It would be easy for any former ballplayer whose teams annually languished at the bottom of the standings to look back on his career with at least a hint of disappointment, but the man nicknamed Thunder, who played on just three winning teams in 14 seasons, one of which being a strike-shortened year, answered questions about his playing days with crisp clarity and a certain fondness, especially for a town once known as The Mistake on the Lake, a place he’s called home for 30-plus years.
Andre Thornton found Cleveland much like any outsider back in the late 1970s – he had no choice. Going from team after team like a wandering vagabond longing for a permanent home, Thornton landed in northeast Ohio for the first time in 1977 after stops with the Phillies, Braves, Cubs, and Expos.
It was then when he crossed paths with two of the greatest ball players to ever call Cleveland home – Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and All-Star outfielder Rocky Colavito.
Robinson, who would become the first African-American manager in baseball history two seasons prior, was entering his final season donning the Tribe uniform.
“Frank was a good manager,” Thornton recalled. “He didn’t say an awful lot, just expected us to play hard, play smart. He was very intense. But, you know, I didn’t play too well for him in the beginning, got off to a bit of a slow start, and he eventually was let go in the middle of the year.”
As for Colavito, the outfielder-turned-television-analyst-turned-hitting-coach, Thornton recalled his former instructor’s tutelage: “Rocky and I worked a lot on the mental side of hitting – always wanting me to stay focus, remain aggressive, and don’t give away at bats.”
“Mechanical work wasn’t done the way they’re doing it now. Basically, it was one-on-one, all visual. He’s watching me, looking for certain things, and I’m watching him mirror my actions. Rocky was all about getting the mind prepared to hit. Once you’re able to control the mind, the body is relaxed, always ready to hit.”
That work, along with putting in time with another former Tribe hitting coach Tom McCraw, helped propel Thornton to two All-Star appearances later in his career – one in 1982, the next coming two years later.
“Steve Carlton threw me a couple fastballs in ’82, one in the strike zone, one out of the zone. Two breaking balls later, the final one a called third strike.”
The first baseman/DH would, however, redeem himself in the 1984 Midsummer Classic, this time against another ace lefty.
“It was tough to see in San Francisco at that time of the day anyway. Bobby Bonds told me to swing at the first fastball from Fernando Valenzuela, the first hittable pitch. He threw one on the out half, and I lined it straight back up the middle into center field for a single.”
And despite his final tally during that season (.271/.366/.484 with 33 homeruns), Thornton’s career would wind down just three years later, in 1987, the time of the famous Sports Illustrated jinx.
The magazine boldly declared the Indians as the upcoming World Series victors, boasting a veritable mix of young stars like Joe Carter and Cory Snyder, both of whom graced the now infamous pre-season cover.
“You know, 1987, I wasn’t part of the young guys – [Brett] Butler, Snyder, Carter. They thought they had a pretty good team. The pitching, though, pitching is always the key. And the club just didn’t have enough pitching.”
Looking back on one of the more memorable games he was a part of, pitching clearly wasn’t an issue.
May 15th, 1981. Len Barker’s perfect game.
“The seventh inning. You knew something good was happening. Nobody ever thinks of a perfect game with three innings to go. Lenny was throwing exceptionally well. You normally see a game like that end up a one-hitter or a two-hitter. But he just kept getting stronger and stronger as the game progressed.”
Thornton would end his career with a .254/.360/.452 triple-slash line, slugging 244 doubles, 22 triples (one of which came via a cycle), and 253 homeruns. He remains one of the more underappreciated hitters of his era.
Photo of Andre Thornton Courtesy of Cleveland.com.