CLEVELAND - Jim Thome has swung back to the Cleveland Indians.
The slugger accepted a trade from Minnesota on Thursday night to return to the Indians, the team he started with and one hoping its career home run leader can help them run down the first-place Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
An unexpected season full of surprises and comeback wins for the Indians now has the most improbable return of all.
As he's done on more than 600 career homers, Thome has rounded the bags and is coming home.
Thome spent 12 seasons with Cleveland from 1991-2002, hitting a team-record 334 homers and helping the Indians get to two World Series. He hit 52 in his final season before signing as a free agent with Philadelphia, a decision that angered many Indians fans who will have to welcome him back.
"He's excited," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "He's fired up to come back and join the team. I am hopeful and confident that fans will embrace him wearing an Indians uniform again. He's not only an exceptional player but a person as well. Even if he wasn't a person that hit 600 home runs, he's just a great person."
Earlier this month, the five-time all-star became the eighth player in history to hit 600 homers.
The 40-year-old Thome waived a no-trade clause in his contract to clear his return to the Indians, who have been in contention all season but have lost six of their last seven games amid a rash of injuries. Thome's arrival will soften the loss of designated hitter Travis Hafner, who is on the disabled list and may need season-ending foot surgery.
"There's no question it's a bittersweet deal," Twins GM Bill Smith said. "But there's also no question this is the right thing to do for Jim Thome.
"He is all the superlative things that we knew we were getting when he came here two years ago. At this point in his Hall-of-Fame career, this is the right thing for him."
The Indians put a claim in for Thome on Wednesday, two days after the Twins waived him. Once the Indians were awarded Thome, the clubs had 48 hours to work out a trade. The Twins will receive a player to be named by Oct. 15.
Antonetti hopes Thome will arrive in time to be in the Indians' lineup Friday night. Antonetti doesn't expect Thome to play every game.
"We will have to manage his playing time," Antonetti said. "He's certainly not an everyday player at this point. We'll work with Jim on this. We'd like to have him out there to impact the team as often as we can. Every game for the team is meaningful. We are trying to win as many games as possible and we'll see where that takes us."
Thome's bat once helped Cleveland twice get close to its first Series title since 1948, and now the Indians hope it still has a little magic.
"What If?" team president Mark Shapiro tweeted, using the team's 2011 motto. "Jim Thome came home."
After finishing 25 games out in 2010, the Indians weren't expected to contend this season, but have been at or near the top of their division since April. However, as August drains to its final days, the Indians have slipped back in the standings and trail the Tigers by 6 1/2 as they enter a three-game series against Kansas City.
The Twins are 16 games behind, which is why they decided to part with Thome, who has also played for the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.
On his most recent visit to Cleveland, the Peoria, Ill., native said he would relish a chance to finish his career where it began. Thome's return will probably give the Indians an immediate attendance boost, and may help some of the fans who couldn't forgive him for leaving despite saying his Indians jersey would have to be torn off for him to go anywhere else.
"It's a chance for him to go back where he started," Smith said, "a place where he should be as revered in Cleveland as he is in Philadelphia and Chicago and Minnesota.
"I'm sure it will be a special moment when he goes back on the field wearing an Indians jersey."
A skinny third baseman when he came up, Thome, along with fellow all-stars Sandy Alomar Jr., Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez and Carlos Baerga formed the core of the Indians' teams that dominated their division in the '90s and went to the World Series in 1995 and 1997 — losing both times.
Thome's big swing, a blend of quickness, power and follow-through, and his aw-shucks attitude, made him one of Cleveland's most popular players. That changed, though, following the '02 season.
As a free agent, Thome turned down a generous, long-term contract from the Indians — who even offered to build a statue in his honour — for a chance to win in Philadelphia. At the time, he felt the Phillies were closer to a title than the Indians, who were in the early stages of a massive rebuilding project.
Thome had a memorable first season in Minnesota, leading the team with 25 homers in just 276 at-bats with the Twins in 2010. His aching back felt better than it had in years, and he was energized by the youthful energy surrounding him as he helped the Twins run away with the division crown.
Thome had several suitors as a free agent in the off-season. He ultimately decided to return to the Twins, thinking a nucleus of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer would help him capture the World Series championship that has eluded him all these years. But his second season in Minnesota hasn't gone nearly as well. He has struggled with injuries to his back, toe and quadriceps that have slowed that mighty left-handed swing of his, and Mauer and Morneau have also been out for long stretches.
Thome reached the 600-homer mark with two blasts at Detroit earlier this month, one of his and the team's only highlights this season.
Now he has another.