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.