IronPigs' Thompson hopes for another shot in the majors
It's a Sunday in March, and Rich Thompson is a major-leaguer again. He's swinging in batting practice and Charlie Manuel's eyes follow every ball Thompson hits deep to right field. Hitting coach Greg Gross mimics the Phillies manager. No one says a word, and the 6-foot-3 outfielder who last season led the International League in runs scored keeps hacking.
In the Phillies clubhouse, Thompson eats lunch at a table with Jimmy Rollins and John Mayberry Jr. He waits an entire game and finally his name is called. He pinch-runs in the ninth, but the man who stole more bases than anyone at triple A in 2011 never has a chance to score the winning run. The game heads for a 10th inning; his day is done.
He stuffs two bats into his red bag, tosses his cleats in, and wears sneakers for the 200-yard walk to reality.
"See ya, Rich," bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer says. Thompson nods.
"Hey, Junior," Thompson says softly to Mayberry, seated alone.
"Bye, Rich," Mayberry says.
He reaches the entrance of the Carpenter Complex, spring training site for the Phillies' minor-league players. Two boys see a man wearing a Phillies uniform and flock.
"Can I have your autograph?" one asks.
"Yeah," Thompson says. He signs a baseball and a mini Phillies helmet.
"Thank you," they say to the man whose identity they'll know only when he walks away and reveals THOMPSON 21 on his back. Even then, it wll still require an Internet search.
"You're welcome," Thompson says.
Inside, locker No. 13 belongs to Thompson all spring. It's in the farthest corner of the first row, a place reserved for the veterans. When camp began, Thompson, 32, was older than 166 of the 167 minor- leaguers.
A few weeks later, Thompson is a Lehigh Valley IronPig again, and no one is surprised. Two days before he starts his 13th professional season in baseball, he composes a 511-word e-mail.
"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."
So why is Rich Thompson still playing baseball?
For five innings, with one at-bat in six games over a span of 25 days, Thompson was a major-leaguer. He stood with the Kansas City Royals as a Rule 5 pick on opening day in 2004. "For me," he said, "that wasn't going to be the culmination of my life."
Thompson pinch-ran for Matt Stairs in the 10th inning of the fifth game, which was deadlocked at 6-6 with Cleveland. On the third pitch, he stole second base. Two pitches later, Aaron Guiel singled to center and the 25-year-old Thompson raced home with the winning run.
"Gosh, I thought I made it then," Thompson said.
His mother, Anne, was in the stands at Kauffman Stadium to see her son. She was working with a mission in Nicaragua, but when Thompson made the Royals she wanted to be in Kansas City. That night, Mike Sweeney, the Royals first baseman, said Thompson had tears in his eyes when he scored.
"It's almost like a storybook ending for Rich," Sweeney said then.
Eight years later, Thompson is sitting on a bench at the Carpenter Complex. Dew on the grass of Ashburn Field lingers. Three Phillies minor- leaguers are completing early work a few yards away and his jaw quivers.
"It certainly makes it easier to go to sleep at night knowing that I've been," Thompson said. "Getting back has turned out to be quite the job."
Baseball is littered with Rich Thompsons. Players have fallen through the cracks for decades without explanation. Maybe, if blessed with different timing, better luck, or an ounce more skill, Thompson would have spent more than 25 days in the majors. Maybe not.
He obsesses over it, and then he doesn't. He speaks like a return to the majors is what still drives him, but then he says he is content with never making it again.
"I can go find something else to do whenever I want," Thompson said. "At least I've had that choice. I'm an optimist. I always think I'm in a position to get that call. So when I don't get it, it's a disappointment. But when I look back, I think I did everything I could."
He laughs when asked why he still does it. So does his wife, Teresa, who has given birth to three children in three states. Invariably, the two have the chat every winter. There was that time when Boston cut him at the last moment of spring training in 2008. He went home for three weeks and wondered if that was it. Then the Phillies called.
In the five-year existence of the IronPigs, no one has more games (464), hits (444), runs (242), or stolen bases (131) than Thompson. This winter, after he re-signed for a fifth year in the organization, the team asked him to attend a banquet in Allentown with top front-office people. The first 3,000 fans at Coca-Cola Park for a Monday game in late April each received a Thompson bobblehead. The figurine depicted him sliding headfirst into second base.
"I'm extremely grateful for the career I've had," Thompson said. "As much as I would have preferred to spend 10 years in the big leagues, I'm grateful for what I've had."
His words sound sincere, but he wants more than his one major-league at-bat. Since 1947, when baseball was integrated, 18 non-pitchers have batted exactly once in their career. Thompson is the only one to make two outs with one swing.
Kansas City was crushing the Indians, 15-5, in the ninth inning on an innocuous Tuesday night in April in Cleveland. The Indians surrendered; catcher Tim Laker pitched the ninth. With one out and runners on first and second, Thompson hit.
"I was not going to be struck out by a backup catcher in my only big-league at-bat," Thompson said.
He swung at the first pitch and bounced one up the middle. Omar Vizquel fielded it, stepped on second, and tossed to first for the double play. Two days later, Thompson was designated for assignment.
"But I certainly don't lose any sleep over one at-bat," he said.
It's just there were none after it.
Last one left
Greg Withelder was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 177th overall pick in the 2000 draft, one spot ahead of Thompson. He lives in Phoenixville with his wife and 15-month-old child. He's a geologist.
First, he blew out his shoulder. He was released. He pitched in the Cardinals organization before latching on with Pittsburgh. Then, he tore a tendon in his left ankle that required two surgeries. In 2004, he signed with the Washington Wild Things, a Frontier League team in the Pittsburgh suburbs not affiliated with Major League Baseball. He never pitched.
"I just couldn't do it," he said. "The pain was too bad."
He never pitched above single A. But he's at peace. He still follows baseball, and recently he tried to get in touch with Shane Victorino, his teammate on the 2000 Yakima Bears.
"Don't get me wrong," Withelder said. "I definitely miss it. But the minor leagues, being how they are, it wears on you."
Thirty players were drafted in the sixth round in 2000; seven reached the majors. The Phillies selected righthander Taylor Buchholz with the 175th pick. He pitched in 159 major-league games before quitting baseball because of depression. A righty named Scott Dohmann appeared in 164 games, more than any sixth-round player from that draft. He's since pitched in Hiroshima, Japan, Albuquerque, N.M., and Cancun, Mexico.
Thompson is the only one of those 30 sixth-round picks still playing professional baseball in the United States. His six major-league games are more than 24 players picked in his round, including Greg Withelder, the geologist who never tasted the big leagues.
"It would have made it worse," Withelder said. "At this point, I don't know what I'm missing."
'Worth working toward'
During Ryne Sandberg's first tour through the International League as IronPigs manager in 2011, opposing managers kept talking about his centerfielder. "He beats us," they would tell him. Sandberg, the Hall of Fame second baseman, was often asked what he thought of Thompson.
"Yeah," Sandberg would say, "this guy would be a guy who could be in the big leagues for somebody."
Sandberg is a man waiting for his own second chance at the majors. When he talks about Thompson, it's as if he is describing his own plight. The goal is close enough to dream.
"That makes it not only tough," Sandberg said, "but also still worth working toward."
Two more weeks in the majors will not change Thompson's life. He wants to be a pinch-runner, the speed guy the Phillies call up in September when rosters expand. For the last four years, he waited for the call and believed it was coming.
He still does.
"It would give a lot of validation to my rationale," Thompson said. "It obviously doesn't look like it's that realistic. It would give me some affirmation. But if you were to tell me I won't make it to the big leagues again, it's not like I would just leave. That doesn't drive it at all. By no means is anything I do in the big leagues from this point on going to change my life financially. You get called up for a month, it would be nice. Maybe I could buy a new car."
Thompson earns approximately $13,000 a month in the minors. After taking online classes for the last few winters, he recently passed the certified public accountant exam. But he has not devised a post-baseball plan.
"Everyone says stuff all the time," said his wife, Teresa. "Why does he keep doing it? It's hard to say why, except that he really loves it. He's able to provide for us. It's a nice thing. Our kids love it."
No unhappy endings
One morning during spring training, Thompson awoke at 5 and made chocolate chip pancakes for his eldest son's seventh birthday. They put together a new scooter and then Thompson made the short drive from their Tampa-area home to Clearwater for work.
There have been opportunities elsewhere, but none more appealing than the Phillies. Thompson wants - no, needs - it to happen in Philadelphia. "I'll take a lot of satisfaction when I do get to put on that Phillies uniform," Thompson said. "That's for sure."
"He's a guy you pull for," Sandberg said. "I pull for him as much as anyone, just for him to have that chance."
And if he never does, there is comfort.
"People go to the Jersey Shore for the summer. We go to Allentown," Thompson said. "It's home."
Maybe after this season, Rich and Teresa will have the talk again. They speak often about how values and pursuing a dream - no matter how improbable - is the greatest lesson to teach their children. They met as undergrads at James Madison University when Rich threw a football through Teresa's dorm-room window at Chappelear Hall. They dated and she read books in the stands at his baseball games. They were married at 23.
"It would be great if it had a happy ending," Teresa said. "Wouldn't it?"
It's a Sunday in March and Rich Thompson ponders the question one more time. Why? "It's the chance to do something I love," he says. He stares at an empty baseball diamond. There are two possible endings, and neither is unhappy.
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