CLEVELAND — It was a Thomecoming at Progressive Field on Friday night.
Jim Thome, the Indians’ all-time leading home run hitter was back in a Cleveland uniform and batting cleanup.
The seats were filled more than usual and the crowd cheered Thome like they did when he starred for six Central Division championship teams from 1991-2002.
It was a love fest for a guy that didn’t get much of it from these fans when he left Cleveland for more money on the free-agent market in Philadelphia.
When Thome, one of the most popular players on the team, told Tribe fans someone would have to tear the Indians jersey off his back and that he wanted to finish his career in Cleveland, they believed it, and when he left anyway, it stung.
Few could blame Thome for taking way more money in Philly, but Indians fans did, and they let him know, booing their former star every time he returned with an opposing team.
“Maybe that’s why I’m in this position, to say that, ‘Hey, maybe I didn’t do the right thing, and this is a second chance,”’ Thome said during a pregame news conference. “In life, you’re always going to say things that as you get older you look back and think, ‘Maybe I didn’t use the right choice of words.’
“I always envisioned that I was going to remain an Indian. When it didn’t happen, you move on and go forward. It’s not something I look back on. You make your decision and live with it, but maybe the choice of words, you regret.”
All appeared to be forgotten when Thome stepped to the plate for his first at-bat in the second inning and received a thunderous ovation from the near-capacity crowd, which held signs reading, “Welcome Thome.”
It certainly is with Thome, who views his return to Cleveland as a blessing. He proved as much by waiving a no-trade clause to join the Indians in a trade with the Twins after his old club claimed him off waivers.
“I’m happy to be here,” he said. “The team is in a pennant race and with all my history here, it was really a no-brainer. I feel like someone has really given me this gift to be here.”
Now that he is back in Cleveland, the Indians are hoping he can breathe some life into a sagging offense and their fading playoff hopes.
With Travis Hafner on the disabled list and possibly lost for the season, Thome, who hit .243 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs in 71 games for Minnesota, is expected to fill the designated role on a close to fulltime basis. His age (turns 41 today) and balky lower back prohibits him from playing every day for the Indians, who entered Friday trailing the first-place Tigers by 6 1/2 game in the Central Division standings.
“I’d like to play every day. I don’t think my body would let me, though,” Thome said. “The bottom line is I want to come in here and play as much as I can. I’m here to play, but we’ll be smart about it as well.”
There’s no doubt Thome, who recently became the eighth player in major league history with 600 career homers, is nearing the end of a potential Hall of Fame career.
But there has been no talk of retirement yet. He is under a one-year contract worth $3 million this season, and if this is more than a one-month stop in Cleveland, Thome could see his career come full circle, finishing where it began.
“I haven’t gotten to that point,” Thome said. “I’m focusing on right now. I don’t look to next year or the following year. It’s not about next year or when I’m going to retire.
“It’s not about me. I’m here to try to fit in and be a piece that helps us accomplish our goal, which is to win the Central Division. Hopefully we can have some fun over the next month.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.