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Thome, Nagy leave fans with good memories

Jim Thome and Charles Nagy are both on their way out the door in Cleveland. Nagy is being put on a horse and ridden off into the sunset by a team that cannot justify keeping a pitcher whose war-torn right elbow has only allowed him to win eight games in the last three years.

Thome is being set at the front door and told to see what’s out there. The hope is that he’ll find the free agency water cold enough to come back home and sign a nice, warm (but by no means top-dollar) contract.

Thome and Nagy have both been in Cleveland long enough to develop legions of both critics and admirers. I’ve had brief personal experiences with both of them and they both won me over; star-struck as I might have been.

In the summer of 1998, I was a warehouse lackey for the Indians. My job consisted of hauling merchandise from the commissary to concession stands all over Jacobs Field. One day I ran a paperwork errand to the executive offices.

As I was standing in the basement lobby waiting for the elevator, a tall man, wearing his dark blue practice jersey and white baseball pants like a three-piece suit, appeared around the corner and waited along with me.

It was Nagy.

I’m 6′-2.” Nagy is about 6′-3.” Right at that moment, I could have been staring up at an NBA center, though. Several of us got on the elevator. I was going to be in close quarters with a major league baseball player for about the next 40 seconds. I was caught in a limbo where I didn’t want to say something just to say it, but I didn’t want to say nothing either.

So I got up my nerve and made small talk.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he answered back.

It was magic.

“So, you went to college at UConn?” I said.

“Yeah. And you?”

“Well, uh, I go to college locally, at Tri-C.” Cuyahoga Community College, what now passes for my alma mater until I walk across the stage here.

The elevator stopped and the electronic bong heralded the doors. Time to get off. He was probably going up to the General Manager’s office to discuss big baseball things, I thought.

“See ya later, Charlie,” I said as I waved and stepped off the elevator. He said bye and waved back. Yeah, we were tight, Charlie and me.

My Thome story came last summer. I was an intern with the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, about 20 miles west of Cleveland, and I got to go back to Jacobs Field and do a story on utility infielder Jolbert Cabrera, who was later shot in the rear and traded to the Dodgers. Striding into that clubhouse, a general never wore his stars with more pride than I wore that Indians press pass. I was going around pulling guys aside wherever I could before the game to talk about Cabrera. I ran into a hurried Thome and asked him for a moment.

“Sir, I’m sorry, but I have to get ready for the game. How about afterward?”

I nodded with as much understanding as I could possibly muster. Far be it from me to stand between Thome and the ballgame.

After the game, I continued pulling guys aside. My notebook was full and I didn’t need to talk to Thome, but I really wanted to take him up on his offer. He was standing around talking to Chuck Finley and a couple of other players when I sidled up behind him. The clubhouse media relations guy, whose job was really just to talk tough and tell the media when to get the heck out, walked up to me.

“Hey. Media time’s over,” he said, trying to front some kind of New York accent.

“I know. I just need to talk to Jim Thome for a second,” I said.

He scowled with disbelief. “Thome’s already talked.” “I’m doing a story on Jolbert Cabrera and I just need to talk to him for a minute.” I didn’t want to be herded out like a herd of cattle. He relented.”Well, all right, it’s up to him. He’s over there, but hurry up.”

With newfound resolve, I strided up to the slugger. “Excuse me, Mr. Thome? I was wondering if I could just talk to you for a second?”

“Sure, buddy.”

With my first word, he appeared to drop his conversation and give me his undivided attention. He walked over to his locker, spun a plush leather chair around and sat down.

I only needed a few comments from him, but he got comfortable enough for a 15-minute interview. I felt kind of bad. I ran out of questions quickly and thanked him for his time, leaving him sitting there. But he still erred on the side of being over-courteous. Too many professional athletes err the other way.

Thome and Nagy don’t get caught up in the fact that they are professional ballplayers. When they take off their uniforms, they are still husbands and friends and next-door neighbors. They are role models who know kids and adults alike, look up to and admire them. The fact that what they do when they’re in their uniforms affects who they are in street clothes isn’t lost on them.

Baseball players are in the business of creating memories for those who watch them and interact with them. That’s why people pay the price of a ticket and wait in line for hours to get autographs. There is something about them that people want to touch and experience, to have a piece of.

Personally, they sold me on how somebody can become famous, earn astronomical amounts of money and still be grounded in the rules mom and dad taught them when they were young.

For every memory of Albert Belle chasing trick-or-treaters in a truck, for every memory of Randy Moss assaulting a traffic officer, there is a pleasant, neighborly memory of somebody like Jim Thome or Charles Nagy. For that, I’m thankful.

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