“You’ll just say you’re coming home”
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 They could have, as a favor to Thome, withdrawn him from waivers and placed him on release waivers, thereby making him a free agent eligible to sign with any team.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.