FORT MYERS, FLA. - Standing behind the batting cage Thursday morning, Jim Thome shucked his old-school batting helmet off his old-school crew cut and held the helmet aloft for observation, like an archeologist who had just discovered a fossil in his vegetable garden.

Stickum and pine tar have built a stratum of sediment on the crest, creating what looks like modern art or an ancient talisman.

The helmet could be an artifact from the days of Babe Ruth. So could Thome.

"I have every helmet I ever wore," Thome said between swings. "When I signed back here, I got my old helmet back. This stuff is still on here from last year."

The Hall of Fame should send an operative to Fort Myers to steal a chunk of the gunk. These days everything Thome touches, or launches, becomes part of baseball history.

"It's been a good ride," he said, in that way he ruminates and repeats himself when interviewed. "Yes, it's been a good ride."

In his first year as a Twin, during a season in which he turned 40, Thome went deep 25 times in 276 at-bats to move into eighth place on the all-time home-run list, with 589.

One of those homers beat his old team and All-Star lefty Matt Thornton of the White Sox.

"That was my favorite moment,'' said Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer.

"I liked it when he knocked over the flagpole," pitcher Brian Duensing said.

"I thought the photo was the coolest thing," Joe Mauer said.

Unwanted by Chicago, Thome became a free agent after the 2009 season and signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million with the Twins. He would become the biggest bargain in America since after-dinner mints.

On Aug. 17, Thome hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th off Thornton, the first walk-off homer in Target Field history. Thome rounded third, found his teammates waiting for him and decided to commemorate the moment.

He had about 40 copies of the photo capturing the home-plate celebration printed. He signed them and handed them out to teammates.

"We've all seen nice guys in the game," Cuddyer said. "The thing about Jim is when he gets on the field, he wants to kill you. That, to me, is what means most. He has that fire and passion, and he can still be the nicest guy in the world. That's what I strive to be."

In 2005, the Tribune Co. surveyed big-league players, asking them to name the best teammate in the game. Thome received nearly three times more votes than anyone else.

"I'll be in the dugout, and he'll shake my hand and call me 'Stud,' or 'Animal,' something to make me feel good about myself," reliever Matt Capps said.

"I wish I could tell you what he says to us in the clubhouse," Jason Kubel said. "You can't print it."

"We'll be sitting there late in a game, and he's on the bench, maybe his back is hurting, and I'll ask whether he can hit," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He'd stretch a little, then use his Clint Eastwood voice and say, 'Let's ... Do ... This.'"

Thome was the Twin who never had reason to complain about ballpark dimensions or tall fences. He hit 15 of his 25 homers at Target Field, where he rang one off the flagpole in right and threatened the lives of strollers on the plaza.

After becoming a free agent again last fall, Thome signed a one-year deal with the Twins for $3 million plus incentives, turning down a $5 million offer from Texas. "I wanted to come back here," Thome said.

He's the nicest star in baseball, until his toe hits the batter's box.

"That's how I compete," he said. "I'll give you an example of that. Albert Belle, my old teammate in Cleveland, was a tenacious competitor. When he hit the box, it was his box.

"I don't think he was a cocky or arrogant guy. I think he showed confidence that he was ready to hit. As a player, when you hit the box, you want that inner confidence that good things are going to happen. You have to have that killer instinct that says, 'I'm going to do this.'"'

He has avoided anticipating hitting his 600th homer. "Those are special moments," he said. "To me, I haven't lived the most special moment yet. That's winning the World Series."

Thome is taking dead aim at that goal like it's a Target Field flagpole.

"I know I missed a lot of great Thome moments last year because of my injury," closer Joe Nathan said. "But I feel like with him, the best is yet to come."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com