Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week, The Ringer is exploring why Cleveland matters.
The problem with your city not winning a championship for 52 years is you lose perspective on what constitutes a Sports Hero. Your standards drop. Your thirst grows. You take what you can get. You memorialize what you can. You erect a statue — a physical, bronze, 8-foot-tall statue, to be admired by passersby and befouled by pigeons and denigrated by random internet jamokes — of a dude who left town and never looked back, until looking back was the only thing left to do.
It was in this misguided spirit that the Cleveland Indians unveiled a Jim Thome statue outside Progressive Field in summer 2014. It looms there now, joined by monuments to Bob Feller (a god-tier pitcher who spent 3.5 years of his prime fighting in WWII) and Larry Doby (the American League’s first black player). Both those fellas brought a World Series championship to town in 1948, by the way. If you catch their own memorials in a certain warm evening light, you might see them giving Bronze Jim’s general direction a righteous post-war side-eye. Thome needs to bounce. It’s only apt.
Let us state immediately and forcefully that he was a fine baseball man and is by all accounts a lovely human. Five-time All-Star, most home runs in team history (and seventh all-time), pleasant and unassuming Midwestern demeanor, etc. Jim, Plain and Tall. He joined the Indians as a rookie in 1991, and for many, he epitomizes the Tribe’s monster mid-’90s teams, which made the World Series twice (’95 and ’97, both losses) and generally kicked as much ass as you can possibly kick without someone handing you a trophy. They put his statue out beyond center field, near where the longest dinger (511 feet!) in stadium history finally landed, perhaps the finest of Jim’s countless righteous home run slams.
And then, after a dozen years, he left town. For the Phillies. And then on to the White Sox, and then the Dodgers, and then the Twins, and then the Tribe again, and then the Phillies again, and then the Orioles, and then he joined the White Sox front office, and then he officially retired after signing a one-day contract with the Indians, who gave him a fucking statue. They oughta make a little statue of a suitcase and install it in Jim’s other hand. Or bolt the whole thing to the roof of an Uber and drive it in a continual loop from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Chicago to L.A. to Minnesota to Cleveland to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Chicago and back. (This would be a waste of money, yes, but not as big a waste as Nick Swisher’s contract.)
Listen, free agency is a healthy and necessary thing, and you certainly can’t begrudge Jim for moving on. (The Phillies offered Thome way more money and a vesting option for an additional year, though he’d made so much noise about wanting to stay with Cleveland forever that fans were super pissed anyway.) But you can most certainly begrudge the people in town hell-bent on treating Jim like he never left. It is, moreover, a fallacy to valorize Jim as the single greatest totem of those ’90s teams. Far better they commission a statue of Manny Ramírez eating four statue foot-long hot dogs simultaneously out in right field as a statue live pop fly sails toward him. Or a statue of Albert Belle in a statue Ford Explorer, running down a statue egg-wielding teenager. Or a statue of 1997 World Series goat José Mesa, shitting a statue bed. Or, better yet, honor a legendary 1994 off-field incident and erect a statue of Jason Grimsley crawling precariously along a statue ceiling to retrieve Albert Belle’s statue corked bat from a statue umpire’s room. Show some imagination, and have some respect for yourself.
Thome had a fine post-Tribe career, and was clearly beloved wherever he went. He spent his longest and most productive stretch in Cleveland, and by prevailing MLB logic had every right to “retire as an Indian” on paper. It’s an honor, for him and the city both. A Thome statue, however, is not an honor for Cleveland — it’s an act of desperation. This is the best we can hope for. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you gotta enshrine somebody. We’re better than this, even if we only became better than this very recently.
Verily, this is pre-Cavs championship thinking. The Indians are currently in first place in the AL Central, with an absurdly fantastic pitching rotation, a young superstar in shortstop Francisco Lindor, and a 14-game win streak that coincided, not coincidentally, with Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Are they odds-on World Series favorites? No. But should they falter in October — or September, or August, or tomorrow — no longer will this be ascribed to some terrible, existential, unending Cleveland sports curse, the same one that struck down those mid-’90s monsters, along with the few successful post-Thome Indians teams.
No, this is just a normal city now, with a recent championship to our name, free to succeed occasionally and fail far more often, just like every other city in America. No longer must we cling to nice but ultimately itinerant guys like Thome, to paradoxically diminish a one-time local star’s greatness by insisting that he’s local immortality. To cast him in bronze is an untenable stretch that diminishes the man and the city both. So now that we’re doing the right thing occasionally, let’s do the right thing here. Hell, hand the statue over to him. He can put it in his garage. He’ll understand. After all, he’s a nice guy.