CLEVELAND -- The last question -- or observation, as it were -- at Jim Thome's press conference after the 8-foot statue bearing his image and booming bat was unveiled Saturday at Progressive Field came not from a reporter but from team owner and CEO Paul Dolan.
"I noticed you look pretty good in bronze," Dolan said, "and you look pretty good with that Indians cap on your head."
The implication was clear.
Thome, the seventh-most prolific home-run hitter of all time, will be eligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018, and the Indians would certainly be the natural choice for the cap on his inevitable plaque.
"I agree," Thome said with a smile. "One hundred percent."
That's why Thome and the Indians made Saturday not just about the statue but also about the relationship between player and team. Nearly two years removed from his last game in the big leagues, Thome signed an honorary one-day contract with the Indians just prior to their game against the Rangers so that he could officially retire as a member of the organization.
Additionally, Jason Giambi handed over Thome's No. 25, promising not to wear it again when he comes off the disabled list later this season.
It was not an official retirement of the number, but here, again, the implication was clear.
"This is a dream come true," Thome said of Saturday's proceedings, which included an unveiling ceremony attended by a large throng of fans, friends, family, former teammates and the current Tribe club. "It means the world to me that we were able to do this."
Thome admitted he was pretty uncomfortable with getting the statue treatment, but he couldn't complain about the end result.
Created by local artist David Deming, the statue sits just outside the team's Hall of Fame at Heritage Park, not far from where Thome famously hit a 511-foot homer in 1999 that stands as the longest ever hit in this ballpark. It depicts Thome in his familiar "Natural" pose, the bat pointed at the pitcher while he digs into the box.
"I love it," Thome said. "Pointing the bat. I love how they wrapped the bat with my tape. The pine tar on the helmet. All the unique things that I loved. The socks are up. And it's for sure bigger than me. So it's pretty cool."
Thome, though, made it clear that he sees the statue not just as a celebration of his own accomplishments, which include a team-record 337 home runs among the 612 in his career, but also of those tremendous Indians teams that sold out this ballpark night after night, reaching the World Series in 1995 and '97.
"I think that was a reflection not on the individual but more on the group," Thome said. "The front office, the coaches, the manager, the players and the people that come through the door. ... I want people to walk by [the statue] in 50 years and say, 'Those Cleveland Indians teams in the mid-90s were really, really good.'"
Some fans here felt burned by Thome when he left the Tribe for Philadelphia in free agency after the 2002 season. But all seemed forgiven by the time Thome returned in 2011, claimed off waivers from the Twins shortly after hitting his 600th career home run and welcomed back with a rousing ovation.
"There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of anxiousness," Thome said of that time. "That first night when I got introduced and the crowd cheered me, that's something I won't forget. You leave a place and ultimately you want to be accepted back. They still showed their love and excitement for what we did for a long time here."
That love poured out again on this day, and Thome got emotional in his speech at the statue unveiling. It was attended not just by his wife, Andrea, and children, Lila and Landon, but also by former general manager John Hart, managers Mike Hargrove and Charlie Manuel and several former teammates. Thome got particularly choked up when acknowledging Manuel, the hitting guru who first suggested the Roy Hobbs pose long ago in Triple-A Charlotte, at a time when Thome was struggling at the plate.
Neither man could have imagined the 612 homers that would follow.
"I won't take credit for every one of 'em," Manuel said. "But I can take credit for watching a lot of 'em."
Tribe president Mark Shapiro said Thome deserved the statue treatment not just for "epitomizing power and production" but also epitomizing humility, even as he ascended into the ranks of the elite.
"Those who know him," Shapiro said, "recognize just how much more he stood for and stands for."
Now, his depiction stands forever in the ballpark where he and those Indians teams made so many memories and so much magic.
For the 43-year-old Thome, the retirement announcement made official what time had made inevitable. He played his last game for the Orioles on Oct. 3, 2012, and had expressed interest in an AL designated hitter opportunity the following winter, but the market bore no fruit. He has since been hired as a special assistant to the White Sox, given their proximity to his Chicago-area home.
Still, the statue ceremony seemed, to Thome and the Indians, an appropriate time to end a career in which Thome elevated himself from unheralded 13th-round Draft pick to one of the signature faces of this franchise.
Much like Bob Feller, the only other former member of the charter American League franchise to be honored with a statue at the Tribe's home park, Thome emerged from the Midwest farms like a gift from the baseball gods. A product of Peoria, Ill., Thome was the 331st player selected in the 1989 amateur Draft, and his country-strong, power-hitting prowess was the stuff of legend.
Thome's rate of one home run every 17.62 at-bats ranks fourth all-time, behind only Mark McGwire (10.61), Babe Ruth (11.76) and Barry Bonds (12.92). Yet he was far more than just a home run hitter. He was a lifetime .276 hitter -- a higher tally than some other famed sluggers such as Ernie Banks (.274), McGwire (.263), Harmon Killebrew (.256), Reggie Jackson (.262), Mike Schmidt (.267) and Ernie Banks (.274).
And notably, Thome (.402), Ruth (.474) and Bonds (.444) are the only three of the eight members of the 600 home run club to amass a career on-base percentage over .400.
Though free agency brought him to the Phillies and subsequent, unsatisfied efforts to land a World Series ring brought him to the White Sox, Dodgers, Twins, Phillies (again) and Orioles, Thome will always be associated with the Indians, for whom he played 1,399 games and ranks second in RBI (937), third in OPS (.980), fifth in runs (928) and 10th in doubles (263).
Asked if he had considered negotiating one last at-bat into that one-day contract, Thome laughed.
"That would be fun," he said. "I'm always ready for one last at-bat."
The statue will forever back up the sentiment.