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10/07/10 3:48 PM ET

Thome as hungry as ever to win elusive ring

Twins slugger targets title after falling short in '97 with Tribe

MINNESOTA -- Game 7 of the 1997 World Series still hasn't escaped Jim Thome's memory. Thirteen years later, he's still thinking about it.

"A lot. A lot. Yes," Thome said during the Twins' workout day on Tuesday, one that preceded his ninth trip to the playoffs. "It still is there, but it's not -- if that makes sense."

It's still there because that was the night Thome -- then with the Indians -- walked the thin line that resides between World Series glory and an offseason of misery. Thome came out on the wrong side thanks to an 11th-inning flare by Marlins shortstop Edgar Renteria, and 13 years later, he's still chasing that elusive ring.

It's not because Thome is loving life in Minnesota these days. He's on a team he enjoys, he's contributing at the kind of level he always has, and he has a chance to finally win that World Series championship he came so close to capturing more than a decade ago.

"This year has really revitalized me in a lot of different ways from how [Ron Gardenhire] has used me and just being around these type of guys," Thome said. "These young guys have so much fun, and we appreciate each other. We, I think, truly, really root for each other. And that's a big thing."

Thome signed with the Twins for his 20th big league season for a $1.5 million contract to serve, at best, as a late-inning pinch-hitter and occasional fill-in at designated hitter.

He turned out to be so much more.

"He's been everything, man," center fielder Denard Span said. "He's been a great teammate, he's been a great mentor to the guys on this team. He's been more than what I think anybody expected, on this team and away from this team."

He's been the kind of guy who has almost made the Twins not miss their biggest run-producer.

Justin Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7 and, despite lingering hope, never returned. But ever since then, Thome has come alive. He hit .303 with 15 homers and 31 RBIs from that point forward, hit 25 homers on the year despite playing in just 108 games and, along the way, he moved up to eighth on the all-time list with 589 career home runs.

One of the men he passed was Twins legend Harmon Killebrew, who finished his Hall of Fame career with 573. Killebrew threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Morneau before the first-ever postseason game at Target Field on Wednesday, and was then handed the ball on the mound by Thome -- a man Killebrew has grown to admire over the years.

"I had met Jim Thome before we had him, and I've always respected Jim Thome as not only a great baseball player, but a wonderful man," he said. "So, getting to know him better this year, it just put icing on the cake. He's done a great job for our ballclub, and I wish we would've had him several years ago."

Gardenhire shares the same sentiment.

Considering Thome spent 16 of his first 19 years as a member of of division rivals in Cleveland and Chicago, Gardenhire has seen a lot of the lefty slugger through the years. And he's lost a lot of sleep because of him.

"We've gotten a chance to see him trot around the bases a whole bunch," he said. "We always talked about one of these days, you know, maybe it'd work out. He'd get a chance to play for the Minnesota Twins. But he always had those $13 million, six-year contracts. That wasn't going to work out for us. But finally he came down to within reason on our budget, and we got him playing for us, and he's everything that we saw on the baseball field against us."

Before Game 1 on Wednesday -- one that saw Thome score two runs but go 0-for-3, leave three runners on base and make the final out while representing the tying run -- Gardenhire compared Thome to a different Twins legend.

"Reminds me a lot of Kirby Puckett," he said. "Come to the ballpark every day, he's smiling, happy to be there, and that's the way it should be. That's the way you should come to the ballpark."

Thome's endearing personality makes him a likable guy in any clubhouse. But in this one, he's known by a nickname that somewhat contradicts that notion -- "The Animal."

"He's a beast," second baseman Orlando Hudson said. "The way he steps to the plate, the way he mashes the ball, the way he works out -- just an animal."

When it's all said and done, though, Thome would like to be known by something else -- World Series champion.

He came as close as a tied game in extra innings of a Fall Classic rubber match. And even though the Twins currently face an 0-1 deficit in a five-game ALDS to the team that has knocked them out three times since 2003, Thome has a legitimate chance at a ring once again.

At age 40, Thome has learned to value that chance.

"I try not to look out in the crystal ball and [wonder], 'Oh, are you going to play two or more years, are you going to play another year?'" he said. "I appreciate being here right now. I do. Because you don't know. You really don't know if you're ever going to get an opportunity to be back. And with that being said, I think you take it -- look, just have fun, enjoy it, but understand that baseball can be a weird thing. It can be a weird game."

Alden Gonzalez has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2008 and also writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.