Thunder, but no gray skies

Andre Thornton has been sorely tried en route to his booming eminence
August 01, 1982

Like Job, who was sorely tested by God before being found patient and worthy of succor, Andre Thornton has been worked over by life and found to be strong. Indeed, the 32-year-old designated hitter for the Cleveland Indians has rebounded from a series of athletic and personal setbacks to become one of the most feared long-ball hitters in the American League.

At the end of last week, the 6'2", 205-pound Thornton was fourth in the league with 22 home runs and third with 71 RBIs. He was also among the league's leaders in runs, total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, game-winning RBIs and walks. No wonder the man they call Thunder is a leading candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year. Thornton missed all of 1980 and most of 1981 (.239, six homers, 30 RBIs) because of assorted medical problems, including a right knee that twice required surgery, a broken right hand and a broken thumb.

"It's hard to tell you how much Thornton means to this team," says Cleveland Manager Dave Garcia. "But then he's not doing anything he hasn't done before [his injuries]. He didn't just learn how to hit, you know. He's supposed to get 25 to 30 homers and 90 to 100 RBIs for us."

Fine, except that at his current pace Thornton is on his way to a 40-home run, 126-RBI season. Even his .292 batting average through Sunday was 41 points higher than his eight-season career average of .251. "You can't just project my totals over a season," says the sternly humble Thornton. "I'm a .260 to .280 hitter who got off to the best start of his career. Like most power hitters, I hit in streaks and I had an early one."

For example: After going 0 for 8 to start the year, he took off on a 15-game tear in which he batted .429 with five home runs and 18 runs batted in. In a four-game stretch from May 30 to June 2, Thornton got just five hits, but four of them were homers. Flurries like those have gotten the attention of American League pitchers, who have begun working around Thornton (his 13 intentional walks at week's end led the league), and veteran hitters, who openly admire his mighty swing. "He's always had great power," says Boston DH Carl Yastrzemski. "Now he's hitting the ball hard all the time, even on outs."

There are two things one notices about Thornton as he walks into the Indians' locker room for a home game with Boston. The first is that he needs a new T shirt, one that fits. The second is that he's carrying a Bible. Both observations are significant. The T shirt, an extra large, is so tight that it looks like an upper-body tattoo. An XX-L probably wouldn't help; it's likely they don't make T shirts in Thornton's size. "I think he's the strongest man in baseball right now," says Cleveland Batting Coach Tom McGraw. "Maybe in all of major sport."

The muscles didn't just pop out of nowhere. Thornton has trained with weights since the early '70s. He belongs to a Nautilus club in Cleveland, keeps Olympic weights at home and can bench-press more than 400 pounds, though he prefers not to. "I only lift enough to develop strength without losing elasticity," he says. "There is this myth that says if you build muscles you lose quickness. It's just not true. Done properly, weight training can help any athlete. Baseball has been very slow to realize this."

The force Thornton puts into his homers should have made a few converts among the puny. "When I see Andy hit home runs, I'm thinking Harmon Killebrew," says Coach McGraw. "Balls that go four miles up, then out. Hank Aaron and those guys hit line drives—shots. But with Andy, outfielders keep going back and back, thinking they have a chance, and then the ball ends up 150 feet deeper."

The Bible tucked under Thornton's arm is well-used and, like Thornton's bats, a force in the hitter's life. A born-again Christian, Thornton credits the Bible for just about everything that's going right in his life these days. Of course, it was Thornton's past that made him a likely candidate to find solace in scripture in the first place.

Thornton was raised in Phoenixville, Pa., a river town outside Philadelphia. One of seven children of a once-bibulous father and a God-fearing mother, he remembers himself as "a hostile person with a nasty outlook on life." The things that disturbed him were vague yet pervasive: "lies, hypocrisy, racism." He also was troubled by death. One of his older brothers died when Andre was a child; one of his best friends was stabbed to death, and another good friend drowned. Thornton almost drowned with that friend, tumbling over and over in the dark water below a dam on the Schuylkill before making it to shore.

"The two questions I had all along were: 'Why are we here?' and 'What happens when we die?' " says Thornton. "It became much easier when I found that Christ had a purpose for me."

Thornton's beliefs were put to the ultimate test in the fall of 1977 when a van he was driving overturned on the icy Pennsylvania Turnpike, killing his wife, Gertrude, and small daughter, Theresa. Thornton and his son, Andre Jr., weren't seriously hurt. Thornton read the Bible a lot that winter, especially the Book of Job, which describes the suffering of a man after his family, livelihood and health have been taken from him.

Thornton has since remarried—his wife, Gail, is the daughter of a minister—and together they are very active in religious projects in the Cleveland area. "I look at it this way," says Thornton. "I had seven wonderful years with Gertrude. And I know one day I will see her and my daughter again in heaven. If I didn't believe that, I couldn't go on living.

"Now I know when things are out of my control," he continues. "I prepare myself to hit and I do everything the best I can, but once the ball leaves the bat, it's in the Lord's hands." Lately, of course, the Lord has been putting the ball in the nickel seats.

Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson says that the biggest difference between Thornton now and when he was in the National League with Chicago and Montreal (1973-76) is self-understanding. "He has confidence now," says Anderson, who managed Cincinnati during Thornton's National League days. "He knows he's a major-leaguer, that he can go oh for four and not get benched. Believe me, it's amazing what a difference that can make." As they say in baseball, Thornton is also "seeing the ball" better these days. During the off-season he was fitted with glasses to correct a slight nearsightedness in his right eye, the effect of which has been to give him a passing resemblance to that other bespectacled power hitter, Reggie Jackson.

Pitchers say that there is no "out" pitch to use on Thornton, which is one of the reasons they walk him so much, the other being that the bottom half of the Indians' lineup is so weak that putting Thornton on usually won't hurt. "He'll hit all your mistakes," says Detroit righthander Jack Morris. "So I just follow what [Coach] Gates Brown says: 'If a man's wearing glasses, pitch him low and away.' " Thornton has to make the limited number of pitches he sees in the strike zone count, and he does. His 22 homers have driven in 38 runs.

But the trials continue. This year he was booed on Opening Day because he started instead of the Indians' cult hero, Super Joe Charboneau, the kid who dyed his hair rust before getting sent back to the minors.

The real test, however, may come in 1984, when Thornton's five-year contract with the Indians is up. He earns a reported $380,000 a year now, which is a lot, but much less than what the market will bear. On principle, Thornton is against initiating a renegotiation of his salary, but he's not against making money. And he knows he's worth a great deal more. As it says right there in the Book of Job: "Yea, the Almighty shall be thy defense, and thou shalt have plenty of silver."

PHOTO PHOTOThornton draws considerable strength from his Bible, which he keeps in his locker.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)