”
The Indians have increasing reason to care about their record. The Tigers just swept them without using Justin Verlander, and Verlander’s 19th win of the year on Monday night gave the Tigers a 5 ½-game lead on the Tribe and White Sox, who are now in a tie for second place. It’s the largest deficit the Indians have faced this season — an amazing feat, given that they were just a game and a half back just four days ago.
Mum was the word on a timetable for Hafner’s return, but when questions arose about the possibility of season-ending surgery for the man known as Pronk, Antonetti and manager Manny Acta both deferred to head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff, who was to talk to the media on Tuesday. That’s rarely a good sign. Hence, the rampant rumors about a possible waiver claim of Jim Thome, assuming the Indians even have the opportunity.
Grady Sizemore, recovering from both a knee injury and abdominal surgery, should be back in mid-September. Likewise, Kipnis. But will they be returning to a pennant race or a humbled home stretch? The Indians were able to make do without Shin-Soo Choo for seven weeks and not lose significant ground, but how much can a team reasonably take?
“In a way,” Acta said, “I feel good, because I never anticipated our team to be able to survive injuries to those guys. We didn’t last year, and I wasn’t anticipating to do it this year. I never anticipated us surviving this long without Choo or Grady or Hafner. It is a trying time for me, but I’m excited about the progress our pitching staff has made. They have kept us afloat.”
Well, uh, sometimes.
Jimenez has allowed 21 runs in 21 innings as a member of the Indians. The Tribe traded its two top pitching prospects for a project, as Jimenez has dealt with command issues and diminished velocity (the latter possibly related to the former). He has some of the more complicated mechanics in the game, so it is all too easy for him to get out of whack, and Antonetti said he’s utilizing his pitches “a little bit differently” than he had in Colorado. Oh, and the AL lineups probably aren’t helping his cause, either.
The rationale behind Antonetti’s bold strike to land Ubaldo made sense from the standpoint that the contractual control the Indians hold on him through 2013 meshes well with the “window of opportunity” the Indians hold during the arbitration years of Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Perez and Justin Masterson, among others. But that rationale is largely built upon the single, faulty premise that Jimenez is a proven ace. He is not that. Not yet, anyway. And certainly not in the AL.
So these are the issues impacting the Indians with less than 40 games to go and a surprising season in danger of suffocation.
It’s certainly not the first time they’ve been tested.
“We’ve had a lot of periods of adversity throughout the course of the year, whether it’s injuries or tough losses throughout,” Antonetti said. “But each time, the team has rebounded and come back and responded to the adversity.”
Now’s the time to respond again. Barring any postponements, of course.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Just shy of 600 home runs, Thome is due to join Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in one of Major League Baseball’s more select and storied clubs. Of course, the steroid era’s influence on the influx of members to that club has caused it to lose some of its luster in the public eye. You can read my thoughts on how that applies to Thome.
As far as what Thome feels about the impending achievement, well, you can read that below.
Do you get reflective at all when you approach a milestone like this?
You do, you do. In a good way, of course. Any time you reach a milestone, it’s a journey. It’s a long process. You think back to your time here in Cleveland, in Philly, in Chicago. You look at all the good times and the good people and the great teammates you were able to be with. Like Sandy [Alomar], you know, coming here and seeing him. If it was to happen here, to be able to share that moment with my teammates but also with him would be special. Each stop brings back good memories all the way through, for sure.
Your accomplishments get overlooked, in some ways, by the era in which you played. Does that disappoint you at all?
I think everyone knows that [performance-enhancing drugs] was in our era. It was a part of it. And I’ve said this — I’ve been very open about this — not everybody in that era did it. You can’t punish everybody. I think there are still people that are hurt that guys did that. It’s not about me paying the price or anybody else paying the price. It’s just that people have the right to choose what they want to say or do. I think that’s basically how it is.
Four guys have joined the 600 Club in the last decade, but there are still only eight guys who have done it, overall. Beyond Albert Pujols, it’s hard to pinpoint anybody active who has a good shot to do it. Does that make it more special for you?
It does, it does. And you know, like we talked about earlier, it’s a journey. I mean, how do you ever imagine 600 home runs? When I signed here in Cleveland, you wanted to get to the big leagues, you wanted to stay in the big leagues. Then once you see success, you want to obviously be healthy enough to continue that for a long time. And you have to be blessed. Playing with guys like Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield and getting that opportunity to watch them go through their career and see as they got through the latter stages of it, watching them work, watching them prepare and wondering if that could ever be you. Then you get to live the reality of it, and it’s pretty special. It really is. If you’d ever asked me if I’d be sitting where I am at 40 and still playing, you’d have to be pinched. It’s really neat. It’s cool. And being a fan of the history of the game, I’ve tried not to think about it, because the task at hand is to perform and go out and do the best you can. But you can get caught up in the history of it very easy. Very easy.
First of all, you want to be a good teammate. Having guys come up to you and approach you and ask you questions as a veteran, you want that. I always say I wish I would have asked this or I wish I would have asked that when I was younger. But I was fortunate to have that here. We had Eddie Murray, we had Dave Winfield, Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez. I think I’ve learned from a lot of good players in the past. Hopefully guys feel comfortable that they can come up to me and ask me anything about the game.
Does it feel like you’ve been in the big leagues for 20 years?
It does. It does. But it’s gone by so quick. I think the physical end of it has taken its toll at times. Learning, as you get into your 40s, you’re not the same player you were at 25 or 30 — physically, I mean. It doesn’t mean you can’t do the things, but day in and day out, it’s tougher.
Every time you come back here, there are a decent number of people who still boo you for leaving as a free agent. That has to hurt on some level, doesn’t it?
It does, it does. I think the tough part is I just want people to know how much I do care about Cleveland. To watch them as an organization today and see the success they’re having is great. Obviously, as an opponent, we want to win the division. But to watch them doing what they’re doing, there’s a part of me that’s genuinely happy for the fans here. I’ve always said that as a free agent, when you leave, you have to understand that there may be people who boo you. That’s part of what we do as professional athletes. But it doesn’t erase the memories, it doesn’t erase the special times and obviously the respect towards them. It is tough, because, again, that’s part of the business. You understand it. Sometimes it can be hurtful. But as an athlete, you have to respect and look at the big picture of why it’s happening.
No, to be honest. I try not to get ahead of where I’m at right now. And I said that a year ago. And I feel that if I’m healthy, I can still play. I can still perform and do some things. Maybe not what I could at 25 or 30, but I can still do some things to help a ballclub win. What I’ll do at the end of the year is sit back and see where I’m at physically, see where you’re at just from the whole perspective of your career and see where we’re at. I do love the game. I do still love to play the game. But there is a day that I do look forward to going home and being with my kids. As much as this has given me so much, it’s also very important to know when the time is right to go home to your kids and your family, you know? And they’re getting to that age where it’s getting close. It’s getting close.
Last offseason, how long did it take you to make the decision to come back this year?
It took me about a month. I think a lot of the big decision for me was that I was healthy. I left [the 2010 season] pretty healthy. I think the role the Twins have put me in has been great. Gardy [Ron Gardenhire] has done a good job about communicating to me and asking when I want a day off. I was able to show I could still do this at the age I’m at. And that felt good.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
It was there when Chad Durbin shook off a season ERA over 6.00 to turn in three of the more important innings of the season Tuesday night, after the rain rushed Justin Masterson the scene.
It was there when Jason Kipnis ran around the bases like a mad man in a five-hit night to back Ubaldo Jimenez’s home debut Wednesday.
It was there in Asdrubal Cabrera calling out Carlos Santana after the latter’s error led to a run Thursday, a brief dugout skirmish ensuing between teammates in a moment of competitive fire that received the managerial seal of approval.
It was there in the Tribe faithful hoisting “We Are All Kipnises” signs or waving their souvenir white T-shirts in the air like rally towels, trying to drown out the cries of the Detroit fans who made the trek on the turnpike.
A playoff series was played at Progressive Field this week, whether or not the calendar confirms it.
For the Tigers, the three-game set was an opportunity to build on a four-game lead that somehow felt like bounteous breathing room, given the claustrophobic tendencies the American League Central had shown.
For the Indians, though, this was about as must-win as a series can be in early August, and the urgency was apparent.
“We’re the ones trailing,” manager Manny Acta had said before it began. “We’re the ones that have to close the gap and not allow them to get too far away.”
The gap is now three games, in the wake of Justin Verlander doing what Justin Verlander does best. The Cy Young favorite prevented a sweep and snapped a skid, for the Tigers’ losing streak in this ballpark had reached a baker’s dozen before he took the mound Thursday night.
Yet even with Verlander on the hill, the Indians did force the issue in a one-run loss. Give Verlander the win and Austin Jackson the assist for his game-saving catch of Santana’s fly ball to the wall in straightaway center in the sixth, preserving the 4-3 lead.
What we have here, folks, is a division battle still very much on in earnest. Had the Indians been swept, with their dual aces aligned Tuesday and Wednesday nights, it would have been all-too-easy to figure it a finale to their fairy tale.
Instead, with the Tribe trailing by just two in the loss column and these two clubs set to face each other another nine times, including the season-ending series Sept. 26-28 in Detroit, it’s even easier to see this thing taken to the limit.
“Definitely,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “No question. I don’t think anybody’s going to go away.”
And in case you didn’t notice, that includes the White Sox, who took care of business against the lowly O’s and have won six of seven overall to pull within four games of the Tigers.
So three teams are alive in the Central showdown right now, and, really, this is the only division in which that can still be said. The White Sox have been considered a sleeping giant all season, and perhaps they’ve been yanked out of their slumber just in time.
For now, though, let’s focus on the Rust Belters.
The Tribe was teetering when this series began, having endured what Acta called a “bittersweet” road swing through Boston and Texas. Bitter because late leads were blown in four losses, and sweet because the Indians were in a position to win all seven games against, arguably, the AL’s best.
So when Tuesday’s tussle with the Tigers reached the early morning hours and the extra, extra innings, the threat of dropping another heartbreaker loomed. But the Tribe survived on the might of its bullish bullpen, which turned in 12 scoreless after Mother Nature yanked Masterson.
“After that road trip, just finishing a couple of games is what we wanted to do,” Masterson said. “And doing it against Detroit is even bigger.”
They did it sans drama the following night, with “The Big U,” as Acta calls Jimenez, coming through as advertised and working with ample run support.
The Masterson-Jimenez pairing has the possibility of October intrigue, should the Indians advance. But for now, the task at hand is putting together a healthy and productive outfield.
Shin-Soo Choo returns from a broken left thumb tonight, but he’ll be trying to shake off rust and his first-half slump. Grady Sizemore, a few weeks removed from another sports hernia surgery and a year removed from microfracture knee surgery, likely won’t be at 100 percent when he comes back in September… if, in fact, he comes back at all. And word of Michael Brantley seeing a specialist about his sore right wrist is at least enough to raise an eyebrow.
Here’s something else to raise a brow: The Indians still have doubleheaders looming Aug. 23 against the Mariners and Sept. 20 against the White Sox. More to the point, that latter twin bill is part of a stretch of 17 games in the final 16 days of the season. This young club’s endurance will undoubtedly be tested.
The Tigers, meanwhile, operate on the assumption that Verlander will pick up the pieces in any rough patch. They’ve now won 69.2 percent of the games he starts, and they’re a sub-.500 team when he doesn’t. That’s not quite a one-man show, but it’s about as close as a contender can reasonably come, which is why the Doug Fister trade was so necessary.
Alas, Fister was also lost to the elements Tuesday. That was just part a less-than-inspiring turn through the rotation, with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello taking a slight step back against the Royals and Indians, respectively, after such a great leap forward in July. Brad Penny was skipped in the midst of a second-half skid so that Verlander would get his turn against the Tribe.
Verlander, of course, can’t face everybody, and in a race as tight as this one, the Tigers will go as far as Fister, Porcello and Scherzer take them. And stop us if you’ve heard this one, but second base is still an issue, as Carlos Guillen’s return from knee surgery has not yet revealed him to be a reflection of his younger self.
With exactly two-thirds (30 of 45) of their remaining schedule coming against Central opponents, including six September games against Chicago, the Tigers do, indeed, hold the keys to their own destiny. And even though this series didn’t go quite as hoped, they’re still in an enviable position, with their manager urging calm.
“It’s Aug. 10,” he said the other day. “That means it’s a month until Sept. 10. And then you still have another 20 days to go after that. So you’ve got to be careful.”
This week, the Tigers could afford that attitude. The Indians? Not quite as much. This was, for them, a playoff-type series, and they treated it as such.
“The Indians aren’t going away,” Leyland said.
Neither are the White Sox. And neither is this division race.
By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
Manny Acta’s ImpACTA Kids Foundation has done wonders for the children in the Indians manager’s hometown of Consuelo, in the Dominican Republic. Acta has built fields and a library facility on fields once covered by weeds, and he’s also sponsored a Little League program that bears his name.
But Acta’s charitable efforts aren’t limited to the Dominican. He has taken to Cleveland as his home away from home, investing in the futures of some of the area’s best and brightest students through a scholarship program that began last year, his first at the helm of the Tribe.
On Tuesday, Acta awarded scholarships to two bright and motivated students – Ashley Linston, a graduate of St. Peter Chanel High School, and John Maher, a graduate of Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School. Linston will be attending the University of Cincinnati this fall, majoring in pre-pharmacy, while Maher will be attending the University of Dayton, studying computer engineering.
In order to be eligible to win the $2,500 awards, Linston and Maher participated in an essay contest, compiled a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 3.3 or better, enrolled in a four-year university for the fall and had plans to major in the field of science, technology or business. Each year, Acta is awarding the scholarships to one male and one female graduating senior in the greater Cleveland area who meets those criteria and has a financial need.
“I’m a part of this community now,” Acta said. “Our foundation is about making an impact on the lives of others, especially kids that are willing to give back to their community once they’ve achieved their goals.”
Not “gnarly” in a California slang/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sense, but… you know… gnarly. Gnarled. Not-so-easy-on-the-eyes. The area where his nail is supposed to be is mangled, and on the swollen thumb itself, you can clearly see the scars from the stitches, the remnants of the surgical procedure Choo had performed to repair the broken thumb in late June.
But “gnarly” is a drastic improvement over what Choo’s thumb looked like just a few weeks back. He showed me a picture from his iPhone of his thumb from the day the cast came off, and suffice to say it’s uglier than sin. Choo didn’t know if he had permission from the Indians’ training staff for me to post the photo here, so I won’t. But you’re probably better off that I don’t.
The point of all this is that Choo probably had no business being here, in the clubhouse at Class A Lake County, so soon after this particular surgery. The broken thumb he suffered as a result of a high and tight Jonathan Sanchez fastball was so extreme that, according to Choo, Dr. Thomas Graham had to use two small bones placed on each side of the thumb’s proximal phalanx to provide a stabilizing effect. As a result, his left thumb will forever be thicker than his right.
“I have no idea know where [Graham] got the bones,” Choo said.
The recovery time from the procedure was supposed to be eight to 10 weeks, possibly more. And yet here was Choo, six weeks removed from surgery and ready to begin a Minor League rehab assignment that, he hopes, will have him ready to rejoin the Indians’ lineup on Aug. 16 in Chicago.
“Special body,” he joked.
Now, whether Choo can provide a special impact on the Indians’ lineup at this critical juncture of the season remains to be seen. First things first, the Indians, who were one game up on the Tigers in the AL Central standings when Choo got hurt on June 24 and are four games back now, have the most important series of the season looming this week against Detroit. They hope to still be relevant by the time Choo returns.
Choo, meanwhile, will use the next week as a means to get his timing back. He hopes to move up the Minor League ladder before week’s end, possibly going on the road with Double-A Akron or Triple-A Columbus, because he doesn’t want Class A pitching to be the extent of his opposition.
But Choo has other matters going on in his life this week besides the rehab work. His wife, Won Mi Ha, is due to give birth to the couple’s third child and first daughter any day now (Abigail is the name they’ve tentatively picked out for her).
Choo’s time away from the Tribe this season has had the unintended effect of making him more domesticated and more appreciative of his wife’s many responsibilities.
“My wife has a hard life, taking care of two kids,” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, honey, you have a really hard job.’ You know, a lot of boyfriends or guys or whatever, your wife stays home and does house work, and you think, ‘Oh, you’ve got an easy job.’ But it’s not. It’s work. If you’ve ever done house work, you know. Laundry, making food, cleaning house. I learned from that. With the injury, I stayed home, and now I know she has a tough job.
“We’ve got a nice job. Playing in the big leagues, making money, seeing everybody in the stands. We’ve got a really good life, you know? Some people forget about it. But we’ve got a great job.”
Getting pulled away from that job has truly been a bummer for Choo, who remembers too well watching the Indians go to the playoffs without him in 2007, after he had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.
Said Choo: “A lot of people say, ‘Don’t try to hurry back, make sure you’re healthy. The team’s going good, and, if you can’t play, maybe next year.’ That’s not for me. Every year is a chance to make the playoffs. This year, we have a chance and we have to take it. If I feel good, I want to play. If I’m hurt, I can’t do it. But if it’s possible to get back to the field to help the team, I want to.”
He’s expected back on the field with the Indians very soon. In the meantime, this is a huge week for the team trying desperately to keep its playoff hopes alive and the right fielder working on his timing, gnarly thumb and all.