By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) - Jim Thome stood on his tiptoes, reaching into the back corners of his locker in search of things to bring on the Indians' season-opening road trip.
Another spring training camp over, Thome tossed in his first baseman's glove, cleats, a few T-shirts and some personal items in his travel bag as he got ready for another season with Cleveland.
Maybe his last one.
"I've loved it in Cleveland," Thome said Thursday. "It would be sad not to come back. But sometimes things happen and business things happen."
Thome's high socks and home runs are as much a part of Cleveland's baseball lore as a Bob Feller fastball, Omar Vizquel backhanding a grounder in the hole or a hot dog with stadium mustard.
But now, the three-time All-Star, who had 49 homers and 124 RBIs last year, is in the final year of his contract and will be eligible for free agency after the World Series.
"Nothing has changed," the 31-year-old Thome said. "I do want to stay in Cleveland, and hopefully I'll come back to spring training next year. I've cherished every minute I've been here."
After some preliminary contract talks with the Indians, Thome, the Indians' career home run leader, and his agent have decided to suspend negotiations until after the season.
And while that may worry Cleveland fans, who watched helplessly as the club traded Roberto Alomar this winter and passed on re-signing several free agents, including Juan Gonzalez and Kenny Lofton, neither Thome nor the Indians appear to be concerned about putting things off for a few months.
"Jimmy doesn't want to talk contract during the season," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "But we've talked about bringing him back, and he has a desire of returning as a Cleveland Indian. So that's a good place to start."
But Albert Belle talked about staying, too. So did Manny Ramirez, Lofton and even Gonzalez. They're all going, going, gone.
If the Indians aren't the same team because of the departure of the others, imagine them without Thome.
It's almost unthinkable.
Drafted in the 13th round by the Indians in 1989, Thome made his major league debut with the club two years later as a skinny third baseman with a suspect glove but a sweet, left-handed swing.
By the time the club moved to Jacobs Field in 1994, Thome was beginning to emerge as one of the AL's premier power hitters.
Now, after hitting more than 20 homers in each of the past eight seasons, he has become one of Cleveland's most popular and productive players.
Chief Wahoo is the team's mascot, but make no mistake, Thome is Mr. Indian.
And with Gonzalez no longer in the middle of the order, Thome will be counted on even more.
"Right now, he's more important than he ever was," said manager Charlie Manuel, who has been with Thome since the minors.
"We look for him to hit another 40 homers or 50. He's the big stick in our lineup."
Thome didn't hit his weight last April, finishing with just three homers and a .182 average. But for the next five months, there wasn't a tougher out in baseball as Thome hit .307 with 25 doubles, 46 homers and 114 RBIs in 135 games.
He also moved passed Belle into first place on the team's home run list (282), and will head into this season ranked first in club history in walks (875), third in slugging percentage (.555), fourth in extra-base hits (540), seventh in RBIs (809), eighth in runs (816), eighth in total bases (2,308), and ninth in doubles (240).
Numbers, though, don't mean a thing to Thome. He's a throwback and not just because of the way he wears his socks. For Thome, just putting on a major league uniform every day is what matters most.
"My job is to come to the ballpark every day, hit early and try to get better as a player," he said. "Do the things I can to try to help our team win.
"A contract is a contract, but you have to play the game for pride. Contracts are a part of the game, but I don't want to get wrapped up into a contract. I want to go out and play the game and be a baseball player."