“In the end,” Thompson wrote, “very few people will remember anything I have done as a baseball player. But hopefully they will remember what kind of person and teammate I am.”
– the Philadelphia Enquirer
For those who missed the Rays and Red Sox game last night, here’s the update: In the bottom of the eighth, moments before a blood-souring hit-by-pitch to Will Rhymes, pinch runner Rich Thompson took over for Luke Scott at second base. Much of the audience was probably — and perhaps rightly — focused on Rhymes.
But at the same time, Thompson standing at second was a spectacle in itself.
Rich Thompson entered #Rays game last night as pinch-runner in 8th inn.: 8 yrs, 24 days and 915 MiLB games since his last big league game.
— Jonathan Gantt (@Jonathan_Gantt) May 17, 2012
The outfielder and 33-year-old Rich was tied for the fifth or six oldest minor league player entering this season, depending on whether you count the Mexican League and the NPB. In the International League, only DeWayne Wise, Bobby Scales, and Corky Miller rank as his seniors. And unlike those guys, Thompson has only one MLB plate appearance.
In his one MLB plate appearance, in his one MLB pitch, Thompson hit a ground ball for an inning-ending double play off Time Laker — 34-year-old catcher Tim Laker, pitching only because the game was already out of hand.
That was in 2004, when Thompson was a 25-year-old outfielder and coming off three-straight 40+ steals season in the minors. He was a Rule 5 draft pick, traded to the Royals, that year, and he appeared in a total of 6 games, getting 1 steal and 1 PA. By the end of April, he was returned to the Pirates and back in the minor leagues for his fourth-straight season with 40+ steals. He stayed there for eight years.
On Wednesday afternoon, May 5, 2012, the Tampa Bay Rays — riddled with injuries, yet top in the AL with 23 wins — traded for Thompson and immediately put him on the 25-man roster.
I cannot imagine how that day must have been. Or, rather, I cannot imagine how that day felt; I can imagine how it went. Perhaps Thompson arrives to the ballpark like usual (the IronPigs were at home on Wednesday); he starts lacing up and getting ready. A phone rings in the office. Then Ryne Sandberg steps out and calls Thompson over, shuts the door. For a few moments, the 33-year-old outfielder had to think he was getting released. For a Triple-A roster that has featured Scott Podsednik, Domonic Brown, Mike Fontenot, Dave Bush, and Pat Misch, Thompson is a minor leaguer among veterans and prospects.
But Sandberg does not hand Thompson his papers. He hands him a plane ticket.
Not only is Thompson getting trading, but he is joining the 25-man roster. Instead of starting against the Indianapolis Indians that night, he was in the dugout at Tropicana Field.
Thompson is in many ways the Raysian prototype. The team’s foundation of success — homegrown stud pitchers and strong-fielding franchise players (namely: Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist) — does not work without the Great Insulation: Inexpensive specialists that fill the remainder of the roster.
Framing specialist Jose Molina. Fielding expert Sam Fuld. The Fernando Rodney Renaissance and the Matchup Patchwork Bullpen. Broken veterans or peculiar rookies go to the Trop for a second (or first) chance — and many have blossomed.
Kyle Farnsworth and Rafael Soriano changed the perception about them after each dominated in the closer’s role. Eric Hinske and Johnny Damon showed they still had a use in this league, and a use as regular contributors. One word: Casey Kotchman.
Tonight, Thompson gets his first career start in left field, gets a chance. And though the Rays deserve applause if Thompson turns out to be the Sam Fuld duplicate they want, the real lauding goes to Thompson himself.
This game means nothing without the people. Spectator sports are the games of watching others’ lives, in participating by proxy in the joys and terrors of the game.
Thompson has thrown himself at this sport. He has hurled his life into this game with an almost reckless passion. He recently got his CPA certification and probably has a chance at becoming a baseball instructor of some capacity, but for the most part, he is a man who is entering what would be his peak earning years with a resume that says “athlete” and “82.8% SB success rate” (that’s not a typo).
He has sent his life, his family, in this direction, in this pursuit for a singular goal. I long for that kind of dedication, that kind of ever-burning hope in my heart. I wish I could put that kind of fervor into my job and my marriage and even my leisure. I wish I could edge along the cliff of oblivion with courage and dry palms like this unknown and soon-forgotten outfielder.
Thompson had come to peace with his, so to speak, disappointing MLB career. In the Philadelphia Enquirer piece quoted earlier, he mentions how he would like to make it back to the big leagues, how he would use the money for a car if he got called up to the big leagues in September. In the span of less than a week since he wrote that, he has joined a top MLB franchise with the best record in the AL and a strong chance for postseason play. Tonight, he’s starting against the team’s hated division rival, the Boston Red Sox. His story went from fringe to likely Disney movie.
This is a game — a business — that consumes. For the fans, we are not always privy to the dull ache of the retiring minor leaguer, the quiet glory of a Dirk Hayhurst career. Many, many careers end with an injury in Low-A, ineffectiveness in Double-A, or some other unseen change that results in a final stat line and an ended career. Every player, whether minor leaguer or major, has to experience the death of a dream. Very few retire on top or retire because they have “finished.”
Odds are, because I have written this piece and because you have read at least this far, you and I will not forget Rich Thompson, the 33-year-old rookie outfielder. I will not forget him as a player, and to know him as a player is to know him as a fighter, an endurer, a feel-good story in a feel-bad world.
And he is worth remembering. Both as a person and a player.
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