CLEVELAND -- As they were about to take the field, the Cleveland Indians held a last-second meeting. Something had to be done.
On a night filled with memories and hope, the Indians turned to their glorious past.
So they hiked up their pants and showed off their socks -- just like Jim Thome.
"It was a little welcome present for the big guy," said third baseman Jack Hannahan.
Thome was grateful.
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"It was similar to '97," Thome said following Cleveland's 2-1 win Friday night over the Kansas City Royals. "They did that for my birthday, and that year went to the World Series.
"So we'll see what happens," he said.
Thome went hitless but was warmly welcomed in his Cleveland homecoming after nearly a decade away and the Indians, getting a strong outing from Ubaldo Jimenez (2-1), slowed their slide in the AL Central. The Indians won for just the second time in eight games but didn't lose any ground to the Tigers.
Thome went 0 for 4 and struck out twice in his first game back with Cleveland since 2002, when he disappointed Cleveland fans by leaving as a free agent. The slugger waived a no-trade clause to return to Cleveland and a chance to help the Indians get back to the postseason.
And in his return, a sellout crowd cheered his every move.
Thome received a thunderous standing ovation when he came up for the first time in the second inning. Holding "Welcome Thome" signs, fans clapped and yelled and he returned the love before his first at-bat with the Indians in nine years by taking off his batting helmet and bowing slightly.
"The single coolest thing I've seen in the big leagues," said Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano.
Thome was overcome by the moment.
"Very emotional," he said. "Overwhelming in a good way."
Perhaps overanxious, Thome topped Paulino's first pitch, sending a weak grounder toward the mound. His teammates shared a laugh later in the dugout.
"We were having a little fun there," said Thome, who admitted he was more nervous in his return than as he was approaching 600 career homers. "I haven't had a swinging bunt in a quite a while. It's nice to get a win and see the crowed like that, the energy and electricity was good all night."
It was like it used to be all the time in Cleveland. The Indians played to packed houses every night in the 90s, winning five straight division titles and making it to the World Series twice. The rocking crowd hung on every pitch, and during one quiet moment, Thome said a teammate asked him for a comparison.
"Matt LaPorta asked me, 'Is this what it was like back then?"' Thome said. "You see this crowd tonight and you hope it keeps going."
Jimenez (2-1) struck out 10 and allowed one run in seven innings, the kind of performance Cleveland had been needing from him since he came in a trade from Colorado.
"My job was to go in there and throw strikes and I didn't do that," Collins said. "That's just unacceptable going in there with the bases loaded and walking the first guy. That's not what you want to do."
Chris Perez stranded the tying run at third in the ninth for his 28th save.
After the final out, Thome bounced out of the dugout to congratulate his new teammates. This is why he came back, to help them catch the first-place Tigers, and he celebrated with high-fives and a hug for former roommate Sandy Alomar Jr., now his first-base coach, before he was collared by Slider, the Indians' fuzzy mascot.
Thome's return sparked a booming business at the Indians' box office on Friday. The club was expecting a crowd of around 30,000, and drew 41,337 -- the fourth sellout of 2011. Nearly 9,000 tickets were sold after the Indians announced their career home run leader was coming back.
"It was a special night, the crowd was unbelievable," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "I'm so glad people came out to support Jim. It meant a lot to him. He was very emotional. We're happy to win on the first day he's back for us. He can make a huge impact on our young hitters because he's so open and humble."
Thome struck out looking his second time up in the fifth, fooled by a chest-high fastball for strike three that he thought was out of the strike zone. He struck out again in the seventh, this time on a vicious cut, and grounded to second in the eighth. He didn't have the impact he wanted, but the Indians won, and for Thome that's all that will matter.
Jimenez was nasty. He blew fastballs past the Royals and was as good as he's been since the Indians traded two top prospects for him on July 30. The right-hander has allowed just one earned run in 15 innings in two home starts -- both wins.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "I guess it is just home sweet home."
Thome has already made an impression on the Indians.
"Right when Jim Thome walked in everyone's spirits went up," Hannahan said.
Blanked for six innings by Paulino, the Indians scored twice in the seventh on Hannahan's RBI single and a bases-loaded walk by Ezequiel Carrera to take a 2-1 lead.
Now an elder statesman, Thome, who was hitting home runs for Cleveland when new teammate Lonnie Chisenhall was still in diapers, sees himself in a mentor's role -- like Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield were for the Indians when he was a youngster. Thome has seen a lot of baseball in 21 seasons, enough to know the Indians aren't out of it.
"Baseball's a weird thing," he said. "You can run off seven, eight, nine wins a row and look up and say we're right there. Hopefully, we can keep going."
- The Indians have 31 come-from-behind wins.
- White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was thrilled Thome went back to Cleveland, where some fans used to boo him for leaving. "Anybody in this game would tell Cleveland fans '..., I'm not going there,"' Guillen said. "Jim Thome, that's why there is only one Jim Thome in baseball. I tip my hat to him and I have more respect for him now than ever."
- Gordons's assist was Kansas City's 44th, also best in baseball.
- Paulino also has the distinction of giving up a 490-foot homer to Thome, the longest in Target Field history, on July 17. Thome also holds the record for the longest homer in Progressive Field, a 511-foot blast on July 3, 1999, against Kansas City.