Championship Thome's ultimate goal
On cusp of personal milestone, slugger wants a title
Warning: The following tale could bring back terrible memories for those fans of the Cleveland Indians. They should continue on at their own risk.
CHICAGO -- Jim Thome looks back on 1997 and remembers an amazing season.
The affable slugger also vividly recalls the chance for his first World Series title literally disappearing right before his eyes. In one postseason snapshot, Thome stood on first base in the bottom of the ninth inning of a thrilling Game 7 against the Marlins, watching closer Jose Mesa protect a 2-1 lead for Cleveland with a runner on first base and one out.
A very short time later, Craig Counsell was crossing home plate with the championship-winning run, setting off a celebration in Miami usually reserved for Friday and Saturday nights in the South Beach area. That same beach party left Cleveland in an almost literal state of shock.
It's missed opportunities as a team like this one that leave Thome ultimately searching for something more, baseball's Holy Grail, if you will, even after he reaches the milestone of 500 home runs.
Thome doesn't want to join the ranks of legends who never have experienced the jubilation of the season's final out in late October or early November. Thome plays for a title, not the individual accolades.
"Absolutely," said Thome without hesitation, when asked if winning the World Series stood out as his primarily goal yet to be achieved. "You go to Spring Training and you do everything to prepare in this game to play the last game of the year.
"I've been very fortunate and I've been close, but I haven't accomplished that ultimate goal. It still. ... To this day, it eats at you.
"It eats at you that back in 1997, we were so close and never accomplished it," Thome added. "It just goes to show you how fragile it can be ... because you never know when you're going to be back."
Playing in one of baseball's most competitive World Series in 1997 was actually Thome's second chance to grab baseball's brass ring. Thome also was part of the 1995 Indians, a team brining a seemingly invincible 100-44 record into the postseason, but still lost the World Series crown in six games to the Atlanta Braves.
During both of these particular series, as well as the postseason as a whole, Thome certainly has done his part to bring home a winner. This burst of left-handed power has eight home runs and 17 RBIs amongst six Division Series, six home runs and 13 RBIs over three American League Championship Series and three home runs and six RBIs during World Series competition.
Any or all of this individual production would have gladly been traded in by Thome for two more ninth-inning outs from Florida in 1997. Instead, Thome is left with the memories of what might have been.
"There were situations, I just remember the excitement and the emotions that move through you," said Thome of his last World Series appearance. "I remember the seventh game in 1997. It was like, 'Wow, we're going to win this thing.' Unfortunately, we didn't."
Debates often rage as to whether supremely talented players such as Thome can be considered baseball immortals, or even Hall-of-Famers, if they don't win on the game's grandest stage. The answer came in the affirmative for players from the North Side of Chicago, such as Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg, who never even reached the World Series but still have plaques in Cooperstown.
According to White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker, who has developed an immense level of respect for Thome as a person and as a player while working with him the last two years, a World Series title is not necessary to define his immense career accomplishments.
"There's no doubt the ultimate team goal is to win the World Series," Walker said. "But it's really apples and oranges. In a lot of ways, baseball is an individual game.
"You go out and perform and it turns out to benefit the team, so you have to take care of yourself, no matter what people say. You play the game the right way.
"But you can't say just because, as an example, I won a World Series as a coach that I've accomplished even a hair on Jim Thome's head," Walker added. "It's gratifying and the greatest accomplishment of my baseball career. But I didn't accomplish what Jimmy did.
"He's done a lot of fantastic things, and I'm not even qualified to talk about it. He's in a different league."
When Thome joined the White Sox via a Thanksgiving 2005 trade with Philadelphia, many pundits assumed his left-handed protection in the team's potent middle would help produce a second straight championship in 2006. Thome hit 42 home runs in his first year after returning home, but the White Sox pitching didn't cooperate in the season's second half.
This current 2007 campaign has been an utter disaster for the White Sox, who are fighting for a .500 record and to get out last place in the American League Central, let alone for playoff contention. As a fan of the Cubs growing up in Peoria, though, Thome knows there's always next year.
He also understands this current disappointment could turn into great success in the matter of a few Kenny Williams personnel moves during the upcoming offseason. With that championship goal still in mind, the 37-year-old Thome will work to sharpen his own edge in the quest for a title.
"No matter how long personally I played the game, I always try to improve on every aspect," Thome said. "Maybe hitting left-handers, hitting in situations that maybe late in the game, try to better that overall.
"You can learn from everything, not matter whether you have a good year or a bad year. You re-evaluate your year when it's over, and say, 'Look, this is what I need to go home this winter and try to improve on and concentrate.'"
This sort of upbeat, tireless work ethic makes Thome a champion, even without the crown.
"Winning the World Series should be the goal of all players and they all want it," Walker said. "Jimmy still has a whack at it and he's still a very productive player. I know he has a burning desire to get that done."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.