A Storybook Ending

Today Jim Thome takes his well-deserved place among baseball’s immortals, and most appropriately, his plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame will feature him as a Cleveland Indian.

If you follow the Cleveland sports media, or sports media in general, you’ll by this time have read, heard, or seen just about every one of Thome’s career highlights and retrospectives, so I don’t want to duplicate those. Although I will recommend, if you missed it the first time, Jason Lukehart’s Top 100 Indians profile on Thome, as it captures his professional and personal greatness (the two are intertwined) in an understated way, the profile a reflection of the player and person.

Instead I’m going to indulge into some personal history regarding a rather painful time as an Indians fan. For there to be a storybook ending, there has to be a story, and a story without a conflict just isn’t a story.

Let’s go back to the winter of 2002. I was away at college, but baseball and particularly Jim Thome had as much of a hold on me as well as any of my courses, as this was the winter of his free agency. It was a rather protracted negotiation, which led to no small number of rumors, speculation, and an increasingly drawing out of emotions. After all, not only was Thome one of the best players in team history (he had just clinched the franchise home run record that season), but represented the last chance for the Indians to actually keep one of their homegrown stars for life.

By this time the rebuilding had begun, so I was under no allusion that keeping Thome would suddenly vault the team back into contention, but at least there would be some piece of those past teams that would carry forward, some continuity between the great teams of the 90s and the hopefully the next great team. I’d seen Albert Belle leave after 1996 and Manny Ramirez after 2000, and now hoped that this time, this player would decide to stay for good. Thome, unlike Belle or Ramirez, had signed a extension that kept him in Cleveland past his initial free agent year, but even so, hadn’t yet been a free agent. Now the large market teams were circling, ready to pick off the last of the homegrown stars.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when the news came down that Thome had signed with the Phillies. I had spent the last several days furiously refreshing the various sports news sites between classes, arguing on the ESPN Indians board at night with various characters about whether ownership would pony up the money to at least get close to what the Phillies had been offering. I distinctly remember that the Indians’ final offer included a statue, as though they hoped that immortality, that most tantalizing of intangibles, could somehow offset what we later learned to be a most tangible difference in salary. I also remember not believing the news at first, having read and heard many false stories masquerading as truth over the previous month. But as the confirmations came from other, more trustworthy sources, slowly, then quickly, stark reality hit. I closed the browser before the inevitable trolls would make the news hurt any worse.

Over 15 years later, it’s clear that nobody was the villain in this story. Thome clearly had wanted to stay, and the Indians tried to keep him. But the talk all during that long, dark winter was who was at fault more: Indians owner Larry Dolan, or Jim Thome. It got rather heated, to say the least. The ESPN board archives aren’t available any more, and I don’t remember every argument that I made back then, but I do know that I was more willing to believe that the offers were closer than they ultimately were, and therefore, blamed Thome more. I blamed Thome quite a bit, in many different ways. Rationality in this issue had been shoved way out of the picture, and wouldn’t return for quite a while. I think this was the case for a lot of Cleveland fans.

Meanwhile Thome handled the signing and its emotional baggage as well as he possibly could. Initially it helped that he was in the National League, and so wouldn’t face the Indians very often. But in a cruel twist of fate he would be traded back to the American League in 2006, and to a team in the AL Central. And not only that, it was to the Chicago White Sox, the year after they had won the World Series. The White Sox, whose manager (Ozzie Guillen) had given a choke signal at Jacobs Field at the end of the 2005 season. And Thome was still a great player, capable of making a difference in the division race. Needless to say, the cards were stacked against the fans of Cleveland giving Thome any sort of appreciation for all the years he’d spent captivating them as an Indian. I note all this to prepare you for the next paragraph.

By this time I was running Let’s Go Tribe, and so was spending even more time poring over the various reactions and commentary from the media on the Indians. The usual national media response to the chorus of boos Thome received while in Cleveland was indignation. “How could those fans boo a player who was so great for so long?” was a typical formulation you’d see in print, online, or on TV or radio. Indignation always makes for great audience engagement, so any time Thome appeared in Cleveland from then on (and because he was a member of the White Sox, it was quite often), that formulation became de rigueur and I became used to responding to it. But at the heart of that moral preening was a compelling argument: that Tribe fans were letting their emotions overwhelm them and holding a grudge that should have long faded away. As the years went by, and as the rawness of the events of 2002 faded, this became more and more apparent. I also understood where that emotion was coming from, because I had felt it as well (heck, still felt it somewhat), and you can’t just ignore that without being deeply dishonest with yourself.

I dredge up all these memories, the worst memories I could possibly have of Thome’s great career, for a reason. It makes today’s ceremony all the more poignant to me. Throughout the years of acrimony, of boos and other unpleasant banter, Thome handled it all with grace and magnanimity. And so, when the opportunity arose to bring him back in 2011, the ground had long been prepared for Indians fans to finally reciprocate that goodwill. Unpleasant history shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should a Hall of Fame career be overshadowed by it. So in the twilight of his career, Jim Thome returned to Cleveland, and it was as if he had never left. The statue that had been promised back in 2002 as a condition was now given freely. The adulation withheld over the years was returned all at once. And it was not just because Thome was in an Indians uniform. The following year, Thome returned to Cleveland as a Baltimore Oriole, and was cheered just as loudly. There was no rebuilding that grudge now.

This story has its hero perform great feats, only to leave his home to jeers and curses by those who once adored him. But years later, the hero returns home, and the memories of those past glories softens the hearts of all, and once more they count him as one of their own.

And so he will be today in Cooperstown.