The Chicago White Sox are in town to kick off the Indians 2008 season. Jim Thome is along for the ride as the White Sox DH and is back in the park that launched his likely Hall of Fame career. And speaking of launched, Thome celebrated his 2008 return to Cleveland by hitting two home runs on Opening Day against Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia.
What’s most interesting about Thome’s return is the emotions it elicits from Indians fans. To say there is a divide between Tribe fans regarding Thome and his decision to leave the Indians for Philadelphia after the 2002 season is to put it mildly.
There’s an equal split of fan reactions when Thome’s name is announced and he steps to the plate. Half of the fans boo lustily and the other half cheer wildly for the big left-handed hitter from Peoria, Illinois with 509 career home runs.
Personally, I’m ambivalent to his every plate and Cleveland appearance.
Those that despise Thome point to his assertions during his time in Cleveland that he loved the fans of Cleveland, loved the city of Cleveland and that he was adamant about finishing his career in the city where it all started for him in 1991. That was right before he left for Philadelphia for a 6 year, $85million deal with Philadelphia.
Those that cheer Thome do so in part because of his likeable, good-natured makeup and in larger part for his production as an Indian during the Tribe’s glory years of the mid to late ‘90’s. Thome belted 334 HRs as an Indian, many of them tape measure bombs, and he hit 17 more of them in the postseason for the Tribe.
The haters point to the betrayal they feel in Thome turning out to be like every other ballplayer who pays lip service to the hometown team but ultimately takes the bigger payday and then justifies doing so by pointing to financial security and leaving for a better opportunity to win.
And here’s where I have an issue with the haters. Thome didn’t lie about either of those things.
After the 2002 season, a season in which Thome hit .304 with 52 HRs and 118 RBI for an Indians club that finished the season 14 games under .500, the Indians and Thome were at a crossroads. The Tribe was about to enter a full-blown rebuilding period and Thome’s value was never higher. Not only did Thome hit the 52 HRs and drive in 118 runs but his OPS was a career high 1.122 and his slugging percentage was a league high .677.
In short, Thome was in line for and deserving of money and contract years the Indians couldn’t and wouldn’t offer and that Philadelphia did.
The haters will point to the fact that the Indians offer of 5 years and $60million-plus in cash would have made Thome a very wealthy man. There’s no question about that. But the Phillies were willing to add a 6th year to the deal and another $15m or so in cash. That was important to a player with a balky back who wasn’t sure if his career would extend beyond that deal.
Thome tearfully announced his signing with Philadelphia and uttered the now infamous “My wife is my rock” quote that lives in infamy with his most vocal Cleveland critics.
You can argue that Thome should have just shut up, taken his piles of cash and gone off to Philadelphia. You can argue he erred by repeatedly stating his love for the city of Cleveland and his desire to remain here at all costs. But you can’t argue that Thome betrayed anybody here in Cleveland by taking the additional year and the additional cash and heading off to the City of Brotherly Love. Stating he would have been a wealthy man who set himself and his family up for life by accepting the Indian’s offer is ludicrous when you consider the money we’re talking about. While one year and approximately $15m is relatively pedestrian for baseball these days that is still life changing money. It’s enough money to set up future generations of Thomes for lifetimes to come. It would be irresponsible to leave that kind of money on the table.
Who amongst us, despite our love of Cleveland and despite our love of friends and family we have here, would not grab the pen and sign that deal? If you say you would have forsaken the cash and the extra year of security and benefits then one would have to question your priorities and your intelligence.
And that brings us back to the vitriol and venom that many display to Thome when he comes back to Cleveland. No one renounces your right to boo an opposing player. No one says you have to be pleased to see an icon of the ‘glory days’ return to Cleveland in someone else’s uniform. The reception is completely understandable in that regard. If you’re booing Thome for that reason then God bless and have a ball. But if you’re booing because Thome said one thing and turned around and did the opposite then your feelings are misplaced.
This is 2008 but it’s no different today than it was in 2002 or in 1996 when Albert Belle took the last dollar and left Cleveland for Chicago. Thome is no different than hundreds of other ballplayers who earn the right to determine where and for how much they are going to ply their trade. Thome is no different from hundreds of other ballplayers who pay lip service to the fans of the city they are about to forsake by leaving for millions of dollars more.
The difference between Thome and Belle or Thome and Manny Ramirez, who fled Cleveland for Boston after the 2000 season, is that you were gullible enough to believe what he had to say. Whether that speaks more to Thome’s honor and credibility or our naiveté as fans is debatable. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s more than likely a duck. And Thome is a ballplayer first and foremost. Ballplayers always take the money. It’s similar to the old joke about lawyers in that you can tell they are lying by the fact they are speaking.
The fact that we believed Thome’s pabulum about staying and playing out the rest of his career in Cleveland says more about us as naïve fans than it does about Thome’s insincerity. If their lips are moving and they’re talking about staying they are lying. Keep that in mind. It’s going to be a theme repeated time and time again and it won’t take long for the next big, left-handed example to arrive. Those of us who put Thome’s departure into that perspective aren’t bothered by the fact that he or any other player leaves. We expect it from the time a player arrives here in Cleveland.