Ah, what a tangled web we weave. The Cleveland Indians first base situation has been about as diluted as the nation’s quest for a health plan. How diluted? Well, if you can make it through the Earl Snyder, Jeff Liefer or Lou Merloni eras, you end up with two of the top three dogs at the position being Ben Broussard (380 games) and Ryan Garko (334 games). Both had their moments with the Tribe, but neither set the world on fire.
The All-Aught Indians first baseman is Jim Thome.
Jim Thome was Victor Martinez, before Victor Martinez ever wore the Tribe jersey. He was the Indian that bled team colors, and more than anything else, wanted that World Series ring. I remember listening to Thome interviews prior to every season after 1995, and they all revolved around doing what he could to bring a championship to Cleveland. I know, all players say that, but when Thome said it, you could see the fire burning in his eyes.
When Thome left after the 2002 season, it set off a wave of anger unlike anything I’ve ever seen. More than Albert Belle, and more than Manny Ramirez. Jim Thome’s departure left several fans angry and bitter. Why? People cared about Paul Bunyan-esque first baseman. Fans wanted Thome to retire an Indian, with a belief that as long as Thome toiled at the Jake, there was a chance for something big to happen.
We all know the story. Jim Thome said he would stay in Cleveland. Thome said he wanted to stay with the Indians for the rest of his career. Thome eventually signed a mega-deal with the Phillies that left Tribe fans in disbelief. More on that in a bit. Whether you sided with the Indians management, or sided with Thome, chances are pretty good you were just plain upset to see the heart and soul of the Indians’ teams of the 90’s leave the north coast after, arguably, his three finest years as a player. There were good reasons to be upset.
The Indians entered the new decade in 2000 still at the top of their game. Having acquired Roberto Alomar, the Indians seemed ready to make another run at the World Series. Thome was more than just a big part of that potential. Thome had 196 homers prior to 2000, and had four straight seasons of 38, 40, 30 and 33 jacks. Thome and Manny Ramirez were battling neck and neck for the rights to the All-Time Indians’ home run record, and made up two of the biggest sluggers in baseball. Thome was the epitome of a power hitter. His at-bats tended to end in either a home run, a strike out or a walk. He was a free swinger in many respects, but he did have an eye at the plate, and would wait for his pitch to hack at. He was entering his prime in 2000, and he didn’t disappoint.
Thome rolled out 71 extra base hits in 2000, 37 homers, 33 doubles and a triple, while batting .269. He had 106 runs and 106 RBI, to go with a .398 OBP, a .531 slugging %, and a .929 OPS. The Indians would stutter out of the gate, but would come on strong in 2000, with Thome leading the way. Unfortunately, the Indians hopes were dashed on the final day of the season. They won 90 games, but lost out on a chance in the playoffs by a game to Oakland. Thome was just getting started though. His 2000 year would be his worst as an Indian in the new decade. Yeah, it got that much better.
Thome’s statistics improved across the board in 2001. He once again had 100+ runs with 101, and upped his RBI total to 124. Thome led the league in 2001 with 185 (his personal worst), but offset that with 111 walks. His .291/.416/.624 and 1.040 OPS helped lead the Indians into the playoffs once again. The Indians would lose a tough series to the Seattle Mariners in five games, and Thome’s struggles may have kept the Indians from an upset. He came back in 2002 with a vengeance. Unfortunately, the dismantling of the Tribe had commenced.
Thome had his personal best season in 2002. In 147 games, his numbers across the board were either personal bests or top five in the league. Again, all numbers were improved, including another stat line that reads like Babe Ruth with .304/.445/.677/1.122, with 122 walks, 52 homers, 118 RBI and 101 runs. Cleveland’s management had to cringe, because Thome was entering a contract year, and Cleveland fans were screaming for Mark Shapiro to sign the last remnant of the great 90’s teams. Shapiro had just dealt away Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Paul Shuey during the trade deadline, and had allowed Chuck Nagy to leave via free agency. Thome wanted to come back, but would the Indians ante up?
Look at the Aught Numbers: 461 games, 1,563 at bats, 308 runs, 449 hits, a .283 average, 78 doubles, 138 homers, 348 RBI, 351 walks, a .419 OBP, a .605 slugging % for a whopping 1.024 OPS. Thome never finished above 7th in MVP voting from 2000-2002, but you can see that his numbers were more than deserving. The Indians would have to ante up to re-sign their slugger.
Enter the controversy. Thome was a 32-year-old slugger, who was looking for a six-year deal. The Indians were a team rebuilding (yeah, I just gagged a bit in my mouth too), and had a history of not signing their top-flight free agents. Thome seemed different though. “Home town discount” was bantered around, and Thome wanted to “retire and Indian.”
Enter Chris Antonetti, Mark Shapiro and the wonderful world of numbers. Antonetti’s homework showed that players over the age of 35 just don’t match their pre-35 numbers. Bonds was the only player to do it, and he obviously had a bit of help. Shapiro wanted a four-year deal for Thome, would be okay with a five-year deal, and wouldn’t go for a six-year deal. Thome wanted the sixth year, and it was non-negotiable. The Indians deal was based totally on the numbers. It was guaranteed for five years worth $63 million with a couple of zany perks that got it there. There was a sixth-year guarantee of $2 million, that would jack up to $12 million if he were a top vote-getter in the MVP vote. Of course, Thome finished 7th with the incredible numbers of 2002. Thome walked, to a six-year deal worth $87.5 million.
It really doesn’t matter which side of the coin you fall on, gone was the Indians greatest slugger, not so much to argue there, of all time. The Indians Thomenator, the Paul Bunyan of a first baseman that played the game in an old-school style, was heading to Philly. Would signing Thome have been a mistake? The Indians have reached the playoffs exactly once since 2001, and the fans have never really returned to the gates the way they did during Thome’s heydey. After the debacle of letting him go, the fans stopped trusting management, and the players as well.
No, Thome has never met the great numbers of 2002, but he certainly maintained solid numbers since. Other than an injury-plagued 2005 season in which he only played in 59 games, Thome never had less than 34 homers or 90 RBI. Would he have been worth $12 million in the last year of his deal in 2008? Travis Hafner made $8 million in ’08, and played in less than 60 games. He made $11 million in 2009, and played in less than 100 games. I’m not bashing Hafner, he DID take a paycut to stay in Cleveland, and didn’t pan out with the deal. Thome would have outperformed him, and the numbers said he wouldn’t.
Regardless, Jim Thome was a special ballplayer. He was born in the midwest, and wanted everything that the fans wanted…to bring a title to Cleveland. Thome didn’t have a swagger, but he would lumber up to the plate like a man wielding a bat twice as heavy as he was, and struck fear into pitchers. He never left anything at the plate, and his swing would rock the entire stadium, even if he didn’t launch one of his trademark, tape-measure shots. When the Indians went with their numbers, his great run wearing the blue and red of the Indians ended, but not before Thome launched the new decade with the best numbers a Tribe first baseman had ever seen before, or since. Sorry Jose Hernandez, you just weren’t the same.
Here’s to Jim Thome, the Tribe’s All-Aught First Baseman.
The Two Thousand, Aught First Basemen:Jim Thome, Richie Sexson, David Segui, Will Cordero, Lee Stevens, Earl Snyder, Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Casey Blake, Shane Spencer, Lou Merloni, Josh Phelps, Jose Hernandez, Jeff Liefer, Ryan Garko, Eduardo Perez, Victor Martinez, Chris Gomez, Michael Aubrey, Andy Gonzalez, Andy Marte, Matt LaPorta, Chris Gimenez, Mark DeRosa, Niuman Romero