COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — When Jim Thome toured the Hall of Fame in late February to prepare for induction day, he got misty when he walked into the Plaque Gallery where his bronze likeness will hang after today’s ceremony.
Expect more of the same when he stares out at the big crowd during his speech today.
“It’s been an absolute dream,” Thome said. “I try to keep (life) pretty simple, but it’s been very special to enjoy this with the ones you really care about and the people that are ... happy for you. That means so much.
“To go there and now call that home is just incredible.”
Thome hit 612 home runs, eighth all time, and had an MLB record 13 walk-off homers, mostly for the Cleveland Indians. He’ll be inducted today with Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman and former Detroit Tigers teammates Jack Morris and Alan Trammell.
Thome and Jones are first-ballot selections, while Morris and Trammell were picked by a veterans committee in December.
Selected by the Indians out of Illinois Central College in the 13th round of the 1989 amateur draft, Thome went on to bat .276 in 2,543 games, while coming through with 2,328 hits, 1,583 runs, 612 home runs and 1,699 RBIs in 22 seasons with the Indians, White Sox, Phillies, Dodgers, Twins and Orioles.
More than just a slugger, Thome walked 1,747 times in his career, seventh-most all time. A five-tiem All-Star, he is the Indians’ franchise leader in home runs (337) and walks (1,008).
His best season was 2002 – his last with the Indians — when he hit a career-high 52 home runs with 118 RBIs and led the AL in walks (122), slugging percentage (.677) and on-base plus slugging (OPS) (1.122), and batted .304 with an on-base percentage of .445.
Jones Jr. was a throwback, a guy who played for only one major league club and always stayed focused on a single goal — trying to get better every day.
Pressure was an afterthought for the man dubbed Chipper, except perhaps in 1990 at the beginning of his career with the Atlanta Braves organization.
“Maybe my first year in rookie ball there was some pressure. Obviously, I didn’t perform,” said Jones, who batted just .229 with one homer and 18 RBIs in 140 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League while dealing with a hand injury. “There was some pushback for the Braves taking me.”
Any doubts about the switch-hitting overall No. 1 pick of the 1990 draft from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., quickly faded. In Class A ball the next season, Jones batted .326, hit 15 homers, drove in 98 runs and stole 40 bases. Four years later he was a regular in the Atlanta lineup at age 23 and relishing the journey.
“For me, it was just having fun and playing the game,” said Jones, whose nickname surfaced at a young age after family members called him a chip off the old block because he looked so much like his dad. “I never saw a pay stub during my time in the big leagues. I didn’t care what I was making. As long as I walked in the clubhouse and I saw my name in the three hole playing third for the Atlanta Braves, that’s all that really mattered.
“I just kept my head down and tried to do whatever I could to help us win and let the numbers take care of themselves.”
And what numbers they were — .303 career batting average, 549 doubles, 468 home runs and 1,623 RBIs.
Jones, only the second overall No. 1 draft pick to reach the Hall (Ken Griffey Jr. is the other), couldn’t have arrived at a better time for the Braves, who were perennial cellar-dwellers in the NL West. He became a force on most of the Atlanta teams that did a quick about-face and won 14 straight division titles — and a World Series in his rookie season (1995) — beating Thome and the Indians.
Also part of those Atlanta teams were pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz. All five were elected to the Hall of Fame in the past four years.
Now Jones will join them.
“Somebody had to score some runs for that pitching staff,” Jones said with a chuckle. “It’s nice the day has finally come.”
Hoffman, chosen in his third year on the ballot, played the bulk of his career with the San Diego Padres before finishing with the Milwaukee Brewers. After failing to impress the front office in three years as a shortstop, he switched to the bullpen and became a star.
Using a stultifying changeup, Hoffman recorded 601 saves over 18 seasons, second all-time to former Yankees star Mariano Rivera’s 652.
Guerrero was elected on his second try, receiving 92.9 percent of the vote. The nine-time All-Star outfielder batted .318 with 449 homers and 1,496 RBIs and was a notorious bad-ball hitter, a skill he learned as a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic playing a game similar to cricket.
Although he played half his career with the Montreal Expos, Guerrero will be the first player to enter the Hall wearing the cap of the Los Angeles Angels, the team where enjoyed his greatest success. He helped lead the Angels to the postseason five times in six seasons, reaching career highs for runs (124), hits (206), and RBIs (126) in 2004 when he won AL MVP honors.
“I was happy to be in a situation where the team was playing for something,” Guerrero said through translator Jose Mota. “That inspired me and the rest of the team.”
Among those accompanying Guerrero on Sunday will be his son, Vladimir Jr., considered the top prospect in the minor leagues. Guerrero will deliver most of his speech in Spanish with Mota translating before a crowd expected to number around 50,000.
“I want it to come out as naturally as possible,” Guerrero said. “I’m going to keep it as simple as possible. I’m not nervous, but you never know.”
Morris pitched 18 seasons for the Tigers, Twins, Blue Jays and Indians, and played on four World Series champions. In the 1980s, he led all pitchers with 2,4442/3 innings and 162 wins and topped all AL pitchers in strikeouts with 1,629.
The crowning achievement of Morris’ career was his 1-0 complete-game victory in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series while pitching for his hometown Twins against the 24-year-old Smoltz and the Braves. Minnesota manager Tom Kelly wanted to take him out after nine innings and the 36-year-old Morris convinced him not to.
“That was Jack Morris,” Trammell said. “That just tells you what’s inside of him. He wasn’t going to give up anything.”
That Morris had to wait so long to be picked for the Hall promises to make his speech memorable.
“I’ve had a long time to think about writing one,” he said. “I wanted this to be an impactful speech. I wanted it to be something that had meaning. When I started actually putting it into words, it was not as easy as I thought it was going to be.
“If I was going to do it justice, I’d probably have to write a 1,500-page book, but we don’t have time for all of that.”
Trammell played shortstop for 20 seasons — all for the Tigers — and earned six All-Star Game selections, four Gold Glove Awards and three Silver Slugger Awards. His .977 fielding percentage ranks sixth among shortstops with at least 2,000 games played.
“It’s overwhelming, to be honest with you,” said Trammell, now 60. “To say that you’re part of that group, it’s hard to comprehend.”
This year’s class matches the biggest lineup of living players to be inducted since 1955, when Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Home Run Baker and Ray Schalk were enshrined. That means the inductees won’t have much leeway in the length of their speeches.
It’s difficult to imagine what a nerve-wracking scenario it promises to be for Jones — his wife is pregnant with a son whose name will be Cooper in honor of the special day.
Talk about pressure.
“It’s going to be a pretty nervous time for me personally,” Jones said. “The fact that my wife is due the day after, I’ll be looking down at her making sure she’s giving me the thumbs-up, making sure she’s not going into labor while I’m up on stage.
“If it does happen, it’s going to be an exciting time.”
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