Thome honored by Indians, who plan statue for him

By Tom Withers

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Cleveland Indians' Jim Thome, left, looks on as team president Mark Shapiro, right, and former manager Mike Hargrove unveil a plaque honoring Thome's 600 home runs before a baseball game between the Indians and the Minnesota Twins, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011, in Cleveland.

Mark Duncan, Associated Press

CLEVELAND — All the memories, some fresh and some forgotten, have been chasing Jim Thome around this season — maybe his final season.

And as it nears the end, Thome knows his career may be ending, too.

"You can't play forever," he said.

On Friday night, Thome experienced another emotional moment in a season overflowing with them as the Cleveland Indians, the team that will always mean more to him than any of the others, honored the gentlemanly slugger before opening a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins.

During a touching pregame tribute, the Indians unveiled plans to erect a bronze statue of Thome, the team's career home run leader, in Heritage Park beyond the wall in center field. The pose is classic Thome, pointing his bat toward the pitcher. Thome was surprised and moved by the gesture.

After joining his teammates in the stands at Progressive Field for the Indians' 2011 team photo, Thome sat in the third base dugout and reminisced on his baseball journey, the one of the skinny third baseman with the sweet swing who became one of the greatest power hitters in major league history.

"I could have never imagined it," said Thome, one of eight players to hit more than 600 home runs. "How could you?"

The 41-year-old Thome could be down to the final days of a Hall of Fame worthy career that began as a 19-year-old in 1989, when the Indians drafted the Peoria, Ill., native in the first round. Thome hasn't decided if he'll retire and insists he's not leaning toward a return or giving up the game to be with his family.

He's being patient and practical. Thome's been around baseball long enough to know there's a limited market for designated hitters with balky backs who might not be able to play every day. Whether it's in a month or another year, Thome knows he's down to just a few more cuts.

Starting next week, he's got a lot to consider.

"You've got to get phone calls to play, that's number one," he said. "And then, we'll see. I don't want to give an answer right now because once I get home, I'll reflect back on how this year went and look and see. I feel very fortunate that I was able to stay healthy — pretty much. I was hurt a little bit here and there, but for the most part, it's been a very special year."

It began with him in Minnesota needing 11 homers to join baseball's ultra-exclusive 600-homer club, a group of eight he joined on Aug. 15 in Detroit. Ten days later, the Twins traded him to the Indians, who hoped his addition could help a young team turn an unexpected season into a special one.

That didn't happen. The Indians faded from contention and will end 2011 ahead of expectations but well back of Detroit in the AL Central.

However, the chance to come back helped Thome not only circle his career but bring closure to one of its roughest patches.

His decision to leave Cleveland as a free agent and sign with Philadelphia after the 2002 season changed his relationship with many Indians fans. They booed him as a visitor, and as hard as he tried to block out the negative noise, he couldn't change the perception that he had betrayed the team he helped get to two World Series.

Thome didn't know if he would ever be forgiven.

It took one at-bat for Cleveland to show him the hurt was gone.

As he came to the plate on Aug. 26 against Kansas City, Thome was greeted with a rousing standing ovation, a touching moment he ranked among his fondest.

"It's something I'll never forget," he told the crowd during Friday's pregame festivities.

Coming "home" gave Thome the chance to make amends, correct an error.

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