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CLEVELAND -- It has been a blessedly surreal week in the life of Jim Thome. He's had seven days to process the whirlwind that was rejoining the Indians through a late-August waiver-wire claim. And yet, on some level, he still can't quite get his head around it.
"There are times you look down," Thome said, "and think, 'Is that really Chief Wahoo on my shirt?'"
Nine years ago, Thome made a gut-wrenching decision -- the same type of decision that has been made by many others before and since, and might soon be faced, quite prominently, by Albert Pujols.
Born, bred and beloved in a single organization -- a place where he emerged and became elite -- Thome had to weigh the lifeblood of a legacy against the pull of a paycheck and, yes, the potential for a better competitive situation.
As baseball fans, we believe in and root for the concept of constancy. Think of Ripken, Banks, Puckett, Gwynn, Williams, Brett, Bench, Kaline, etc., and their team names -- Orioles, Cubs, Twins, Padres, Red Sox, Royals, Reds, Tigers -- spit out of your subconscious. Think of Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter, and you think of the pinstripes. The Astros once belonged to Bagwell and Biggio, the Phillies to Schmidt, the Pirates to Stargell.
We don't always discuss this when free-agent equations arise, but a real, significant financial value is tied to spending an entire career in a single market. Corporate and marketing opportunities are there for the taking for the remainder of that person's life, well beyond the day he cashes his last player paycheck.
Still, true stability is rather rare. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only 62 of the hundreds of players in history who have spent at least 15 years in the big leagues have done so with a single team.
And this notion is becoming increasingly inconceivable in an era in which players not only routinely walk or get traded in their free-agent years, but are quite often moved when they reach arbitration status. Hunter Pence, for example, was the latest face of the Astros franchise until his rising arbitration worth helped prompt an expeditious exit this summer.
That's the price of doing business. Loyalty has its limits and its costs. And with those costs rising all the time, we might as well embrace the idea that to spend even a decade in one spot, as Thome did and Pujols has, is quite rare. Sure, the deep-pocketed likes of the Yankees can continue to come to costly contractual terms with a legend like Derek Jeter even when he's past his statistical prime, but that's not the case in most other places.
"Small and medium markets are going to continue to see it be a very small, rare thing," Indians president Mark Shapiro said. "That's the reality."
Shapiro knows how the game is played as well as anyone. His time as Tribe general manager might one day best be remembered for the business moves that had to be made with Bartolo Colon, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee. They were all homegrown All-Stars, but their rising worth threatened to burst the Indians' budget.
With Thome, though, it was particularly personal. He was the Tribe's new-age answer to Bob Feller, corn-fed and Midwest-bred. His Bunyan body, aw-shucks essence and home-run heroics endeared him to the locals -- and one local girl, in particular (his wife, Andrea, is from the area). With Thome in the lineup, it was high socks, highlights and high times night in and night out at a jam-packed Jacobs Field. He was a Clevelander, not by way of birth but certainly by way of baseball.
It's the same way they now feel about Pujols in St. Louis.
What Pujols has meant to the middle of the Cardinals' lineup since 2001 goes without saying. But he's had a profound impact in the community, too. The Pujols Family Foundation has served hundreds of families affected by Down syndrome in the St. Louis area. Pujols has also embraced his role as the point man for one of the game's more storied clubs. When the All-Star Game came to St. Louis in 2009, he took on the exhaustive duties of unofficial host. When people started to call Pujols "El Hombre," he asked them not to, out of respect for Stan "The Man" Musial, because he understood Musial's place in Cardinals lore.
All this is going to serve to make Pujols' pending free-agent decision difficult on more than just superficial levels.
It's too soon to tell if another club or clubs will step to the plate with an offer that greatly exceeds what the Cardinals can give him, but that scenario is not at all inconceivable given St. Louis' market size and payroll situation. And when the dollars and cents combat the heart, it's never an easy battle.
Believe it or not, though, it doesn't always come down to money. Not solely, anyway. When Thome left Cleveland, he knew the Phillies' offer of six years, $85 million was far superior to the Indians' five-year, $60 million offer. He knew he was leaving behind the organization he loved -- an organization that had, as part of the contract bargaining process, discussed the possibility of naming a section of Jacobs Field in his honor and erecting a statue of him outside the gates.
"It was very humbling," Thome said. "You play the game to do well, to win. But when you talk about that kind of thing, it makes you take a step back and say, 'Wow, this is really, really neat.' And you realize every decision you make can affect somebody."
But Thome also knew that the Indians' competitive situation was evolving. The '90s were the past, the sellout streak at Jacobs Field was over and the club was going younger and cheaper. Only in hindsight can we truly appreciate how drastic the shift in market dynamics has been.
"Every player's dream is to win a World Series," Thome said. "One thing for me personally was, because we had the opportunity to win so much here, going to two World Series [in 1995 and '97], that became very addicting. To watch the city, the players that came up, you sensed excitement all the time.
"Now, not to say that I knew [in 2002] that the Indians weren't going to win anymore, but [the idea of winning a World Series] became, for me, something that was very, very important."
Pujols won one in 2006, but the Cardinals have only been to the playoffs once since, losing to the Dodgers in the 2009 Division Series. And it appears that they'll fall short again this year. Signing Pujols will greatly impact their ability to contend in future years, but the equation actually runs both ways.
Again, look back to 2002. The Indians had an inkling then and know now that if Thome would have accepted their $60 million offer, it would have put a significant cramp on the rest of their payroll in the years to come. Having, say, 20-25 percent of your Opening Day budget tied into a single player can obviously limit your flexibility and maneuverability elsewhere.
The Cardinals are encountering a similar situation. They have never had a $100 million payroll, but they'd have to at least cross that threshold in order to meet Pujols' market worth.
So for both player and club, the emotions and the wallet aren't always in tune.
"You never blame anyone for taking advantage of those opportunities," Shapiro said. "It's not something that can be faulted at all. In every decision every player has to make, it's a trade-off. You might weigh the benefit of stability and continuity vs. competitiveness and the financial equation elsewhere. It's different for every guy."
Thome has one nagging regret about the way his decision-making progress played out, and it's good advice to pass down to Pujols or Prince Fielder or any star player pondering a major move.
When reporters asked Thome about his pending free agency, he told them you'd have to "rip the jersey" off his back to get him to leave Cleveland. He wishes he could take those words back, and he's grown to understand how profound an impact a prominent athlete's statements can have on a fan base. Thome was booed every time he stepped to the plate here in a White Sox and Twins uniform, and some fans, even after this return, still haven't forgiven him.
By and large, though, Thome's homecoming has been a heartwarming one, and maybe there's a lesson to be learned in that, as well. Just as Feller maintained a pivotal presence at Indians events right up until his death last December, Thome is likely to have a special role with this team well into his retirement years, if he so desires.
Who knows? Despite what happened in '02, Thome might still one day see that statue erected outside the ballpark now known as Progressive Field.
"The more I reflect on it now," Shapiro said, "the more I recognize how the game has evolved. [Thome] has now spent parts of 13 seasons here. In the reality of small and mid-markets today, to spend that long in one spot is almost the equivalent of staying in one spot your whole career [in the past]. That still makes him, in the modern era, one of this franchise's greatest players and most meaningful contributors, so he may still be worthy of celebration on a similar platform."
Leaving home is never easy. But the fortunate ones, like Thome, find that you can go home again.