Jim Thome just wasn’t big enough.
At least, not in his eyes. After being drafted by Cleveland in 1989, the 19-year-old received his invitation to spring training with an exuberance that seemed to alarm his father.
Terrifyingly enough, Thome went forward with his plan and showed up in Florida at the Indians’ spring training complex massive enough in size that the team was, as his father put it, “aghast.”1
Still developing as a ball player—at this point, the Indians weren’t even sold on Thome as a legitimate prospect—Thome didn’t make the team that pre-season and was sent to the Gulf Coast League for some extended work. There, he met hitting specialist Charlie Manuel, who had spent part of his career terrorizing pitchers overseas in Japan, and as a coach had become renown for shaping the raw talent of young sluggers.
“From the moment I met Charlie Manuel as a wide-eyed kid in the Gulf Coast League, I knew this was someone I could connect with instantly,” Thome said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech on Sunday.
The partnership so firmly established that spring would, as absolutely no one presumed at the time, wind up paying huge dividends about a thousand miles away and a couple of decades later in Philadelphia.
As a hitting instructor and eventual manager of the Indians in the nineties and 2000s, Manuel ran into a litany of prolific hitters, many of which needed to be unlocked in some way: Manny Ramirez sometimes required a brief wrestling match before agreeing to get in the batting cage 2. Manuel worked Kenny Lofton out of a minor league funk by having him trust his reflexes and rely on his speed 3. In 2001, Manuel mentioned his philosophy to the press after the Indians overcame a 12-run deficit to beat the Mariners 15-14 on August 5: “The biggest lesson this game teaches you is to never give up and to keep on swinging.”4
Manuel, in addition to a head full of hitting aptitude, had a way of reaching just about any hitter that was put in his path. Many questions have been asked about the proper equation for baseball coaches and managers to follow, especially at the major league level, but for Manuel it never seemed more complex than coaxing the bombs out of talented hitters by keeping them loose.
“He made me feel comfortable from the start,” Thome has said of Manuel. “He has a special knack for that.”
Manuel was known as a player’s manager, and look at the players he’s managed: Thome. Ramirez. Lofton. Omar Vizquel. Sandy and Roberto Alomar. Ryan Howard. Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley. Shane Victorino. Jayson Werth. Some were raw talent wrapped in a finicky personality; others were monstrous sluggers waiting for the right advice; others were discarded pieces who asked him for a chance, and got it.
In an age in which a manager whose objective is to maintain a positive clubhouse is constantly questioned, even while his team sits in first place, it’s never been more clear that young players can benefit from a manager who just wants them to stay comfortable.
Both Thome and Manuel had their skills epitomized by their experience with each other; Manuel brought out the hitter in Thome, and Thome served as a tremendous example of what Manuel’s coaching could do.
The Phillies’ acquisition of Jim Thome in 2001 can be viewed as the start of a fresh era in Phillies baseball: for once, the biggest free agent on the market wanted to come here. It was equal in surrealism as the moment they first painted post season regalia on the Citizens Bank Park grass in 2007. Thome left behind the only organization he had ever played for in Cleveland, the one through he’d met his hitting mentor and developed into one of the game’s most fearsome sluggers, and came to Philadelphia, where he was immediately cherished. In turn, the trade that sent him to the White Sox in 2005 and cleared space for a young Ryan Howard at first base can be viewed as just as impactful, as it led to the building of the eventual 2008 championship team.
And it was Manuel’s fluency in the language of baseball that attracted the Phillies to him during their manager search in the post-Bowa era, their own generation of young stars on the horizon in need of the sort of guidance for which Manuel was known. Manuel’s arrival in Philadelphia had considerably less fanfare than Thome’s, as fans questioned his decision-making, his strategies, his results, his bullpen management, the sound of his voice, the place he was from, the air which he breathed, etc.; the typical barometers for measuring a new manager’s success before he’s had a chance to unpack his stuff. Somehow, Manuel was able to win people over—maybe it was his personality, maybe it was the first major sports championship in 25 years he brought to the city; who knows?—and become the deliverer of a level of success the franchise had only ever experienced on one other occasion.
You could argue that just about any particular moment in this sequence could, in retrospect, be labeled the most pivotal, given that one doesn’t happen without the other. And you could certainly argue that Thome’s talent could have surfaced regardless of who he ran into as a rookie, or that Manuel’s influence on hitters would have been known throughout the sport even if he hadn’t taken Thome under his wing that spring. And while Thome and Manuel’s actual time in Philadelphia together was limited, their individual impacts on the Philadelphia sports scene, built partially from their influence on each other, are unarguable. And it all hinges on that moment in 1990, when a beefed-up Thome showed up in Kissimmee and took the advice of a man the Japanese called “The Red Devil.”
“Charlie took a scrappy young kid who was anxious to hit a million home runs and actually encouraged those crazy dreams,” Thome said on Sunday as Manuel watched in the gathered Cooperstown assembly. “He told me that I could hit as many home runs as I wanted to. From day one, in that dugout in Kissimmee, he always believed in me.”
- “Jim Thome: Lefty Launcher,” by Amy Rosewater
- “Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger,” by Jean Rhodes, Shawn Boburg, p. 144
- “100 Things Indians Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” by Zack Meisel, p. 115
- “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Cleveland Indians: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Cleveland Indians History,” by Mary Schmitt Boyer, p. 79