The most moving and telling moment during Saturday’s Jim Thome statue dedication ceremony didn’t come when the team’s all-time home run leader pulled a bright red sheet off the 12-foot sculpture posed in his signature bat point.
It wasn’t in the ceremonial one-day contract Thome signed or Jason Giambi’s thoughtful and unannounced gesture of giving up his No. 25 so that no one else can wear it.
No, the most meaningful moment came when Thome addressed the crowd that had assembled at Progressive Field’s Heritage Park in the same area where he deposited the longest home run in the stadium’s history. After thanking his family, teammates and coaches for their support during his career, a choked-up Thome saved for last what seemed like his most heartfelt and expressive thank you — to the fans.
“You guys deserve a championship,” he said. “And on that cold October night, when you guys finally get that championship, you can bet I’m gonna be celebrating right here with you.”
These words to the fans affirmed what the vast majority of us had known for years: Thome wasn’t just one of the favorite guys we cheered for; he is one of us.
Thome’s Midwestern toughness and understated humility as well as his raw power and consistency represented Cleveland more than any other Indians during the Camelot days of the 1990s.
But like King Arthur’s court, this magical time ended as well. And Thome—the exemplary embodiment of the Indians of the 90s—soon became the personification of disloyalty for a disenchanted minority upon his signing with the Philadelphia Phillies following the 2002 season.
As it happened, however, even when Thome left Cleveland, Cleveland wasn’t far from Thome’s heart.
Flash back to his first appearance as a member of a team other than the Indians during his introductory news conference in Philadelphia. When asked about moving his family after 12 years in Cleveland, Thome broke down in tears.
He would often speak longingly in the following years about wanting to come back one day to play for the Indians again.
But the Phillies’ pitch of $25 million more and an extra year was too much to pass up and when Thome left, he opened himself up to, and— many have argued— even legitimized the boos that Cleveland fans would thereafter greet him with.
But the fans who understand what his contributions meant for the Indians would never stake such a claim.
Not after the instrumental part he played in perhaps the most fruitful era in the history of a long-suffering franchise.
Not after he slugged a team-record 337 home runs or came through with countless clutch hits.
Not after he waited around until he signed autographs for everyone who wanted one, treated clubhouse attendants with respect or dressed up as Santa Claus for children in local hospitals.
These accomplishments speak for themselves.
However, there will still likely be those who begrudge Thome for ever leaving and will never view the humble giant again in the way they once did.
They are free to think what they want. But if we really have bought into this concept of forgiveness as we claim with the return of LeBron James, how can we be consistent and not share it with all of our sports heroes?
Especially if he’s one of us.