CLEVELAND (AP) — Older, wiser, still humble and hungry to win a World Series, Jim Thome returned to a place he never imagined leaving.
And as he walked into Progressive Field, a ballpark known as The Jake when he played in Cleveland the first time, Thome was flooded with memories of former teammates, games and Octobers past.
Nine years later, he’s wearing an Indians jersey again.
“Baseball’s a weird thing,” Thome said. “Anything can happen.”
Cleveland’s home run king returned Friday to the Indians, the team that gave him his start and one that sorely needs him to lead them back into the AL Central race. Thome, one of eight players in history to hit 600 career homers, accepted a trade on Thursday by Minnesota to go back to the Indians.
Thome received a roaring ovation when he came up for the first time Friday. Holding “Welcome Thome” signs, fans were on their feet long before he walked to the plate. He took off his batting helmet, nodded in thanks and dug into the batter’s box. Perhaps wanting to crush a pitch from Kansas City Felipe Paulino, Thome hit a slow roller to the mound.
Thome said when the Twins approached him, there was no doubt he was Cleveland bound.
“You always think about one day returning, and when you’re given the opportunity, it was really a no-brainer,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m happy to be here.”
Cleveland seems equally thrilled.
As Thome was driven to a pregame news conference, riding on the back of a golf cart with Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, stadium ushers, vendors and workers applauded and cheered as he went by. Thome smiled and waved at everyone.
“Jimmy’s back,” yelled one. “It’s like he never left.”
His new teammates wore their pants with the legs pulled high, a tribute to Thome’s throwback style.
With designated hitter Travis Hafner on the disabled list and facing season-ending surgery, the Indians need a big bat in the middle of their injury-thinned lineup. They’re hoping Thome, who hit 12 homers and drove 40 runs in 71 games for the Twins, can help them close on the first-place Detroit Tigers, who lead Cleveland by 6 1-2 games.
“Jim had choices and he chose to come over here,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “A lot of it has to do with the love he has for this franchise and the Cleveland Indians.”
Thome spent his first 12 years with Cleveland before bolting as a free agent in 2002, when the Philadelphia Phillies gave him a six-year, $85 million contract. His decision to take more money elsewhere rankled some Indians fans who thought Thome, the likable lefty slugger from Illinois with the sweet swing, was the one guy who turn down the riches.
Albert Belle left. So did Manny Ramirez. Thome was different. They thought.
Looking back, Thome doesn’t regret his decision, but would take back some promises he may have made. Back then, he was quoted as saying the Indians jersey would have to be torn off his back for him to leave.
“You make decisions and you live by them,” he said. “Sometimes you look back and you may have said things that weren’t right. But you face it, you look forward, you look ahead. You look in the mirror and maybe you have been given a second chance to say you’re sorry. Maybe that’s why I’m sitting here.
“I would hope to say (to upset fans), maybe we can forget about the past and look ahead — and maybe win the division together and see what happens in October.”
Thome arrived at the ballpark at 2:30 p.m. and returned to a clubhouse that hasn’t changed much since his name plate was above one of the lockers. That’s when he was greeted by Sandy Alomar Jr., his former teammate and road roommate who now coaches first base for the Indians.
“Seeing him almost kind of eased things a little bit,” said Thome, who was batting fourth for Friday’s series opener against Kansas City.
Thome is being careful not to make this homecoming personal. He’s always been a team-first player, and while he may not be as productive as he once was, Thome, who turns 41 on Saturday, just wants to be one of the guys.
“It’s a new era and you have to adapt to a new environment,” he said. “Hopefully I can do that and fit in with what these guys are doing. They don’t have to fit into what I’m doing. I haven’t gotten to that (retirement) point yet. I don’t look to next year or the following year. I’m here now and I just want to fit in with these guys.”
Thome would love to play every day, but knows that’s not possible. He’s been slowed by a lower back that’s bothered him for years, and Acta said he’ll be careful with how much he asks of Thome.
Thome isn’t thinking about how long he might play. There’s a chance these could be the final thirty-some games of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, but this isn’t the time to talk about retirement. Not with a division race still unsettled. Thome, who helped the Indians get to two World Series, has been impressed by Cleveland’s roster of young talent and wants to help them go as far as they can.
“They’ve done a great job all year long in getting to this point. I want to come in and be a piece. That’s my focus. It’s not about next year or the year after or when I’m going to retire. It’s not about me. It’s about trying to do what’s right right now, stay healthy and hopefully we can have some fun here the next month.”
Thome said it’s a bit strange to be with teammates who were in junior high when he was mashing homers the first time for the Indians. He’s the elder statesmen now.
While playing for the Phillies, Dodgers, White Sox and Twins, Thome always thought about a possible return to the Indians.
He just couldn’t believe it would ever come true.
“Baseball’s a weird game,” he said. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen. I’ve thought a lot about it. And trust me, there have been many times I’ve come in here as an opponent and looked up and things have come back to me about our teams in the `90s and all the good times our fans had and how they treated us as ex-players.
“I’m very, very glad to be back.”