Best Indians draft pick ever?
In the 13th round of the 1989 June Draft, with the 333rd overall pick of the draft, right after the Expos selected James Martin and just before the Astros took Glen Reyes, the Indians selected an unknown shortstop from Illinois Central Junior College:
On Wednesday, that former shortstop, who went on to wallop a whopping 612 major league home runs, will be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
As an Indian.
Although he played for six teams in his unblemished 22-year, 2,543-game, 10,313-plate appearance major league career, including 17 games with the Dodgers and 28 with the Orioles — when did THAT happen? — Thome will be remembered most, and enshrined forever as an Indian.
No player in Indians history has hit more home runs, drawn more walks or summed up a devastating postseason loss more colorfully than the slugging wordsmith, who after the 99-win 1996 Indians were so rudely bounced from the playoffs by the upstart 88-win Orioles, in four games in the Division Series, bravely stood before the cameras and notepads and delivered a postmortem for the ages:
“We can still walk out of here with our chests held high.”
The 13th round of the draft is not typically where baseball grows Hall of Famers, much less Hall of Famers who go barreling into Cooperstown by almost universal acclaim in their first year on the ballot.
But here comes Thome, whose overwhelming resume and pristine reputation made checking his box on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot a welcome no-brainer for voters weary of having to sort through the rogues, scamps and scoundrels populating the darker corners of the ballot, like mushrooms in the outfield.
Voting for Thome was like voting for baseball itself.
It was the right thing to do, and it felt good doing it.
So almost everybody did.
Unlike Hall of Fame-worthy Kenny Lofton, who was inexplicably ignored by voters — he was removed from the ballot after one year for failing to garner the 5 percent of votes required to remain on the ballot (Lofton got 3.2 percent) — Thome, in his first year on the ballot, is getting overwhelming support.
Players need 75 percent for induction, and unofficial Hall of Fame vote tracking sites have Thome’s vote total around 90 percent. If that holds, Thome could rival Bob Feller for the highest percentage of votes by an Indians player in the Hall of Fame.
In his induction year of 1962, Feller received 93.8 percent of the vote.
As a further point of reference, in 1937, the second Hall of Fame induction class, the top three vote getters were all Indians: Napoleon Lajoie, with 83.6 percent of the votes, Tris Speaker (82.1) and Cy Young (76.1). There’s also Bob Lemon (78.6 in 1976) and Lou Boudreau (77.3 in 1970).
The all-time leader in this category is Ken Griffey Jr., who was inducted last year after getting 99.3 percent of the votes.
Thome, like Griffey, made it through the steroid era with his reputation intact, no small feat for a home run hitter in that chemically-enhanced epoch, characterized by grotesque bodies and grotesque home run totals that forever distorted the record books.
Thome’s 612 home runs rank eighth on baseball’s all-time list, but on the non-steroid-tainted list, Thome ranks sixth, behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Griffey and Albert Pujols.
Thome’s first career home run came on Oct. 4, 1991, off Steve Farr at Yankee Stadium. His last home run came on Sept. 26, 2012, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, off Toronto’s Carlos Villanueva.
In between he hit a franchise record 337 home runs for the Indians and 275 for the five other teams for whom he played. According to Baseball-Reference’s salary tracker, in his 22-year career Thome made $142.7 million.
More impressive still: he was the same person in 1991, when he was making the major league minimum as a 20-year-old rookie, as he was in 2008, when his career-high salary was $15.6 million.
He was an ego-less, gentleman slugger who played by the rules, respected the game and everyone in it.
Following the 2002 season, he left Cleveland, signing a six-year $85 million contract with the Phillies. The Indians had offered five years and $62 million. He was hammered by an Indians fan base still nursing open wounds from the free-agent departures of Albert Belle in 1996 and Manny Ramirez in 2000.
It tore up Thome to the point that he invited the Indians’ three traveling beat writers to his home, individually, on separate nights, to explain his decision.
A decade later he returned to Cleveland, where his statue now stands.
He was an old-school throwback, and personified everything that is good and right about baseball.
Later this year he can walk into Cooperstown with his chest held high.
Contact Jim Ingraham at 329-7135 or email@example.com.