- Associated Press - Friday, September 23, 2011

CLEVELAND (AP) - All the memories, some fresh and some forgotten, have been chasing Jim Thome around this season _ maybe his final season.

And as it nears the end, Thome knows his career may be ending, too.

“You can’t play forever,” he said.

On Friday night, Thome experienced another emotional moment in a season overflowing with them as the Cleveland Indians, the team that will always mean more to him than any other, honored the gentlemanly slugger before opening a three-game series with Minnesota.

Then he went out and earned another curtain call, hitting his 604th career homer, a towering two-run shot to straightaway center, in the direction where he will soon be immortalized.

During a touching pregame tribute, the Indians unveiled plans to erect a bronze statue of Thome, the team’s career home run leader, beyond the wall in center. The pose is classic Thome, pointing his bat toward the pitcher. Thome was surprised and moved by the gesture.

After joining his teammates in the stands at Progressive Field for the Indians‘ 2011 team photo, Thome sat in the third base dugout and reminisced on his baseball journey, the one of the skinny third baseman with the sweet swing who became one of the greatest power hitters in major league history.

“I could have never imagined it,” said Thome, one of eight players to hit more than 600 home runs. “How could you?”

The 41-year-old Thome could be down to the final days of a Hall of Fame worthy career that began as a 19-year-old in 1989, when the Indians drafted the Peoria, Ill., native in the first round. Thome hasn’t decided if he’ll retire and insists he’s not leaning toward a return or giving up the game to be with his family.

He’s being patient and practical. Thome’s been around baseball long enough to know there’s a limited market for designated hitters with balky backs who might not be able to play every day. Whether it’s in a month or another year, Thome knows he’s down to just a few more cuts.

Starting next week, he’s got a lot to consider.

“You’ve got to get phone calls to play, that’s number one,” he said. “And then, we’ll see. I don’t want to give an answer right now because once I get home, I’ll reflect back on how this year went and look and see. I feel very fortunate that I was able to stay healthy _ pretty much. I was hurt a little bit here and there, but for the most part, it’s been a very special year.”

It began with him in Minnesota needing 11 homers to join baseball’s ultra-exclusive 600-homer club, a group of eight he joined on Aug. 15 in Detroit. Ten days later, the Twins traded him to the Indians, who hoped his addition could help a young team turn an unexpected season into a special one.

That didn’t happen. The Indians faded from contention and will end 2011 ahead of expectations but well back of Detroit in the AL Central.

However, the chance to come back helped Thome not only circle his career but bring closure to one of its roughest patches.

His decision to leave Cleveland as a free agent and sign with Philadelphia after the 2002 season changed his relationship with many Indians fans. They booed him as a visitor, and as hard as he tried to block out the negative noise, he couldn’t change the perception that he had betrayed the team he helped get to two World Series.

Thome didn’t know if he would ever be forgiven.

It took one at-bat for Cleveland to show him the hurt was gone.

As he came to the plate on Aug. 26 against Kansas City, Thome was greeted with a rousing standing ovation, a touching moment he ranked among his fondest.

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he told the crowd during Friday’s pregame festivities.

Coming “home” gave Thome the chance to make amends, correct an error.

“We all make mistakes and sometimes you say things and you really don’t realize what you’re saying at that moment,” he said. “You can always apologize and say you’re sorry, and hope you get that opportunity to do that. I don’t regret anything because I was able to be a part of some great organizations when I left. But to be able to come back and be a part of it is very special.”

Thome said his return to Cleveland gave him a chance to reflect on his first 12 seasons with the Indians, who won six division titles and two pennants with him in the heart of their batting order. Of all the moments, Thome said the one that may rank above them all was catching the third out in the ninth inning as Cleveland clinched the AL Central title in 1995 _ the Indians‘ first crown in 41 years.

Thome has relished the chance to mentor the Indians‘ young players. It’s a role he has embraced, and a chance to give back the way Hall of Famer Eddie Murray did in taking Thome under his wing as a teammate years earlier.

Even Cleveland’s veterans have been in awe.

“When I was coming up, he was the guy that I looked up to and I tried to pattern my game after him,” designated hitter Travis Hafner said. “I wanted to be a hitter first. A patient hitter, working the pitcher, like he did, and then if the home runs came along that was OK, too.”

During his second stint with Cleveland, Thome said simply walking into the clubhouse has sprung suppressed memories. He and former teammate and current coach Sandy Alomar recently talked about the 1997 playoff win over the Yankees. This week, Thome and Omar Vizquel shared some laughs and then got to trade lineup cards at home plate when the Indians hosted the White Sox.

There have been other flashbacks.

“So many great moments and times, it’s hard to remember them all,” he said. “But when they’re mentioned to you they kind of come back, which is cool.”

Thome feels his body can handle another season. He may stop anyway.

It may be time to go and retire, a word he’s not comfortable even saying.

“When do you know it’s time to say, ‘OK, that’s it?’” he said. “That is the most difficult part of any decision like that because you don’t want to throw the ‘R’ word out there. I’ve mentioned it a couple times, but not in the sense that I’m doing it. That word is very fragile. We’ll see.”



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