Mark Duncan, Associated Press
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 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 6-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.
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