NEW YORK - Eleven months ago, he smiled for the cameras at Citizens Bank Park, ready to rejuvenate his career with an old friend, signing a one-year contract to join Charlie Manuel and the Phillies, and perhaps, give first base a try, too.
Seven months ago, Jim Thome sat at his corner locker stall inside Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., with an icepack strapped to his jersey in an effort to ease his now-42-year-old back.
In June, he hit a walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays to prevent the Phillies from losing for what would have been the 14th time in their last 19 games.
It was a pivotal point of the Phillies season, one they didn't recover from despite Thome's efforts. But it was also an important time in what may very well be the final season of Thome's 22-year-career.
The home run was the 13th walk-off shot of Thome's career, the most for any player in baseball history, it was his fifth in his last 11 games, and it was his final in a Phillies uniform. A week later, when the Phils were in the midst of getting swept in Miami in the middle of a stretch where they'd lost 11 of 12 games, Thome was sent to a better place.
The Phillies did the future Hall of Famer a solid on the last day of June, sending Thome to the Baltimore Orioles, where he could play every day as a designated hitter on a team contending for a postseason berth.
"It's been great," said Thome, the most accomplished player in baseball without a World Series championship ring. "I've enjoyed every minute, the experience, the opportunity to come over here. It's a great organization and we have a lot of up-and-coming great players. To watch the city rejuvenate has really been a lot of fun."
Thome's pursuit at finishing his career on top was derailed for one night when another former Phillies without a ring stole the show: Raul Ibanez hit game-tying, pinch hit home run in the ninth and a walk-off shot in the 12th to bring the Yankees back from the dead in a 3-2 win over Baltimore in Game 3 of the ALDS on Wednesday night.
"Raul has played a long time and first off, he's a wonderful person," Thome said, relating to the fellow vet. "But he's a great player, too. He's a guy that's always ready to hit. . . . He got a good pitch to hit and put good wood on it."
After Ibanez's heroics in the Bronx, Thome's career could come down to Thursday night.
But at least Baltimore is still alive in mid-October, something that wasn't guaranteed when he changed uniforms this summer. And Thome isn't taking that for granted.
Following a nightmare of a travel day (night?) from Baltimore where his team didn't get in until 9 a.m., when New Yorkers were finishing up their Monday morning commute, Thome beat his manager to the ballpark on Tuesday.
"I can't beat him here," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. "He's something."
In a season that's limited him 58 games, the fewest he's played in any year since becoming a major league regular in 1994, Thome won't give in or give up. He'll have a spot for his plaque in Cooperstown five years after he announces his retirement.
But he doesn't want to retire without a championship ring, the crown jewel for any professional athlete.
And just as his drive was evident in spring training, when he'd stay behind when the Phillies were on the road to put in the innings at first base in a minor league game with kids half his age, it continues to show in what might be the final autumn of his career.
"The more you're around guys like that, you realize things just don't happen; there are reasons why," Showalter said of Thome, who has 612 career home runs, seventh most in baseball history. "Jimmy walks through our door every day like he's playing his first game in Little League. He's enthused, he's upbeat, he is approachable. So many guys with his resume aren't approachable sometimes, and he's the one that makes everybody else comfortable in approaching him."
Thome may have been a nostalgic fit in Philadelphia a year ago, but he was an odd fit, too, as a proficient power hitter without a position. In Baltimore, he's been a perfect fit, at least when his back has allowed him to be.
Thome played in just 18 games with the Orioles from the time he was traded until the season's final two weeks. His chronic back pain resurfaced in July.
Thome hit a home run and rapped two doubles in 10 games (eight starts) since Sept. 22 as the Orioles chased down and captured the franchise's first playoff berth in 15 years. Thome's impact on the field, however, doesn't account for the larger role he's had off of it, where 20 of the 25 players were born in the 1980s, and another, rookie infielder Manny Machado, who homered Wednesday, was born in 1992.
Playing opposite a New York Yankees team with at least a handful of players in his age bracket, Thome is one of 11 Orioles with postseason experience. But entering Wednesday, Thome's 67 career playoff games were more than the 10 other played combined (58 games).
"With his experience, he can help everybody," Baltimore closer Jim Johnson said. "He brings a lot of good vibes in the clubhouse. He's a positive guy and that goes a long way."
"Every time I see the guy, he's in the batting cage," said pitcher Joe Sanders, one of just seven players over 30 on the Orioles roster. "(He's a) great dude, real down to earth, and goes about his business the right way, still works hard."
The place Thome hit his first career home run is across the street from the ballpark he walked into Wednesday. A piece of baseball history and a New York monument, the old Yankee Stadium has been bulldozed over and replaced with a rec league field.
But 21 years and six days since hitting that home run in his first month as a big leaguer, Thome still shows up to the ballpark with the mindset that it's his first game, and hopefully, not his last.
"We'll get into that in the winter," Thome said about his career beyond 2012.
"I was looking at it today, 20 something years," Showalter said. "And to have that same enthusiasm, talking about his dad coming to the playoffs and everything, it would be pretty cool to say that you were part of getting Jimmy what people like him deserve. It's an honor to have had him pass my way."