OPINION | Why Cleveland Indians legend Jim Thome means so much to fans like me

For centuries, young sports fans have had heroes they look up to. Jim Thome was mine.

Jim Thome is going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I get a little emotional typing those words, especially when I think of what Thome meant to Cleveland, to baseball, and to me.

Thome’s numbers (612 home runs, .956 OPS) speak for themselves, especially when you remember he went through his career without even a whiff of steroid suspicion. For 22 seasons, the Peoria, Ill. native was the very definition of “Country Strong.”

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But numbers don’t tell Jim Thome’s full story. He was also consistently known as one of the nicest people in baseball, and was even voted as such multiple times by his peers. There are countless stories from fans about his warmth and kindness over the years, and I should know, for I was one of the people whose lives he impacted.

When I was about 6 years old, I pretty much decided on a whim that Jim Thome was going to be my favorite player. I wasn’t as invested as I am now with baseball or the Indians yet, and knew little of Thome’s accomplishments on the field.

That didn’t matter. Once I chose a favorite player, I was committed.

Halloweed 2002 with my friend Josh Jamison. (Photo: Janet Carey)

On Aug. 7, 2002, my parents took my sister and I to the Tribe game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was eight days before my eighth birthday, and as an early present, our seats were in the second row right behind first base. The hope was that I would be lucky enough to have Jimmy toss me a ball from the field. I even had a sign that read, “Hey Jim, it’s my birthday! #25”

With my dad, Jeff Carey. (Photo: Janet Carey)

Unfortunately, there was bad news once we got there: Thome’s back was not 100 percent, and he would be limited to a DH role. As any soon-to-be 8-year-old would be, I was devastated. My opportunity for a brush with greatness had been dashed.

I felt better as the game wore on, especially after my sign made it onto the jumbotron (Thome then doubled in his next at bat). My dad, however, was on a mission. Al Bumbry was the Indians first base coach at the time, and throughout the game, my dad kept calling out, “Hey Al, it’s his birthday! Can you get him a ball??” Of course, I didn’t think anything would come of it.

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Then, around the 7th or 8th inning, Bumbry came back out to first. My dad nudged me: “Look Tyler, he’s got a ball in his pocket.”

I was as nervous as I will ever be when Al walked right up to me.

Al Bumbry helps make a young fan's dreams come true. (Photo: Janet Carey)

“I was talking to Jimmy,” he joked, “and he doesn’t believe it’s really your birthday.”

“No! No!”, I yelped. “It is! Didn’t you read my sign??”

(I should note that I felt a little guilty, as technically my birthday wasn’t for another eight days. My parents assured me I was okay, though)

Without missing a beat, I gave Al the sign, and he handed me the ball before trotting back to the coach’s box. The entire section cheered, and with wide eyes I gazed at what was now my most prized possession.

It was only when I turned it over that I saw what had been written on the side:

“Happy Bday, Jim Thome #25”

(Photo: Tyler Carey)

The entire exchange of that day epitomized Jim Thome. As great a player as he was, he is an even better man. I had found my baseball idol, and nothing was ever going to change that.

Not even the events of four months later, when Thome made the decision to leave Cleveland and sign with the Philadelphia Phillies. I have no shame admitting I bawled my eyes out, as so many young fans have when they have their first harsh experience with the business side of sports. It didn’t matter to me, as an 8-year-old, that Jimmy was probably making the right decision (let’s face it, the Indians were about to be terrible for a few years). Just as I had become invested in the game, my favorite player was leaving me.

But instead of turning my back on Thome, I decided to improvise. Make no mistake, the Indians were still my team, but for Easter that next year I begged my parents to get me a Phillies cap. Whenever Philadelphia played on national television, it became appointment television. I cheered for the team, but mostly for Thome, defiantly refusing to listen to those in Cleveland who called him a traitor or a sellout. He was my guy, and there was no way I was going to give up on him.

For his part, Jimmy more than returned the favor. I was lucky enough to meet him multiple times when I was young, including twice with his wife Andrea on Halloween at their Barrington home. And yes, I came dressed appropriately.

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Halloween 2005. Yes, that's a Phillies jersey. (Photo: Janet Carey)

Each time I met him, I was extremely star-struck and awkward, but Thome could not have been nicer. He took the time to talk to me and even listen to my weird musings about baseball. Other athletes of his stature may not have been as patient and kind, but trust me, Jim Thome is the real deal.

As I grew older, my fever-pitch fandom for Thome may have waned slightly, but I never stopped following his career, no matter the uniform. I was thrilled to see him hit his 500th home run, followed by his 600th, knowing full well he was destined for the Hall of Fame. When he returned to the Indians in 2011, I was at Progressive Field for his second game back. He clearly wasn’t the player he once was, but he still had a flare for the dramatic, hitting a home run into the bleachers on his 41st birthday.

I was back at the stadium three years later when the Tribe honored Thome with a statue, and again in 2016 when he was inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame. His daughter, Lila, sang the national anthem, and I remember my aunt crying during that moment. She had seen Thome hit long, soaring home runs at Jacobs Field throughout the 90s, stuff that I had only been able to see on the highlight films I watched on a loop when I was young.

I plan to be in Cooperstown in July when Thome receives his plaque, assuredly with a picture of him wearing an Indians hat. Maybe all of this seems like too much devotion to one player, but to me, Jimmy wasn’t just the greatest home run hitter the Indians ever had. He was also a huge part of my childhood, a sentiment I think most die hard baseball fans will understand.

It is my belief that people, especially kids, should have heroes they look up to as examples on how to live the right way. I have been fortunate to have a good number of those people in my life even today, but as a young boy, none of them could measure up to Jim Thome. He was and is everything a professional athlete should be: Stellar and hard-working on the field while remaining humble and gracious off of it. He could have easily blown me off as just some kid looking for an autograph, but every time our paths happened to cross he made sure I left with a smile on my face. He knew how much those interactions meant to me and so many other children like me.

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Jim Thome was never the flashiest player in baseball, and was often even overshadowed on his own teams. But he went through his entire career with grace and class, qualities that followed him off the field. He approached the game and his life the right way, accomplishing feats most can only dream about.

And now, he’s a Hall of Famer. I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

MORE ON JIM THOME'S ELECTION TO THE HALL OF FAME:

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OPINION | Jim Thome's character is as Hall of Fame worthy as his home run hitting prowess

Cleveland Indians great Jim Thome humbled, honored by selection to National Baseball Hall of Fame

JIMMY'S TAKE | The greatness of Jim Thome was defined in many ways