As everyone is well aware, Jim Thome hit his 600th home run yesterday, giving him a nice even number for his career and making him only nine taters shy of passing Sammy Sosa for seventh on the all-time leader board. Thome's big day led to a number of discussions centered on the slugger's credentials for entrance into baseball's hall of fame. This all seems a bit like tilting at windmills to me—my instinct is that Thome will go into the hall of fame easily. Perhaps I'm naive, but it seems clear to me that he may not make it as a first ballot selection, since there's some odd thinking surrounding that distinction, but he'll be elected very soon after he becomes eligible. I hold this opinion on the basis of not only his remarkable numbers but also because he is extremely well liked by the press and, of course, the Baseball Writers Association of America is the voting body for the hall of fame.
Thome's skills aren't eroding with any alacrity, and he appears capable of playing as a part-time designated hitter for at least a few more seasons. The end is nigh, though. When Thome does finally retire he'll leave the game and, in short order, enter Cooperstown as the fourteenth member of the hall with a Cleveland cap on his plaque. That will make him the first new Cleveland entrant since 1998, when Larry Doby was elected by the Veterans Committee. Prior to Doby, Addie Joss and Joe Sewell were each Veterans selections in the late 70's; the last Cleveland player selected by the BBWAA was Bob Lemon, in 1976.
Thome left Cleveland under extremely acrimonious circumstances. In 2002, with the Indians run of dominance drawing to a close as a number of great players either left town or declined, the first baseman insisted that he wanted to remain an Indian for life and serve as a building block for Cleveland's next great team. Thome refused to waive a no-trade clause during that season, meaning the team could not move him for assets the way they did Bartolo Colon. This seemed like a reasonable enough move, because Thome was simultaneously asserting that the Cleveland jersey would have to be torn off his body. When the offseason came, however, Thome chose to walk to Philadelphia for more money, leaving the Indians with nothing in return for, arguably, their most valuable player.
Cleveland's judgment on Thome was obvious for years—you could hear it rain down in boo's each time he stepped to the plate inside of Jacobs Field. Over time, however, the boo's have become fewer and, as the linked above Livingston article shows, many have decided to re-embrace the big fellow. The prevailing Cleveland attitude towards Thome seems to be quickly morphing to one of warmth and appreciation.
It's difficult to know if this is simply another case of time healing all wounds or if it's linked to what I started this little exercise with—Thome's hall of fame candidacy. It seems increasingly clear that, at most, only two players from the mid-1990's Indians will enter Cooperstown as Indians in the coming years—Thome will make it easily and Vizquel has a chance to sneak in quietly. Perhaps Manny Ramirez will be inducted years from now once public opinion on performance enhancing drug use has changed but that hardly seems a slam dunk, nor would Ramirez certainly enter as an Indian, as opposed to a Red Sox player—his numbers with the two franchises are nearly identical.
And so, it's not obvious whether Cleveland fans are consciously choosing to re-board the Thome train just as it begins it's final trip towards upstate New York, or if the timing of his career has just led to a détente now, at the twilight of his career. Regardless, it's a process that was going to have to happen sooner rather than later—Thome is currently, and will likely remain for most of the rest of his life, the greatest living Indian. As a fan, it simply makes sense for the greatest living player from your franchise to be someone you actually, you know, like. Indians fans appear resolved to make that the case with Thome.
For my part, some confluence of events beyond my comprehension led to Thome never making much of an impression on me as a young fan. For many years, he occupied approximately equal billing in my mind with Matt Williams—I recognize that makes no sense. Going forward, yes, I think Thome disingenuously screwed the franchise and, yes, I hope he shows up in Goodyear every spring from 2020 to 2055, giving out hitting tips to toddlers. Onward and upward, Big Jim.