CLEVELAND -- When Jim Thome extended his right arm and pointed his bat toward the mound, settling into his iconic stance, it served as a warning. The pitcher knew what could come next, should the baseball that spun from his fingertips stray from its intended path.For more than two decades,
CLEVELAND -- When Jim Thome extended his right arm and pointed his bat toward the mound, settling into his iconic stance, it served as a warning. The pitcher knew what could come next, should the baseball that spun from his fingertips stray from its intended path.
For more than two decades, Thome made pitchers pay with his prolific displays of power and keen eye, becoming one of nine hitters in baseball's storied history to launch at least 600 home runs and the Indians' all-time leader with 337 shots. Now he can point his bat toward the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
On Wednesday, Thome was voted into the Class of 2018 by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, alongside Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman. That quartet of all-time greats will be joined by Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, who were voted in by the Modern Baseball Era Committee, for the induction ceremony on July 29 in Cooperstown.
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"This is a day I don't think any player can ever imagine happening," Thome said. "It's a special day in all of our lives."
Thome surpassed the required 75 percent threshold by being named on 379 ballots, accounting for 89.8 percent of the total ballots. That Thome spent the latter third of his 22-year career mostly as a designated hitter did not prove to be much of an obstacle for the voting body, which instead recognized him as one of the game's premier home run hitters.
Thome is the first player voted into the Hall by the BBWAA to have the Indians as his primary team since 1976 (Bob Lemon), and he gives Cleveland 13 Hall of Famers overall.
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Sandy Alomar Jr., who roomed with Thome during Spring Training early in their careers with the Indians, was thrilled for his former teammate.
"You know how there's a saying about good guys finish last?" Alomar said. "I'm so glad that a great, genuine person like Jim Thome is in the Hall of Fame. He was such a hard worker and a great teammate. He's the most genuine guy I've ever seen. It's good to see people like that reach their goals and the Hall of Fame. And also have a guy from those '90s Indians to be in it. We had such great teams in that era."
Beyond center field at Progressive Field in Cleveland, a statue of Thome -- erected in 2014 with his likeness frozen in time with his bat pointed forward -- rests near the landing spot of his 511-foot home run on July 3, 1999. As that ball bounced in the direction of Eagle Avenue, Tom Hamilton, the Indians' longtime radio voice, boomed: "That will take two tape measures!"
By that point, Thome had established himself as one of baseball's top power threats -- a skill he carried forward in stints with the Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins and Orioles through the 2012 season. Thome was a five-time All-Star (three times for the Indians, and once each for Philadelphia and Chicago), a one-time Silver Slugger recipient and he finished in the top 10 in MVP Award balloting four times.
Thome ended with 612 home runs (eighth all-time), 1,747 walks (seventh) and a .956 OPS (18th). He ranks fifth in career at-bats per home run at 13.76, trailing only Mark McGwire (10.61), Babe Ruth (11.76), Barry Bonds (12.92) and Giancarlo Stanton (13.4). Thome, Bonds and Ruth are the only hitters in MLB history to have amassed at least 600 home runs and 1,500 walks in a career.
Thome hit an MLB-record 13 walk-off home runs, launched nine grand slams, had 17 postseason blasts, homered in 38 stadiums and took 403 pitchers deep during his career.
That Thome reached those heights is incredible, given the awkward, tense swing that he featured as a skinny 19-year-old third baseman in Cleveland's farm system. He was a quiet, polite kid from Peoria, Ill., and was taken by the Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 Draft out of Illinois Central College. Thome was a country boy with a strong work ethic, but a 600-homer icon? No one saw that coming.
The blueprint was there, though.
Alomar remembered his first impression of Thome during Spring Training before the 1990 season.
"Jimmy was taking BP with us and I was like, 'Man, this guy hits the ball hard.' And he hit the ball to all fields," Alomar said. "He looked like he had an idea at such a young age of how to hit."
How Thome's famous stance -- one imitated by kids in Cleveland and throughout the country in the 1990s -- came about is the stuff of legends.
As the story goes, Thome and his Triple-A teammates were watching "The Natural" one day, when Charlie Manuel -- then a manager in Cleveland's system -- walked in and told them to turn the TV off. The players insisted on watching a little longer and, when Manuel looked up and saw Roy Hobbs, the movie's fictional protagonist, point his bat toward the pitcher, the manager obliged.
Manuel had been searching for some kind of mechanism for Thome to use at the start of his swing to stay relaxed at the plate. He suggested that Thome try Hobbs' approach, and the stance was born. Thome never shattered any light standards, but he soon began morphing into the type of hitter that Manuel envisioned. It was around that same time that Manuel had Thome shift into a more open position with his feet.
"It was very important," Manuel said on MLB Network. "And let me tell you something, once we did that, he started hitting balls all over the yard. He started pulling balls strong and he also started hitting hard the other way, too."
When the Indians created Thome's statue, the slugger said one of Manuel should be built alongside it. Theirs was a special bond that spanned several years through Thome's career.
"I would not be here if it wasn't for Charlie," Thome said. "I know he's very humble and he'll say, 'Hey, the players got to ultimately do it,' but I will tell you, there was many, many days that he pounded his fist, wanting to keep me at the big league level. There were days when I was in Triple-A that he told me I wasn't ready to go to the big leagues. So from that point, I knew and trusted him like a father."
During the 1990s, Thome was a part of the Indians' core that helped the franchise capture six division titles and reach two World Series (1995 and '97). After the 2002 season, though, Thome became the top free-agent hitter on the market and explored his options, eventually signing a six-year, $85 million contract with Philadelphia. For the Phillies, Thome was the biggest free-agent acquisition since Pete Rose in '78. For Indians fans, it was incredibly tough news to swallow, especially after Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle had also left via free agency before him.
Thome led the National League in homers (47) in 2003, finished fourth in voting for the NL MVP Award and went on to belt 89 homers in a two-year span for his new club. Prior to the '06 season, the Phils dealt Thome to the White Sox, where he spent four years and now works as a special assistant to the general manager. Before retiring, Thome had a second stint with both Cleveland ('11) and Philadelphia ('12).
The Indians gave Thome a fitting send-off in his final home game in a Cleveland uniform. In the ninth inning against the Twins on Sept. 25, 2011, Lonnie Chisenhall moved to left from third base, and former Tribe manager Manny Acta sent Thome to the hot corner -- where his Indians career began -- for one pitch.
Being able to return to Cleveland, and be welcomed back by fans who were upset to see him walk away so many years earlier, meant a lot to Thome.
"Jimmy was so nervous about coming back," Alomar said. "When people came out and stood up and gave him an ovation, that was an incredible feeling for everybody, especially for people who were around for those times and knew what we went through in development, going from losing 100 games to winning 100. All of that, it was just a lot of hard work for growth as a unit, and he was one of the main pieces."
On Aug. 2, 2014, Thome signed an honorary one-day contract with the Indians, so he could officially retire as a member of the organization. That was the same day that his 12-foot, bronze statue was unveiled at Progressive Field, where Thome is part of the team's Hall of Fame.
Thome is no longer just an Indians great, though. He can now be called a Hall of Famer.
"Walking through the front door gives you chills," Thome said of going to Cooperstown. "I think the Hall of Fame is so magical."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.