Norwalk Reflector: Thome first homegrown player from 1990s teams to enter HOF

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Thome first homegrown player from 1990s teams to enter HOF

By PAUL HOYNES • Jul 27, 2018 at 7:00 PM

CLEVELAND — Jim Thome is the first homegrown member of the great Indians teams of the 1990s to go into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He will be inducted on Sunday.

There have been other inductees from those teams that made pitchers quake and did everything but win a World Series over a seven-year period that not only revitalized baseball in Cleveland, but perhaps saved it. Dave Winfield, who did a short turn with the Tribe in 1995, entered Cooperstown as a San Diego Padre. Roberto Alomar, who had three great years with the Tribe, went in as a Toronto Blue Jay. Eddie Murray, born again in his 2 1/2 seasons with the Indians, went in as a Baltimore Oriole.

But Thome is the first player who was drafted, signed and developed by the Indians to get a plaque in Cooperstown. For those who watched those teams that may be the biggest surprise of all.

Surely, Albert Belle would have beaten Thome to baseball immortality if his personality and bad hips didn't get in the way. What about Manny Ramirez and his 555 homers? He appeared on the ballot earlier than Thome, but repeated positive tests for performance enhancing drugs have left him in limbo with voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Kenny Lofton, the leadoff hitter and basestealer of those teams, certainly deserved a longer look from the BBWAA than he received. Perhaps he will find solace in one of the revamped forms of the Veterans Committee.

Omar Vizquel, who appeared on the ballot in December for the first time with Thome, received 37 percent of the vote when 75 percent was required for election. It was a good start for Vizquel, who played 24 years, won 11 Gold Gloves and finished his career with 2,877 hits. He can remain on the BBWAA ballot for nine more years as long as he receives five percent of the vote annually.

Lofton and Vizquel were signed and developed by other organizations, but their best big-league seasons were spent with the Indians.

Truth be told all those players had more of a WOW factor than Thome. Belle was intimidating. The only thing he liked less than pitchers were reporters and he wasn't afraid to tell them. The Indians drafted Ramirez as a high school senior out of Washington Heights in New York City. Everyone said he was a natural hitter, but they never said anything about the hours he spent watching video and hitting in the cage. Lofton was so fast that in the words of his manager, Mike Hargrove, he distorted the established rules of the game. Vizquel seemingly could have played shortstop without a glove and he never saw a ground ball that took him by surprise.

But Thome is the one going into the Hall of Fame on Sunday with Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell. Sheldon Ocker, who covered the Indians for over 30 years for the Akron Beacon Journal, will receive the J.G. Spink Award for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing" as well.

Thome is being enshrined because he hit the ball harder and longer than anyone in Indians' history. He ended his 22-year career with 612 home runs. Only seven men in history have hit more - Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Alex Rodriguez (696), Willie Mays (660), Albert Pujols (631) and Ken Griffey Jr. (630).

Think of this for a moment. Thome, Ramirez and Belle, all drafted by the Indians, hit a combined 1,548 homers in their careers. Around the same time, the Indians drafted Richie Sexson and Brian Giles. But they didn't have enough at-bats for them so they were traded.

All Sexson and Giles did was hit a combined 593 homers. Talk about an organization on a hot streak. But Thome was the biggest bopper of them all.

He had jaw-dropping power, once hitting a ball out of Progressive Field. At the old Metrodome one September night, Thome homered deep into the upper deck in right field. The Twins had hung long banners of their players in the upper deck to help hide the empty seats. Thome's ball went between two of the banners and disappeared.

When he got back to the bench, Thome sat down next to Eric Wedge, a minor league manager at the time, who had been added to the big league staff after his season ended.

"I got all of that one," Thome said.

Wedge, who would later manage the Indians, could only nod and say, "You think?"

Thome did all that through the heart of the steroid era, yet there was never a whisper that he cheated. I asked him once if he'd ever thought about taking PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) and he said, "My father would kill me if I ever did anything like that."

A skeptic may have rolled his eyes. But I believed him then and I still do.

Consistency and power made Thome just the second first-ballot Hall of Famer in franchise history. Bob Feller was the first.

Thome, in eight seasons between 1995 and 2002, averaged 38 home runs, 104 RBI, 102 runs, 113 walks and 151 strikeouts per season. He never had a OPS lower than .926.

Charlie Manuel will be one of Thome's many guests at the induction ceremonies. Manuel managed Thome in the minors and the big leagues. He was his hitting coach as well and enjoyed coming up with nicknames for Thome. There was the Thominator, Thomedome and Thomaine Poisoning to name a few.

But the biggest thing Manuel did was unlock Thome's power. Thome, a 13th round pick in 1989, was a left-handed hitter who hit the ball to left center field in the minors. What Manuel did, with the help of the movie The Natural, was get Thome to start pulling the ball to right field.

Robert Redford, the star of The Natural, pointed his bat at the pitcher before every at-bat. Manuel suggested that Thome do that to help him relax at the plate. Then he had him change his stance, moving his back foot closer to the plate so he could pull the ball to right field, while maintaining his power the other way as well. It worked in a bigger way than Thome or Manuel could have ever imagined.

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