Now that Jim Thome has returned to the Indians, in whose footsteps will he follow for the remainder of his career?
There are a number of ways an all-time great can end his career. For the tiny minority who spent their entire playing lives with one team, the end is obvious - they'll finish with that team. For every Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn, though, there are more great players who went away from their original team at some point in their careers. Some, like Jim Thome just now to the Cleveland Indians, return from whence they came.
Not all these returns are the same, however. There are, by my count, seven different variations. In the spirit of Ocean's 13 in which Danny Ocean and his crew of grifters gave names to cons ("the Irwin Allen") and to giving someone another shot ("the Billy Martin"), I've given each one of these scenarios a name after one of the players who lived that particular scenario.
The Ducky Medwick
In the Ducky Medwick, a player returns to his team of origin and plays one or two seasons to finish out his career. It's the ultimate swan song. Nostalgia reigns. Grown men weep and small children smile although they're not quite sure why because they weren't born when this player was originally with their favorite team. When done right, it can be the perfect capper on a Hall of Fame career. Medwick was traded to the Dodgers in 1940 after eight-plus seasons with the Cardinals. After that, he played for the Giants and Braves and the Dodgers again. (He also got cut by the Browns.) Finally, in 1947, the Cardinals signed him and he got another 186 plate appearances for them over the next two seasons.
With Thome having turned 41 on Saturday, the Ducky Medwick seems like the most likely scenario for him, although, if things go really well and he can maintain that 120 OPS+ he's been sporting the past few years, his Ducky Medwick could turn into a Willie McCovey.
Other notable practitioners of the Ducky Medwick: Gary Carter, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Reggie Jackson, Pete Alexander
The Stretch McCovey
What starts out as a prodigal son thing turns into a longer-running gig. In the Stretch McCovey, a player comes back home and ends up playing for three or more seasons with his original team. Willie McCovey wasn't away from the Giants as long as Thome has been from the Indians (three seasons as opposed to eight-plus), but it never seemed right seeing him in Padres brown or A's green and gold. He returned to San Francisco with a bang in 1977 and then played for two and a half more seasons after that, joining the 500-homer club in the process.
Others: Chuck Klein, Red Schoendienst, Rabbit Maranville, Eddie Collins
The Joe Morgan
A Joe Morgan occurs when a player comes back to his original team at an advanced age, but then finishes out his career elsewhere. After eight outstanding seasons with the Reds, Morgan came back to the Astros, with whom he had broken in at the age of 19 when he was known as "Little Joe" and they were known as the Colt .45s. He was 36, so this looked like it was going to be a Willie McCovey scenario rather than a Ducky Medwick. Morgan continued to play well and the Astros made it to the playoffs for the first time. Instead of a Medwick, though, Joe Morgan ended up doing a Joe Morgan. He signed with the Giants as a free agent and stayed there for two years before being traded to the Phillies and then finishing out his career in Oakland in 1984.
You wouldn't think that Thome is going to do a Joe Morgan, but you never know. If Thome plays in 2012, the Indians could be muddling through and someone like the Red Sox could come calling in search of a big bat for their bench.
Others: Bert Blyleven, Rickey Henderson, Eddie Murray, Tom Seaver, Luis Aparicio, Rick Ferrell, Herb Pennock
The Early Wynn
In the Early Wynn, a player returns to finish his career with a previous team with which he had success, although it is not his original team. In Wynn's case, he first played for the Washington Senators but really came into his own with the Indians. After a decade of mostly awesomeness in Cleveland, he was traded to the White Sox in a multi-player deal that saw Minnie Minoso go the other way. His five-year tenure in Chicago ended in 1962 with Early sitting on 299 wins. The Indians signed him and he got win number 300 on his fourth try in 1963. He pitched very well that year, mostly in relief.
Others: Fergie Jenkins, Dennis Eckersley, Edd Roush, Dazzy Vance, Mordecai Brown
The Jimmie Foxx
When a player does a Jimmie Foxx, he's returning to the geographic location of his big league origin, but not to his original team. The Foxx group is a talented lot and anyone of them could have loaned his name to the scenario, but they are all so famous that it seemed best to go with Foxx, lest the weight of their fame overwhelm the conceit. Double X was paperboy age when he broke in with the Philadelphia A's in 1925 and was in his prime when Connie Mack sold him to the Red Sox in an austerity drive in 1936. He was not exactly ancient nine years later when, after a gig with the Cubs, he ended up back in Philadelphia, only this time with the Phillies. By 1945, Foxx, one of the greatest hitters ever, was hitting like a pitcher - which was somewhat appropriate because he pitched in nine games that year with an ERA of 1.59.
Others: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sam Thompson, Dizzy Dean
The Willie Keeler
This is the scenario of pure symmetry: A short tenure with a team at the beginning of a career and a return to that same team for another short tenure at the very end. Willie Keeler broke in with the Giants in 1892, hitting .321 in 14 games and .333 in 29 plate appearances in 1893 before being sold to Brooklyn. He spent the rest of his career playing for Baltimore, Brooklyn and then the Highlanders before returning to the Giants in 1910 at the age of 38 to collect the last three of his 2,932 hits.
Others: Joe Kelley, Burleigh Grimes, Pud Galvin (with a Jimmie Foxx variation)
The Al Simmons
The Early Wynn, Jimmie Foxx and Willie Keeler scenarios are not open to Thome, but he could very well do an Al Simmons. This scenario is a Joe Morgan that comes back around; the player returns to his team of origin, goes away, and comes back again for a finale. Simmons spent 1924 through 1932 with the Philadelphia A's before being purchased by the White Sox during Game 1 of the 1932 World Series. After stops with four more teams, he was back with Mack in 1940 only to leave again for duty with the Red Sox in 1943. In June of 1944, he showed up on the A's bench and subbed a few times before starting and going 2-for-4 in his last major league game on July 1. Who's to say Thome won't do something similar two years from now?
I mean, apart from Thome himself.