Note: In September 2011, the original plans for a Jim Thome statue were unveiled. Even after Thome left for Philadelphia – again – in 2012, the Cleveland front office pressed on with the plans to build a statue; the date of unveiling, August 2nd, 2014, was finally released in January 2014. At that time, I wrote a feature for a former site, Cleveland Sports Insiders, positing that it was not as a result of any Thome’s individual merits as a player that prompted the statue, but rather, Thome’s status as a personification of a bygone golden age, an age that current Indians management is to this day seen as consciously ending. This feature in its entirety is posted below, without adaptations for changing circumstances.
When Constantius Chlorus, one of four co-ruling Roman Emperors in the 4th Century CE, took the throne, he took on an entirely new name: Flavius Aurelius Constantius, a name that hearkened to great emperors Marcus Aurelius and Flavius Vespasian. A low-born territorial soldier, Chlorus’s assertions of nobility comprised a façade both transparent and flimsy, yet to establish an ethos of enlightened rule, Chlorus required these connections to golden days of yore – connections he could not claim by birth – to ensure his legitimacy among the elité of Roman society.
For the Dolan family, the stakes are lower than mastery of the empire, but continuity is no less paramount to the organization’s legitimacy. Despite being currently employed by divisional rivals, former stars Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel were invited to the Indians 2014 Fan Fest, placing on full display the Indians’ paradoxical emphasis on continuity from the magical 1990s run. When they announced, therefore, that a statue of Jim Thome statue would be unveiled on August 2nd, it was simply an extension of that same logic.
Prima facie, inviting stars of the 90s is not inherently absurd; Thome and Vizquel, after all, were pivotal parts of the greatest Indians run in a generation. So long as the focus of the event remains on the current Indians team, there’s no reason to begrudge those who would reminisce about a historic run that opportunity.
On the other hand, although Thome’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer, he’s also an odd candidate – historically – for a statue. He’s a player that didn’t spend his entire career in Cleveland, was not far-and-away superior to every other player on the Indians teams of the 90s, didn’t have the same sort of impact on the game as did a Larry Doby, nor did he have the same on-field success as former Cleveland baseball namesake Napoleon Lajoie.
Yet the Thome signing is only odd if viewed relative to his historical peers. As Chlorus made a specific connection for the sake of continuity with a successful past, the Dolans likewise are not attempting to select a player based on absolute merit – they’re trying to make one specific connection to the 90s run, the single most intense focus of Indians fandom in fifty years. Like Chlorus, they are overcompensating for their biggest popular weakness; like Chlorus, they have little choice.
When the Dolans purchased the franchise in 2000, the team was at its zenith in both hype and unsustainability. Payroll was at its highest point, and even if Dick Jacobs had kept the franchise, the Indians could not reasonably expect to contend into 2003-04, with a farm system ranked 26th in the Majors in 2001 and limited by a change to TV revenue, rather than attendance, as the prime mover in payroll. Not to delve too deeply into the Indians’ economics, Jacobs left the game before the inevitable collapse, leaving the dichotomy that the Jacobs presided over the best Indians run in a generation and that the Dolans presided over the rubble of a dynasty. To oversimplify and isolate one cause for the Indians’ frigid attendance rates, it is this dichotomy.
So long as the Dolans are perceived as the usurpers of the 90s Indians dynasty, they will never receive the support of a fan-base which, among the younger generation, is sprung almost entirely upon those 1990s teams. Thome is not the best historical candidate to receive a statue, but the statue was never about commemorating those candidates which are historically superior. The statue of Jim Thome is a specific part of a multi-pronged media attempt to dismantle this illusory dichotomy and to crystallize the current Indians organization, the one owned by the Dolans and with a team that features players like Danny Salazar and Jason Kipnis, as a continuation of the decade-old glory days. If they cannot make this connection, they remain disconnected from the foundation of contemporary Indians fandom; since they have not successfully made this connection, Indians attendance has remained among the worst in the majors.
However illusory Chlorus’s actions, he adequately established his legitimacy as emperor, which allowed his son, known to history as Constantine the Great, to himself ascend the throne. Constantine the Great, by virtue of the impact of his reign, became himself a foundation for power, a link to whom would establish a future emperor’s own legitimacy – the lies of the House of Constantine, then, were made true after the fact. If the Indians were to make another run in the mold of the 1990s Indians, it would be that dynasty, owned by the Dolans, which would become the spiritual successors of the 90s – lies, likewise, made true by post facto actions. Until such a time, the Indians organization marches on, erecting monuments to a heralded past, vainly exclaiming their continuity.