Friday, September 30, 2011

Going Down Swinging

Jim Thome sits in the Indians dugout at Comerica Park in Detroit, Monday night, September 26th. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

It wasn’t supposed to end like this … or maybe it was.

The Hollywood endings had already taken place earlier this season for Jim Thome, the affable slugger who spent most of his hall-of-fame career with the Cleveland Indians until he left as a free agent in 2002 for Philly, and then Chicago, a brief stint in Los Angeles, and then Minnesota, before finally returning home to Cleveland at the end of August to play what might be his last month of professional baseball.

Over the course of his nearly 20-years in Major League baseball, Thome has smashed 604 home runs, most of them the “no-doubter” type, becoming only the eighth player to hit more than 600 round-trippers in a career (and only the fifth who wasn’t linked to performance enhancing drugs). And of those 604 majestic dingers smashed out of ballparks nationwide by the humble native of Peoria, Illinois, none were more memorable than the two he launched into orbit on a beautiful August night in Detroit when he hit numbers 599 and 600.

It was a night I’ll never forget because I was there with my family, sitting six rows behind the Minnesota Twins dugout with tickets I scored from a friend at a charity golf scramble in June. At the time I got the tickets, I joked how cool it would be when Thome jacked his 600th homer that night. I never thought it would actually happen.

But it did happen. And it was magical.

Before we left for the game, my son decided it might be a good idea to make up a sign for Thome just in case the improbable actually happened. So he sat down at the kitchen table with a piece of poster board and a black marker, and proceeded to create a 24 x 36 inch “Thome is my Homie” masterpiece. The poster was so catchy, and our seats were in such a prime location, that by night’s end he and his sign not only made the Tiger’s live game broadcast three or four times, but he was on ESPN’s SportsCenter the next morning and his picture was splashed all over the internet. Of course none of that really mattered to us (well, maybe it was a little bit cool) because we knew we had witnessed history.

Eamon with his sign (and his dad) right behind the Twins dugout. (Photo by Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Oddly enough, a few short weeks after his history-making night, Thome was unceremoniously placed on waivers by Minnesota. But, as luck would have it, the Indians designated hitter, Travis Hafner, hurt his foot the same week, (ironically in Detroit) so the Tribe claimed Thome off waivers for the stretch drive of the season and it became clear that one of baseballs nicest guys would end his career in the same place where it all began.

Moving back to Cleveland to finish his career seemed to be Hollywood-ending number two for Thome, but just for good measure, Cleveland’s front office quickly put together “Jim Thome Night” for the Tribe’s last home stand of the 2011 season. On that night it was announced that a larger-than-life statue of the popular slugger would be commissioned and placed beyond the left-centerfield fence where many of Thome’s titanic homers had fallen back to earth during his storied career. And wouldn’t you know it, as if on cue, Thome mashed a 440-foot bomb that landed in the exact spot where his statue will soon stand.


That was just a week ago. On Monday night, Thome arrived in Detroit, the same place he’d entered the history books a month and a half ago, for the last three games of the 2011 season. I was excited because for the first time in my career as a photojournalist, I’d finally gotten the chance to cover Major League baseball, and the prospect of photographing one of my favorite players in action was reason enough for me to forget about the day-long rain and head for the Motor City to see Thome up close and in action.

But this time there was no magic. The Indians had long been eliminated from the playoff chase – the reason they picked up Thome in the first place, and Thome looked tired and worn as he sat in the same dugout where he’d been cheered so loudly by the Tiger fans on that incredible August night, that he came out and tipped his hat to the crowd.

Now he just sat quietly between teammates young enough to be his sons as the starting lineups were announced. He sat there with batting gloves on his hands, but no hat on his head. He didn’t really need a hat, he was hired only to hit the ball after all, not field it. He had no need for a ball cap, or even a mitt. All he needed was his pine-tar-covered batting helmet and a rack of Louisville Sluggers. But the truth is; he didn’t really need them either - at least not on this night.

Thome would sit the bench the entire game – a game that saw the Tribe get absolutely waxed by the red-hot Tigers, 14-0. Occasionally, Thome would disappear to the locker room for a while, but he’d always reappear to check and see how things were going.

He moved gingerly as he made trips to and from the locker room. A reporter from Cleveland that I’d met in the press box before the game told me that Thome had issues with his back. To see him walk, I didn’t doubt it was true. But then again, Thome seemed to do everything at a snail’s pace. He ran slowly. He talked slowly. He couldn’t seem to ramp it up for anything unless it was time to swing a bat. The speed and power he generated with a baseball bat was anything but slow, and that violent collision he created over 600 times with bat and ball was something I was yearning to see one more time.

I spent most of my time peering at Thome sitting on the Indians bench from the photo wells located at the ends of the dugout. Every now and then, he would look my way as well. But it wasn’t so much as if he were looking at me, as it was looking past me. His eyes were red, as if he’d been crying or hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Neither was true, I suspect, more likely dry contact lenses or allergies. But there was sadness to it all – for me anyhow.

It was hard not to feel for Thome. He's easy to root for because all he's ever done is play ball and be a nice guy, but now his 41-year-old body was starting to let him down. This was most likely it for him, I suspected - the last three games of his career.

Baseball is a kid’s game played best by kids, and Thome was no longer a kid. He’d turned back the clock several times over the past two seasons. He reminded us he could still mash with the best of them ... when he got his pitch. But his opportunities for that pitch were shrinking, and with each successive at bat, Thome was moving one step further from his playing, and one step closer to Cooperstown.

There was an emptiness to the night. A real flatness that is hard to describe. The young players on the Indians team, several of them September call-ups or Latino players who spoke little English, hung together and joked at one end of the dugout as the first year of their careers wound to a close. They would go on to play winter league ball in Mexico, or maybe Arizona, as they continued to hone their skills to try to remain in the big leagues. Thome, on the other hand, had nothing to prove, or improve. He sat quietly on the bench staring out at the field. He had two games to go, but for one night at least we were equals on the ball diamond. We were both spectators.

The next night Thome did play. This time I watched the game at home on television as Thome went two for three, scored two runs and knocked in two more before being lifted for a pinch runner late in the game. The Tribe lost 9-6, but Thome looked young again.

Wednesday night was the final game of the season for the Tribe, and once again, Thome was on the bench. It didn’t seem fitting, but I guess if his last game was a two for three, two RBI outing from the night before, that wasn’t so bad.

The game was close – a real see-saw battle that was tied until former Indian shortstop Jhonny Peralta struck back at his old team by hitting a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth inning to put Detroit up 5-4. That was it, I figured. The Tribe’s season would end with a four-game losing streak and Jim Thome would ride the pine to end his career.

But it wasn’t the end. Jim Thome wasn’t done yet. With one out in the top of the ninth, Cleveland called on their slugger to pinch hit against Detroit’s eccentric closer Jose Valverde. It was a fan’s dream – power against power. Valverde had been perfect on the season. In 48 save chances, he had yet to blow a one. But Thome could change all that with one more magical swipe of the bat.

Tigers closer Jose Valverde. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I watched with great interest, not because the game was close and tension was in the air. I watched because I knew this the last time I would get to see Jim Thome standing in a batter’s box.

Valverde quickly got ahead of Thome, 0-2, with a pair of fastballs that painted the inside corner. My heart sunk. At that point I figured he was done. But Thome was in no mood to chase anything off the plate, and Valverde sure as heck wasn’t going to give him anything good to hit, so just as quickly as he’d thrown two strikes, Valverde evened the count by throwing two balls.

His fifth pitch missed as well, and now the count was full, three balls and two strikes. My 11-year-old son told me that he hated full counts when he plays, whether he was batting or pitching, because he knew he had to throw a strike on a full count as a pitcher, or else he'd give up a walk, and he knew as a batter he was supposed to get a hit, or at least a walk, when he faced a full count. It was an interesting perspective from a young ballplayer, and I wondered if Thome and Valverde were feeling the same way.

As a viewer, I was excited because I knew, I just knew that this would be the one time Valverde would have to throw a big, fat strike to Thome, and I knew, I just knew that Thome was going to smash it high and far into the late-September air, and I would get treated to one last Hollywood ending.

Valverde twisted his pot-bellied torso toward center field before slowly unwinding it and slinging a split-fingered fastball down the heart of the plate at 94 mph. The pitch was flat and just above the belt. Thome's eyes locked on the pitch, he planted his right foot firmly in the dirt and began to uncoil his thick frame one body part at a time until his hips snapped into place and his massive forearms whipped the bat at lightning speed into the strike zone.

I sat on the edge of my chair waiting for the inevitable collision of rawhide and lumber - waiting for home run number 605 to sail out of Comerica Park. The bat was nothing but a blur as it swooshed toward history. A loud smack followed. But it wasn't the smack I was expecting, it was the smack of the ball firmly planting itself into the pocket of a catcher’s mitt at 94 mph. Thome’s body continued to uncoil violently as his bat sliced through the air in front of home plate before slowing to a stop.

Strike three.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Or maybe it was.

Jim Thome walked slowly back to the dugout one last time. He’d gone down swinging, his career most likely over, and even though I couldn’t see his face clearly on the television, I suspected his eyes were a little red. Just like mine.

Thanks for the memories Jim.

(Note: As of Thursday, Thome was hinting around that he may be back for one more season. I, for one, would love to see it.) Here's a link to a video of Thome's homer on "Jim Thome Night" in Cleveland last week: content_id=19544591&topic_id=8879220&c_id=cle

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