Jim Thome slipped in a couple surprises in on the day his statue was unveiled at Progressive Field – as if the exciting day needed any more fanfare.
After pulling off the red drape that covered the towering statue, Thome stood a few feet away from his likeness posed with his trademark raised bat pointed out to center field pose and announced he was signing a one-day honorary contract with the Indians “so that I could retire as a Indian and make my dream come true.”
A half hour later in a pressroom in the bowels of Progressive Field, Thome took a few questions from the media, starting with the one many were thinking: “You didn’t want to negotiate one last at-bat, too?”
“That’d be fun,” Thome said. “I’m always ready for one more at-bat. But you know, the timing was right. I’d thought a lot about this. The hardest thing is to pick a time when you’re ready to walk away. When I did not retire, it’s because I did not know.”
Sometimes Thome said he’d feel fine. Other days, “back issues would pop up”. But after getting to spend so much time around his wife and two children – he finally knew it was time. And with the statue unveiling, he felt it was the best time to announce the news.
“(Now), the timing is right,” Thome said. “I’m very comfortable being home with my family.”
Before the presser ended, there was an important guest sitting in the back who asked for the microphone.
“Jim, I don’t have a question, but I’d like to make an observation,” he said. “I noticed today you look really good in bronze. You look particularly good with that Indians helmet on top of your head. In a few years, you’re going to be in a bronzed cast. And you’d look good with an Indians cap atop your head.”
The guest was Indians owner and CEO Paul Dolan. And he had just put Thome on the spot by asking which hat the slugger, with 612 home runs to his name, planned to wear when the inevitable day comes that he’s inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Thome smiled, then said: “I agree 100 percent. I think that’s why all this happened to day, why I choose today to retire (as) an Indian…I hope in a couple more years here, we can celebrate a little more.”
But there was one final surprise to come with Thome before the night’s game between the Indians and visiting Texas Rangers got underway.
After sitting in the audience during the statue unveiling and listening to short speeches by Thome, former Indians manager Mike Hargrove and former Tribe interim manager and longtime Thome mentor and friend Charlie Manual, Indians designated hitter Jason Giambi felt compelled to contribute what he could to Thome’s special day.
So Giambi offered his No. 25 jersey to the man who wore it for 12 of his 22-year career in Cleveland.
“I kind of threw it out to the universe, because I’d thought about (what to do to honor Thome)," Giambi said. "Anytime you erect a statue for someone, it’s something pretty special – not only on the field, but off the field – what he meant to this organization. I don’t think you could say enough about Jim Thome.”
After putting on the familiar jersey, Thome took the mound and threw out the first pitch – to his first roommate, catcher Sandy Alomar. After wards, the two men met between the mound and plate and the emotional Thome gave his former teammate a big bear hug, lifting Alomar off the ground briefly in the process.
Thome spent a lot of time with the man who crafted Thome’s likeness - Lakewood artist David Deming. Still, Thome was surprised by the attention to detail by Deming.
“I love it, I absolutely love it,” Thome said. “I love (it) pointing the bat, I love how they wrapped the bat with my tape, I think there’s pine tar on the helmet – it’s got all the unique things that I liked when I played. Even the socks were up. It’s for sure bigger than me, but it’s pretty cool.”
Initially, Thome wasn’t too keen on the idea of the Indians building him a statue. As pointed out by those who spoke so highly of Thome in his introduction, he has always been a humble man.
“I don’t think anybody can be comfortable getting a statue,” Thome said. “I mean that respectfully. You play the game as a kid. You progress, you go to high school, you get drafted. You go through the minor leagues. Nobody ever brings up (the idea) of a statue. I certainly didn’t. It’s humbling and it’s honoring.”
And some 50 years from now, when then next couple generations of fans walk by his statue in Heritage Park beyond the centerfield wall, Thome said he hopes they remember him as not only for his contributions to the historic 1990’s teams he was a part of as much as for his character off the field.
“When you leave the game, that’s all you got,” Thome said. “They’ll remember a few home runs, but I’ll tell you this, they’ll remember the man. I was blessed and fortunate to be around wonderful people in this organization that taught us how to act and how to be that man. We had so many good people in this organization that cared about you and wanted you to be good. But ultimately, to be a good man.”
In addition to the statue, the Indians also placed a marker in center field to commemorate the spot where one of his franchise-history best 337 home runs landed July 3, 1999 - Thome’s 511-foot shot, the longest home run in the history of the ballpark.