While the Indians’ playoff odds are spiraling into oblivion, at least one thing is right in Cleveland: Jim Thome is back where he belongs. The 1990’s team hero and fan favorite returned to The Cleve last month to an energized fanbase of nostalgic fans eager to see him back in a Tribe uniform.
But, at least for this Indians fan, Thome’s departure after the 2002 season is still a sore subject. While it’s absurd to be mad at him for leaving, there was definitely reason to have been sad to see him go. And I was forced to relive a painful memory from when Thome left town earlier this week.
It was the winter of 2003. I was 10 years old, and my family was on a beach in Florida, on vacation to escape the bitter Cleveland winter for a few days. As we sat by the pool, I noticed another kid around my age nearby. We struck up a conversation and became fast friends (or whatever you call it when two youngsters enjoy a few days acquaintanceship).
My friend, it turned out, was from Philadelphia. He was also a baseball fan, so we quickly found something to talk about. I don’t remember how the conversation started or initially progressed, but eventually he mentioned how excited he was that his Phillies had just signed Jim Thome.
But he didn’t say “Thome.” He said “Thoam.” He pronounced the silent “h” and missed the separate syllable “e,” like “home” with a “th” at the beginning. It rhymed with “foam” and “comb” and “Rome.” Not “Toe-may” or “Toe-me” or even “Tho-me.” Thoam.
Here was the only Phillies fan I knew (and thus, to my 10-year-old self, a symbol for the entire city of Philadelphia). He had just wooed one of my idols away from the team I lived and died with. He had stolen someone from a poster in my room. And he didn’t even know his name.
It was a slap in the face, an insult to injury, a handful of salt thrown into the still-open wound. He didn’t know whatl he was getting. He didn’t appreciate what he was getting. He—and, by extension, the Phillies—didn’t deserve Jim Thome. My friend’s attempt at casual conversation had inadvertently twisted the knife in the wound.
For months after that had happened, I told that story every chance I got. Long after I got over the loss of Thome, that conversation still rang true to me as an illustration of the injustice of a bigger-market team poaching one of my heroes.
Of course, all is well now that Thome is home again (watching him launch a home run in his second game back ranks among the greatest Tribe moments I have ever witnessed). But this story came rushing back to me earlier this week.
A good friend of mine is a Minnesota Twins fan. She’s planning to marry Joe Mauer, and every time someone in her earshot mentions baseball she’s quick to mention her love for the Twinkies.
Naturally, she had a strong negative reaction to seeing Thome traded back to the Indians. He might not have been a true key player in Minnesota and he was there for less than two seasons, but it’s still easy to understand how a Twins fan could fall in love with a future Hall of Famer with a heart of gold. While I disagree with her that the Indians were wrong to have “stole[n] him”—we had him first—I can at least empathize with the sadness of losing Thome.
At least, I could empathize with her until she called him Jim “Toam.” Unlike my old friend, she at least understood the silent “h,” but she, too, shortened his surname to just one syllable. Toam. And she claimed he was one of her favorite players.
Yes, it’s a hard name to pronounce if you’ve never heard it before, and a single person’s mispronunciation does not an unsuitable fanbase make. I like to think I’m a little more mature than I was almost nine years ago, and I know not to make the same sweeping judgments. But the parallel between her slip-up and that of my vacation acquaintance some years earlier was uncanny, and my emotional response was the same: you don’t appreciate just how amazing Thome is.
This time though, the story has a happy ending—Thome is home again in Cleveland, where the fans love him like no other city can. And unlike my friends, you can be sure that I know his name.