09/24/11 12:05 AM ET
Thome feted in the place where career launched
By Zack Meisel / MLB.com
Then, after one particular inquiry, he paused, took a deep breath and delved deep into his critical think tank.
Thome finally summoned an answer to the question of whether his second tour with the Indians would be a fitting conclusion to his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
"I try not to go there," Thome said, stressing the notion that he has yet to make up his mind whether to retire after the season. "If it is [the end], and I say, 'if', I thank the Twins, and I thank the Indians organization for giving me this opportunity to come back. I so appreciate that, no question."
The appreciation has been mutual.
Prior to Friday's first pitch against the Twins, the Indians honored their designated hitter before a Progressive Field crowd that endured a steady rain to see a video montage of Thome's top home runs.
"It is special, but he deserves that and more," manager Manny Acta said. "It's special for this franchise, too, because he's been such big a part of it."
Former teammates Chad Ogea, Paul Sorrento and Carlos Baerga attended the tribute, during which the club announced a plan to construct a statue of Thome in Heritage Park, the ballpark's epicenter of Indians history.
Thome said that news of the statue came as a surprise.
"That's surreal," he said. "Statues, that's as good as it gets. I'm speechless on that one, I really am."
Thome capitalized on his time in the spotlight, finishing a triple short of the cycle in the Indians' 6-5 win. He sliced an RBI double to left in his first at-bat, then blasted a two-run homer to center in his next trip to the plate. In his third at-bat, he reached on a check-swing infield single. He approached and left the batter's box to a standing ovation each time.
"It was just an overwhelming, wonderful, great day," he said.
Thome's career was launched near the shores of Lake Erie, where he played from 1991 to 2002 before departing for greener pastures in Philadelphia, with which he inked an $85 million contract.
Nine years and countless milestones later, he returned to Cleveland on Aug. 25 after the Tribe acquired him from the Twins for $20,000, a homecoming he never thought would come to fruition.
"I always wondered what it would be like," he said. "I never really knew if it was going to happen, to be honest. I kind of envisioned it, but until it happened, I never really put it into realization."
Now that he is back, Thome has a greater appreciation for what he has meant to the fans in Cleveland. The Indians drew more than 100,000 fans the weekend of his return, proving that his image is intact in the eyes of those who watched him develop from a lanky third baseman into a powerful first baseman and DH.
"The memories, the excitement of the fans, seeing them embrace me ... I didn't know if I would ever get that opportunity to watch that again and see that excitement," Thome said.
The Indians intended for Thome to serve as a boost for a lineup derailed by injuries as they kept their heads above water in the American League Central race. Instead the Tribe faded from contention, though the acquisition of Thome provided plenty of dividends.
"He has meant so much," Acta said. "He has been open to our young guys, to myself and our coaching staff. He's been a pleasure to deal with. Also, with leading by example, [he's] showing the young guys what it takes to be a professional day in and day out."
First-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr., who played with Thome from 1991 to 2000, admires his former teammate's lack of an ego.
"The way he carries himself is like everybody else," Alomar said, "like a normal person. He doesn't act like he's above anybody. It shows young players that you don't have to be this different type of guy to be a star player."
Acta, who is just one and a half years older than Thome, appreciates that their paths have crossed.
"I'm in awe every day," Acta said. "To me, it's an honor that I'll be able to tell my grandkids that I managed this guy, whether they believe me or not. I can only imagine having a guy like him in his prime in the middle of the lineup."
Thome has notched nearly every feat he could have hoped to achieve, other than a World Series ring. And this season he joined an elite list of mashers to hit 600 career home runs.
"When do you know it's time?" he said. "When do you know when to say, 'OK, that's it'? That's the most difficult part of any decision. You don't want to just throw the 'R' word out there."
If this is the end for Thome, there might not be a better script than the one that unfolded over the last month. The decision, however, remains unsettled.
"It'd be perfect, but some players don't want to close the book," Alomar said. "Maybe he feels it's not his time yet. Only he can tell everyone that. He still hits home runs and has a good swing. I can outrun him right now, but that's about it."
Zack Meisel is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.