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Inside Baseball: As a player and a person, Jim Thome earned his Hall of Fame honor

When you covered the Cleveland Indians in the mid-'90s, you had to gird for every trip into the clubhouse. Albert Belle was a terror. Eddie Murray was sullen. You never knew what kind of mood Kenny Lofton would be in. Manny Ramirez was, well, Manny. Prickliness was in fashion all around the room.

Jim Thome almost didn't fit in. He was about the nicest person you would ever meet. In 1995, he was a 25-year-old third baseman in just his second full year in the big leagues. That boyish Midwest charm was everywhere but the swing was menacing.

And the bat flip after his clinching home run in Game 5 of the World Series against Atlanta? He'd get drilled for it today, but it was beautiful long before Jose Bautista. It's hard to imagine anyone more universally saluted around baseball than Thome, who becomes a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame Sunday in Cooperstown.

Thome was a kid who grew through hard work into one of the top sluggers of his generation and the icon of Indians hitters. There's a statue of his stance outside Progressive Field, where he hit so many of his 612 career home runs.

I can still picture Thome holding court at his locker on so many days and nights in the Tribe clubhouse, especially in those year-after-year October runs. As he got older, he got veteran status: Bigger locker space at one end of the room with the big black leather chair. Thome would sit and we would ask. Didn't matter how many reporters, how many questions.

Lots of players shuffled in out of Cleveland, but Thome stayed until free agency finally called for Philadelphia in 2003. It was a bitter split for Tribe fans, who railed on Thome when he came back with the White Sox and Twins in later years. But a 22-game stint with the Tribe in 2011 seemed to mend fences. He's a hero now in Cleveland, the lone drafted/developed player from the '90s Tribe to enter the Hall. Richly deserved.

The famous pointed-bat stance Thome used? It started with minor-league manager and Cleveland hitting coach Charlie Manuel. Where did they get it from? Watching Robert Redford in the filmed-in-Buffalo classic, "The Natural."

The point got Thome to relax at the plate. Manuel moved Thome's back foot closer and that helped Thome start to pull the ball more to right field while keeping his power to left-center.

He really was a Natural.

Jim Thome's statue, with Robert Redford-style bat point, outside Progressive Field during the 2016 World Series (Getty Images).

Thome also enters the trivia books in Buffalo lore as the 21st former ex-Bison to enter the Hall. Thome missed Buffalo on his way up through the Cleveland chain, as he played under Manuel in Triple-A when the Tribe was set up in Charlotte.

But he suffered a broken pinky in August 1998, and by the time he needed some injury rehab at-bats, there was only one minor-league team still playing in the Cleveland chain.

That was the Bisons, who were about to meet the Durham Bulls in the '98 International League Governors' Cup finals. Thome was sent to then-North AmeriCare Park for Games 1 and 2 of the series, and the Bulls were not happy about it but were told it was the only minor-league team available for Thome to rehab with.

Thome served as the designated hitter in Game 1 and played first base in Game 2 as the Bisons won both games. When Thome arrived at the ballpark for Game 1, he was greeted by Bisons star Jeff Manto. The message was clear.

"I looked right at him and said, " 'Hey, Jimmy, you're not on rehab,' " a smiling Manto recalled earlier this month while in town as a hitting instructor with the Norfolk Tides. "Don't just get your work in. We're here to win this thing. Take your at-bats serious.

"He knew. He knew what this was about and he really played. He was happy to be here to get a chance to compete in a real situation."

Thome memorably came up with the bases loaded in Game 1 and struck out. But he did have two hits and a walk to help the Bisons wipe out a 5-0 deficit in a game they won 9-6.

Manto played several stints with Thome in Cleveland, including a spot on the 1997 World Series roster, and reaffirmed what folks around the game all say. When you ask who my clubhouse favorites have been the last 20-plus years, it's Manto and Torey Lovullo in Buffalo. In the big leagues, it's Tony Gwynn, Mariano Rivera and Thome. Class acts all of them.

"You're just so happy for him. What a career," Manto said. "You see him now on MLB Network and if you think he's a good guy, that's how he is. He is as genuine as he seems on TV. He's a sincere, caring guy and this all couldn't happen to a nicer person."


Chipper on the Bills

The scene was Atlanta's Disney complex in the spring of 2001. Chipper Jones was the planned interview subject. Yet another reporter on yet another March morning, plus he was dealing with wrist issues and wasn't all that keen on talking about them.

Until I mentioned the Buffalo Bills.

"You're from Buffalo? YOU get it. Sit down," Jones said.

We talked for the next 10 minutes about the Braves' dynasty of the 90s and how those who called it a failure -- much like the Bills' four straight Super Bowls -- simply didn't understand how difficult it was to maintain.

"That's a slap in the face," Jones said of the label. "Unless you walk in our shoes, you don't know how hard it is to do what we've done over a 10-year period. Hey, we've won one more World Series in that time than about 25 other teams, for starters. Certainly no one in here hangs their head over what we've accomplished."

Jones, one of the great switch-hitters of our time, enters Cooperstown Sunday as well. He joins Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz from those great Atlanta teams.

"It's hard to keep a dynasty together unless you go out and spend $100 million," Jones said that day. "We've been able to do it even though we've had a lot of different players in here.

"Just like the Bills, probably 10 or 20 years down the road people are going to say, "Man, now I see what kind of a run that was and how many games they won over that 10-year period.' Then we will really get some respect."

Point made. Respect earned.


Getting it right

The Eras Committees really righted a wrong by voting in Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, and it's great to see them get their just due on Sunday. They were huge stalwarts for the '84 Tigers, whose 35-5 start remains one the great feats of the expansion era.

Trammell didn't get nearly enough love from the writers, like many stars of the '80s whose numbers have been overwhelmed by more recent players. Wonderful skills at short, power bat. An impeccable, long-term double-play combination with Lou Whitaker. He belongs.

Stat heads don't like Morris' numbers, specfically that 3.90 career ERA, and I get it. Too bad. He made at least 34 starts in 11 seasons and was the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, won 21 games for the 1992 World Series champion Blue Jays and pitched the greatest modern-day Game 7 in history with his 1-0, 10-inning win over the Braves that won the '91 Series.

Morris won 254 games in his career and sometimes that really is the object of the game. Good for him.

Around the horn

• Dodgers outfielder Enrique Hernandez became the first position player in history to give up a walkoff home run when he was torched for a three-run shot in the 16th inning Tuesday by Phillies infielder Trevor Plouffe.

• The Red Sox hit 40 games over .500 in July last week at 71-31. The Dodgers were 40 over last July. Since 1970, that had only previously been done by the 116 win Mariners of 2001, who were 47 games over .500 at 76-29.

• The Reds got no-hit through six innings last week on back-to-back nights by Cardinals rookies Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber. On the second night, as Gomber took the mound, a fire alarm rang through Great American Ball Park and created a seven-minute delay. When play resumed, Gomber's no-no quickly went by the boards. The Cardinals weren't amused.

The Reds' music choice at one point after the delay: Billy Joel's "We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

• The Bisons' return to the minor leagues' Top 25 list for merchandise sales in 2017 is likely traceable through the powder blue jerseys and hats unveiled as Blue Jays' throwbacks. The betting here is the Herd makes the list again in 2018 through the sales of "Buffalo Wings" gear. You see it all over the ballpark. The Rochester Red Wings also snuck back in the 2017 list, likely through strong sales of their "Rochester Plates" gear.

Ocker gets his Hall call too

A big tip of this corner's cap goes out to venerable former Indians beat writer Sheldon Ocker, who was honored Saturday in Cooperstown with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. It's given annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America for “meritorious service to baseball writing" and Ocker is honored as part of the induction weekend.

Ocker, 75, covered the Indians for the Akron Beacon Journal from 1981 until his retirement in 2014 and was the Cal Ripken of the beat, pretty much never missing a game at home or on the road from spring training all the way through the World Series.

Ocker was in the press box at then-Jacobs Field every day during the entirety of the Bisons' 14-year affiliation with the Tribe from 1995-2008. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Tribe history and a unique, often blunt, way of connecting with players and coaches. Sometimes, he flat-out drove them crazy but you could tell they knew he would be there in good times and in bad. The respect was obvious.

Ocker, Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Jim Ingraham of the Lake County News-Herald were on the Indians beat together from 1985 on, making them the longest running trio in the game. Hoynes and Ingraham remain on the job.

It was a privilege to cover all of the Indians' playoff games from 1995-2007 with them and share the tales of the players' days and nights in Buffalo that got them into contention for a World Series.

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