WINTER HAVEN, Fla. _ Leave it to Jim Thome to make another fashion statement.
After inspiring the Cleveland Indians' high-socks superstition last season, Thome started another trend this spring with much more than haute couture in mind.
The meaning behind his "Team Thome" T-shirts with the message, "It don't mean a thing 'till we get the ring," cannot be mistaken.
"I think when you go to the World Series the last two out of three years, it kind of puts it all in perspective," Thome said. "Really, you can accept everything you want and do well personally, but when you walk home at the end and you don't win it, it's just tough. It's tough."
Thome, coming off his first 40-homer season, showed up at spring training as strong as a lumberjack yet slimmer and more agile than a year ago.
How many home runs can he hit? Thome doesn't seem to care. He doesn't like to set goals.
He just doesn't want this season to end like the last one, when all he could do was collapse to his knees after Edgar Renteria's 11th-inning single in Game 7 won the World Series for the Florid Marlins.
All the highlight films showed the Marlins celebrating at home plate. The real snapshot was Thome collapsed on his knees, Cleveland's half-century of waiting for a championship seemingly pinning the burly first baseman down.
"To be honest, it was very difficult to go to that pep rally the next day," Thome said. "But I did it for the fans. I did it for them. It was like, OK, I really don't want to be there but I'm going to do it for the fans. We owe that to them."
Thome knew it was crucial for the Indians to leave those bad memories on the field at Pro Player Stadium. Even so, Omar Vizquel likes to kid Thome about the message on his T-shirts.
"The shirts were Thome's girlfriend's idea," Vizquel said. "That's what she said to him. You know, it doesn't mean anything if you don't give me the ring _ to get married."
After Thome graciously moved from third base to first last season to make room for Gold Glover Matt Williams, the Indians signed him to a $28.1 million contract that keeps him in an Indians uniform through 2001 with an option for 2002.
His back-to-back seasons are among the best ever posted by an Indians left-handed hitter. He has hit 78 homers the past two seasons, topping 100 RBIs, runs and walks both years. Coming off his first 40-homer season, it's hard not to wonder how many Thome can hit.
"I don't try to do too much," Thome said.
It is impossible to ignore all the changes the Indians have undergone during this four-year run of success that began in strike-shortened 1994. But look around the clubhouse, and it becomes obvious that the mood emanates from a core of players who have been there all along _ Thome, Vizquel and Sandy Alomar.
They seem to have squelched any hard feelings that might have lingered from October.
"If it's meant to be, it's going to be," Thome said. "If not, then you go on. You can't put all the pressure on yourself and on your team to say if we don't go back and win it, we failed.
"The bottom line is when you go every year, fans expect you to win it. That's their ultimate. We want it just as bad as they do."