“Yeah, a statue!”
In the city of Trieste, a mid-sized seaport on the Adriatic, there is a statue of Italo Svevo. He was a native and largely unheralded writer who was born Aron Ettore Schmitz and gave himself a pen name that literally translated to “Italian Swabian,” reflecting his whereabouts on the border of Italy and the former southwestern Germany region of Swabia.
Svevo self-published a novel, Confessions of Zeno, that would have gone unnoticed, were it not for the persistence of Svevo’s mentor, James Joyce. And the book was influential enough that the people of Trieste honored its late author by establishing a life-sized tribute to him in the Piazza Hortis, where he used to take his daily strolls. It sits not on a dais but on flat ground, and “life-sized,” in this instance, is (and this is what I love about the Svevo statue) an unimposing 5-foot-6 or so.
While in Trieste a couple summers ago, we took a picture of my equally vertically challenged dad next to the statue and the plaque that bears the most famous line from that novel:
“Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!”
Here in Cleveland — specifically at Progressive nee Jacobs Field — we’re getting a new statue this weekend. It is statue of Jim Thome that, in true American form, is bigger than life. It will stand above us mere mortals, and it will showcase the Thome pose we know so well — the one where he points his booming bat in the direction of the pitcher, a la Roy Hobbs, while digging in and looking to launch one of his 612 career home runs.
This statue — symbolic, significant, persistent and permanent — is either a point of pride or a point of controversy, depending on who you ask.
Some people around here are outraged that a defector is being cast in bronze, forever hailed. They still can’t get over a guy claiming, “They’ll have to rip this jersey off of me” and then leaving for Philadelphia financial freedom.
More people, I would assume, have long ago forgiven Thome for leaving the Indians in the winter after the 2002 season, understanding the game’s economics and the Indians’ changing competitive state at the time he made his move. Thome mended many mental fences when came back briefly at the end of 2011, hit a movie-made home run on Jim Thome Appreciation Night and was largely well-received. To them, the statue sits just fine.
Then there is a third group — a group of which, I must say, I am a member.
This group recognizes that you can hold nothing against Thome the Man and still be conflicted about Thome the Statue. Because while Thome might, indeed, be the perfect subject to celebrate a unique (and this is one of the few instances in which the word “unique” is being applied appropriately) era of Indians baseball, I’m not sure the specific statue they’ve selected adequately addresses it.
Now, let’s expound upon that subject of celebration, first and foremost. Because within the chorus of complaints about the Thome statue, there is a small but vocal segment of the fan base that would prefer Larry Doby, the AL’s first black player, be immortalized before Thome.
In the grand scope of the Indians’ 114-season history, Doby is as good an option as any after Bob Feller, whose statue has rested outside Gate C ever since the Indians ended their long-term run as Municipal Stadium tenants and got a room of their own. Doby’s significance as the AL’s first black player does too often get lost in the grand shadow of Jackie Robinson. The Indians and the city of Cleveland renamed Eagle Avenue, the street that runs behind the left-field bleachers, “Larry Doby Way” two years ago… but, you know, that’s no statue.
This 114-season history, though, is not the target. The target is and ought to be Jacobs Field itself. What it meant to these people. What it meant to this city. What it meant to a long-suffering franchise. The impacts, both economic and emotional, that the ballpark had on Northeast Ohio in the mid-1990s cannot be overstated, and the 20th anniversary season serves as an appropriate time for some sort of salute steeped in relative modernity.
The Indians had long thought Thome to be a suitable point of emphasis. When they tried to woo him in that aforementioned winter of ’02, they could no longer sell themselves as the AL Central standard-bearers (his contract alone would have made it tough to maintain a consistent winner) but they could sell him on the allure of legacy. They promised him a statue. They harped on the benefits of continuity, of representing something bigger than yourself, of forever being remembered as the face of a franchise. These were things Feller himself capitalized on from the day he hung ‘em up in 1956 until the day he died in 2010, and Feller could attest that, yes, there was, indeed, monetary value in this association. It wasn’t nearly enough to bridge the financial gap between the Indians’ $62 million offer to Thome and Philadelphia’s $87 million guarantee, but it was real (LeBron James, who I’m sure will have a statue of his own here someday, will discover this, too).
I think, in an honest moment, Thome would tell you that he wishes he would have stayed, but that’s only easy to state in the retrospect of a career that never again reached the World Series stage after he left Cleveland. And by 2011, when the Indians did bring him back as August waiver wire fodder, Mark Shapiro was already waxing poetic about the value of 12 mostly standout seasons in an Indians uniform in today’s transient times. Certainly, it’s easy to understand the significance of being the franchise home run king and a homegrown product who, much like Feller, arrived like a gift from the Midwest corn fields and turned his country strength into Cooperstown-worthy production. Over time, the free-agent defection simply ceased to be all that big a deal to the Indians’ higher-ups.
So Thome gets his statue, after all. He didn’t ask for it, and he even admits he’s a little “uncomfortable” and a little embarrassed by it. This is not a surprising utterance out of the mouth of Jim Thome, whose humility and good nature are as worthy of celebration as his stats.
But here’s the problem with the Thome statue: It honors Thome and Thome alone.
I know that sounds ludicrous, because that is, unmistakably, the goal of most statues, isn’t it? But I think the Indians could have honored both the man and his time in a way that satisfies all sides.
Think about those teams, those runs to five straight AL Central titles (with a sixth title tacked on in ’01) and, most meaningfully, two AL pennants in ’95 and ’97. What is the first memory that comes to mind?
I’d venture to guess I could poll 10 of you and get 10 different answers.
Maybe it’s Tony Pena’s late-night homer heroics in Game 1 of the ’95 ALDS, or Albert Belle pointing to his bicep that same night. Maybe it’s Belle’s grand slam off Lee Smith. Maybe it’s Sandy Alomar going deep off Mariano Rivera in the ’97 ALDS. Maybe it’s Game 3 of the ’97 ALCS, Omar Vizquel botching a suicide squeeze and Marquis Grissom streaking home with the winning run on the passed ball. Maybe it’s Wayne Kirby’s game-winning hit in the ballpark’s opener. Or maybe it’s just the sight of those stands, filled night after night after night after night for 455 freaking games.
Hey, maybe you’re masochistic, and your first memory is the generous strike zone afforded the Braves in the ’95 Series or David Justice’s clinching Game 6 home run or — gulp — Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.
Actually, what am I saying? This is Cleveland. Of course, your first memory is Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.
But that’s not the point. The point is that there were too many magical moments, too many crazy characters, too many flowing emotions associated with those teams to narrow it all down to a single person.
I think that’s the issue with the Thome statue. You can’t look at Jim Thome’s pointed bat and see Omar’s golden glove or Albert’s menacing glare or Kenny Lofton’s swift feet. It doesn’t evoke memories of Carlos Baerga’s “Hello, Cleveland!” commercials or Manny Ramirez’s “Baby Bull” salad days or Alomar’s All-Star Game awesomeness. You don’t look at it and remember what Dick Jacobs and John Hart built and what Mike Hargrove tended. It doesn’t point the mind to a time when established stars like Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez actually wanted to be here, when Cleveland was an honest-to-goodness baseball destination.
You just see Thome. And I’m sure, to some, that’s acceptable.
But I’m probably in the minority of people whose most immediate memory of Thome has nothing to do with one of his mammoth taters. It has to do, oddly, with one of this defensive plays.
It is that pop-up off the bat of Jeff Huson, sailing high into the sky on Sept. 8, 1995, landing safely in Thome’s glove near third base and igniting a party that had not been seen in these parts for 41 years:
Yes, the moment was inevitable, because that ’95 club ran away with the Central in the strike-shortened season. But as Tom Hamilton (who uttered the great call, “And the season of dreams has become a reality”) told me recently, “It was almost like a city didn’t believe it was going to happen until it actually happened.” There were hugs and tears and wild shouts of unhindered ecstasy. There was, in the immediate aftermath, an airing of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” as a fitting tribute to Steve Olin and a reminder of how far this team, this family, had come in the wake of those awful Spring Training deaths of ’93. For hours after that out, you could hear the sound of blaring car horns in the parking lot and the city streets – a practice that would be repeated many times in October days ahead.
You could have made a statue out of that moment. Thome, left arm raised, ball in glove, triumphant. The productive product of a potent farm system completing the out a town had been thirsting for in the ballpark that, really, made it all possible.
Heck, you could even make it like the Italo Svevo statue and put it on flat ground, a reminder that the moment belonged to everybody in the building and in the city that supported it.
That, to me, would have been the more satisfying statue. It would have been a better representation of an era unlike any other around here. Those Indians teams didn’t win a championship, but they did stir something in people’s souls, and that out was the breakthrough — the moment when the travails of the past were forgiven and the door to the future sprung open.
It was neither ugly nor beautiful, but it was original.