Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jim Thome, Indians fans, and hoping for a clean 600

Congratulations, Jim Thome.

That's the sentiment tonight from the baseball world, as Jim Thome finally hit his 600th home run, only one at bat after hitting his 599th. Fortunately, it came against the Tigers, and in a Twins win. So unless the Twins make a miraculous turnaround and overtake three teams in the division, Thome's home runs and anything else he contributes to the Twins have twice as much chance to help the Indians than to hurt them for the rest of the year.

Thome hits his 600th. Getty Images

I, for one, wouldn't mind him hitting a few more versus the Tigers this week.

The fawning of most commentators for Jim Thome is the kind of manual pleasure usually reserved for the likes of Yankees or Orioles shortstops. Terms like "blue collar worker", "great teammate", "cares about people", "best guy you're ever going to meet", "as genuine as they come," are all commonly heard in the effusive praise.

But not from everyone. Certainly some Clevelanders will never forgive Jimmy for how he left the Indians after the 2002 season. One particular rarely-seen contributor to this blog, I'm pretty sure, ranks Thome's defection only under Modell's and LeBron's in the Cleveland Hall of Free Agent Infamy, and above Carlos Boozer, Albert Belle, and miles above Manny Ramirez.

I gotta say, I was convinced Jim would sign with the Indians. I remember arguing the point in the Muni Lot before that week's Browns game, thinking there's no way, with what the Indians were offering (a statue in right field??), the adoration of the Indians, and his obvious affinity for Jacobs Field (I was there when he put that one 460 feet or whatever, which might be the longest home run in Jacobs Field history.) (Some would disagree.) But mostly, his words about his love for the Indians were what convinced me he would stay.

And it was those very words that turned many Tribe fans off from Thome for good. The bullshit he spewed about wanting to "challenge yourself" and "get a chance to win" was transparent and insulting. He goes to the Phillies--a team coming off a third place finish in 2002, and a team which hadn't had back-to-back winning seasons in decades? (For the record, he never played in a postseason game with Philadelphia. And the Indians made it within one game of the World Series when he was there.)

  And of course the "my wife is my rock" tears.

For me, when he left, I was in shock, but coming after the much more painful "new hurts" of Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez leaving, it just didn't have the same stomach punch feeling.  I think I may be in the minority, especially among fans who were really old enough to appreciate the mid-90s, and therefore feel truly betrayed.

So let me say "congratulations." I loved Jim Thome on the Indians, and not just when he started mashing. When he batted 7th or 8th in 1994 and 1995, with his red socks fully exposed, he became a perfect fit for Cleveland. For years in beer league softball I wore my socks high like Thome (and my #22 for Will Clark, but that's another story.) He hit well over half his home runs for the Indians, and will most likely go into Cooperstown wearing Chief Wahoo. (Or maybe a more tasteful C or something. Not something we've had to worry about for a while.)

Of course, 600 is as close to a lock for Cooperstown as you can get. Thome has been one of the strongest hitters in baseball for a long time, and voters know that. He's never been the best player in the league, with a shocking low 5 All-Star games, one Silver Slugger, and one top-5 MVP finish. And the era that Thome is in automatically garners a second glance.
Jim Thome, in a smaller uniform

In fairness, while few and far between, there have been quiet (and unfounded) whispers.) On Sportscenter Monday night, they alluded to the scourge of performance enhancing drugs in Thome's era, and how almost nobody can be without suspicion. (*required to say "besides Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Junior.) Tim Kurkjian, on the other hand, dismissed such talk out of hand, in print and on television.   "From all indications, Thome hit his 600 cleanly" and "without controversy" he opined on ESPN Monday night. He averaged over 45 homers a year from 2000 to 2004, behind only Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez. Somehow to Kurkjian, that is an argument that Thome is 100% innocent.

I have to admit--I hope Jim Thome never took PEDs.  And there has been no proof or credible charge that he has. Besides leaving the Indians as a free agent, he seems like a great guy, a clean player that baseball could use more of. But common sense would indicate some reasons for skepticism on the PED front. I have a great autographed picture from 1993 or 1994 of Jim Thome. Dude is maybe 180 lbs. Now he's listed at 250 and is more like 270. His head has grown like the rest of his body over the past 18 years. Some of the body growth can be expected for a guy with his frame, sure, but this isn't in a vacuum.
Getty Images

His home run totals jumped to Brady Anderson-esque numbers at about the same time as Sosa and Bonds. And while never a great third basemen, he became so bulky he had to move to first (and of course, later to DH.) I hope there are still guys out there who were clean. Especially guys who were on the 90s Indians. But that dream probably went out the window with Manny Ramirez, and let's just look at Jim Thome the same way we have to look at all players of his era.

On the other hand, he's never tested positive, that we know of.  This is the very defnition of "guilt by association." He has put up good numbers when testing has been in place, with four different teams over nine years. (See, should have stayed in Cleveland. My feelings aren't completely healed.) But let's not pretend there's not a chance. As Bill Simmon's called it recently (when referencing Nolan Ryan), it's America's new favorite game, "I wonder if they were cheating."