DETROIT: Jim Thome’s 600th career home run caused little more than a ripple in the vast sea of sports information emanating from our major media outlets.
The next day in Cleveland, Thome’s deed became a topic on radio talk shows. Not so much because of the rarity of the achievement — eight players have hit 600 homers, only five without the help of steroids — but because he left the Indians as a free agent when the Philadelphia Phillies paid him more in 2002.
Naturally, that sort of bizarre decision called for a thumbs up or thumbs down referendum on Thome’s character by talk-show callers, emailers tweeters and bloggers.
Only in the distorted world of diehard fandom is it a sin to leave town because an employer elsewhere is willing to give an employee a raise. If two Tribe partisans sitting on bar stools ripping Thome were offered five grand apiece more to do whatever they do in Youngstown or Pittsburgh or Gary, Ind., they would be packed and on the road in a matter of hours.
But if an athlete signs a contract for millions of dollars more to play for a team other than the Indians, he is exhibiting the worst kind of greed and avarice.
My recollection is that the Tribe’s offer to Thome fell short of Philadelphia’s by $25 million, though some Tribe officials recall it being less. Regardless, who leaves $25 million or even $10 million on the table? They lock you up in a padded cell and throw the key away if you do that.
One argument raised on the radio was that no matter how much more Thome was offered by the Phillies, he promised to stay in Cleveland, and he had a responsibility to keep his word. Never happened.
I was in the home clubhouse at Jacobs Field every day of the season preceding Thome’s free agency. The question was asked of him repeatedly (more than repeatedly, whatever that is). He always gave the same answer. Every single time without exception.
He resolutely maintained that his desire was to finish his career with the Indians, but his continued presence in Cleveland would depend on whether he “could get a deal done.” I never heard him say anything to the contrary. He wisely refused to express the kind of blind loyalty that would keep him from leaving to accept a more lucrative contract. Nobody else would do that; why would Thome?
Was he just mouthing empty words when he said he preferred to stay with the Indians? I don’t think so.
After Thome agreed to play for the Phillies, his wife, Andrea, emailed the three beat writers who covered the team both at home and on the road: Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer, Jim Ingraham of the Lake County News-Herald and me.
She invited each of us to do one-on-one interviews with Thome at their house in Aurora. My session lasted about an hour, then we talked for a while off the record, having known each other since Thome was in the minor leagues.
When I was about to leave, he asked a question: “Do you think I could come back to the Indians in a few years?”
I told him he couldn’t worry about what might happen down the road; he worked for the Phillies now. But it was clear that Thome was conflicted about leaving; that his devotion and allegiance were to the Indians.
That was nine years ago. Since then, Thome has played for four teams, and he no longer makes his permanent residence in Northeast Ohio.
Thome has made about $140 million playing baseball, and he has earned every dollar. He never shortchanged the Indians, the Phillies, the Chicago White Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Minnesota Twins. His good character remains intact, as it was before he left Cleveland.
Is Thome still an Indian in his soul? We’ll find out when he is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Until then, all you folks still holding a grudge would do well to lighten up or at least find a fresh target for your wrath.
Too much red
It’s still hard to get used to the red caps the Indians wear on weekends, even though it’s almost five months into the season.
I have nothing against the color red or scarlet baseball hats, but they don’t belong on a player who represents Cleveland. They are as jarring to me as if the New York Yankees ran on the field wearing orange caps and yellow shoes.
Is there anything intrinsically wrong with that? No, but it’s really wrong, a corruption of the ideal that the team is attempting to portray. Nobody would dare stain the Yankee image by making the players wear anything but navy blue pinstripes at home and gray uniforms on the road.
The Indians don’t have the mystique of the Bronx Bombers because they haven’t been as successful (It has nothing to do with market size; think Green Bay Packers). Nevertheless, there is something unseemly about turning the Tribe’s official uniform into an adjunct of the marketing department.
This is a franchise that has been around for more than 100 years, one of the original four members of the American League. Obviously, uniforms have changed since then, but the color scheme of the team from Cleveland has been basic blue with red trim for decades.
That should count for something. Let the Cincinnati Reds, the Phillies and the Washington Nationals wear red caps. That’s who they are. If the marketing people want to sell red caps in the Indians Team Shops, fine with me. They sell a myriad of caps already, most of which the players don’t actually wear.
So why make red caps a part of the uniform? Because that legitimizes them as official and more fans will purchase them. It might work, but isn’t a team with a consistent tradition more marketable in the long run than a franchise that panders to the latest fads and fashion, changing its stripes every couple of years?
Too much information
I actually keep track of how many fly-ball and line-drive outs are hit deep to the outfield (two steps from the track) or onto the track. Also, how many of them would have been extra-base hits if the defender had not made a spectacular catch.
I’m not sure this tells anything important about hitters, but here are the numbers and games played through Thursday for the five Indians who are supposed to hit them long and hard.
Travis Hafner: four in 79 games
Shin-Soo Choo: 10 in 77 games (robbed of two hits)
Carlos Santana: 11 in 115 games (robbed of two hits)
Matt LaPorta: 12 in 88 games (robbed of two hits)
Asdrubal Cabrera: 13 in 119 games.