Rich Thompson and the MLB Dream

“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 Inquirer

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.

The outfielder and 33-year-old Rich was tied for the fifth- or sixth- 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, against his one MLB pitch, Thompson hit a ground ball for an inning-ending double play off Tim 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.

Until yesterday.

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 went for Thompson. 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 has to think he is getting released. For a Triple-A roster that has featured Scott Podsednik, Domonic Brown, Mike Fontenot, Dave Bush, and Pat Misch, Thompson is a career 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 traded, but he is joining the 25-man roster. Instead of starting against the Indianapolis Indians that night, he is 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 Inquirer 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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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


42 Responses to “Rich Thompson and the MLB Dream”

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  1. TFINY says:

    Cheers to perseverance! I will watch the game tonight, and watch Rich Thompson play ball.

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  2. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Post of the year.

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  3. Chris says:

    What a great story … I’ll totally be rooting for him, tonight and beyond..
    *it’s the Philadelphia Inquirer, not Enquirer.

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  4. What an excellent piece Bradley, thanks so much for this insight to someone we would have otherwise ignored. Right now watching him play left on MLB Network Thursday night game I’ll be pulling for him all night long as I’m sure it’s not one he’ll ever forget. And thanks to the Rays and Joe Maddon, what a class group.

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  5. jcxy says:

    wow, terrific job highlighting a great story!

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  6. WinTwins says:

    An amazing story, the one written by Bradley and the one lived by Rich. Obviously I’ve never heard of this guy but I’m immediately pulling for him. I hope he sticks, if even for one year.

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  7. Will says:

    This is a great post. Oh, and “the Great Insulation” … Fantastic.

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  8. knightz03 says:

    There is at least one web site that has soft spot for him.

    http://www.phuturephillies.com/2012/05/16/rich-thompson-traded-to-tampa/

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  9. WinTwins says:

    CONGRATS to your first ML hit Mr. Thompson, hope its the first of (relatively) many.

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  10. Dylan says:

    How has nobody found this guy worthy of a roster spot in September? A pinch runner could be huge with the expanded rosters.

    Awesome to see him get a chance.

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  11. brendan says:

    single and 2SB tonight. not bad. guess his speed and baserunning is for real, at least

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  12. pudieron89 says:

    not the most touching story when you consider dude’s making more than 10k/month to play baseball. He probably makes more in a season than a good deal of the nerds posting from their basements on here make in a year.

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    • guest says:

      Are you sure? Last time I checked, most AA and AAA guys made between 20-40,000. Some 4A or veteran AAA guys may make 80,000+, though.

      Career minor leaguers generally make very little.

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      • pudieron89 says:

        Hi guest, thanks for your concern. Unfortunately, you probably should have read the article Bradley (whom I consider an excellent writer) referenced from the Inquirer:

        “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”

        Lifers get a lot more and dude is a cult legend in Philly, they had a bobblehead night for him–a career minor leaguer. Good for him to get another chance and I hope he does well but no point in saying that he’s triumphed or anything, he lives a pretty damn comfortable life.

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      • Humbaba484 says:

        Lets see, the minor league season is 5 months long, at $13,000 a month that comes out to about $65,000. Now thats a nice salary but it does not exactly go a long way and it does not provide him any long term security by any stretch.

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      • Bill says:

        Wow, it must be an election year. The coals of class envy have been thoroughly stoked. This story has nothing to do with money. It has to do with working hard and remaining steadfast in order to achieve your dreams. Thompson’s dream from when he was in T-ball was to play in the majors. He has talent and determination and that got him to the brink of achieving his dreams where he remained for 8 long years. Are you so cynical as to find nothing inspiring in his story simply because he is currently being well compensated for his talent and drive? He probably would have worked the rest of the year for free in exchange for another shot at the big leagues. Hell, he probably would have worked next year for free too.

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    • WinTwins says:

      Why are you even here? Do you even like baseball? Go away troll.

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    • WinTwins says:

      http://www.amazon.com/Out-My-League-Dirk-Hayhurst/dp/0806534850/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337319922&sr=8-1

      Also give that a read. The grind to get to the bigs when you have middling talent at best is not terrific. I can’t believe people stick to it for over a decade. I imagine there are untold stories of whole families and lives being ruined by players to scared to admit they just weren’t good enough to make the majors.

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    • deadeyerr says:

      Leave it to pudding ron to be a douche

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  13. guest says:

    Sorry, you’re right. 13,000 per month. But isn’t that just for the baseball season and not for 12 months? If so, its not that much of an income, especially since he may not have a job when he finishes his career.

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    • RC says:

      Its still $65K a year. (in just 5 months of work) Which is twice what the average american makes.

      That, and hes an accountant the rest of the year. Dude probably clears $100K a year. IE, hes in the top 5-10% of earners in the country.

      He’s doing well.

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  14. Chad says:

    In a league full of millionaires, here’s a guy trying to play long enough to make enough money to buy a car.

    Wow.

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  15. wrinklebump says:

    putting up a 250 wRC!

    hope he finds some at-bats down there, or maybe even get a big league paycheck next year.

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  16. Josh says:

    You really did this story justice. It was beautifully written.

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  17. Keith says:

    Rich Thompson is a great player to watch. Even though he may not mean much, the Rays are lucky to him. Saw him frequently with the Iron Pigs. Kinda surprised he hasn’t stuck on as a fourth outfielder somewhere.

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  18. Woodman says:

    Very good story, well done Bradley. And well done Rich.

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  19. tz says:

    Articles of this caliber, like Rich Thompson, deserve more than “a cup of coffee”

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  20. IronPigs Fan says:

    We IronPigs fans had the distinct pleasure of seeing Rich play and meeting him as a person. You have gotten yourself an exciting player, but more importantly, a truly class individual. A blazer on the basepaths, a terrific hitter for average, and baseball instincts befitting a guy who’s been at it for a long time, we understood the loaded Phillies couldn’t find a spot for Rich.
    Seeing him traded was bittersweet, but everyone here agreed that he should be playing in the majors somewhere, and a smart team realized it.
    His first hit for the Rays was announced during an IronPigs game, and the cheers for Rich were deafening. As a Yankees fan, I would normally be unlikely to root for a rival player when the Rays and Yanks meet, but Rich deserves all the success he achieves and many of us will follow your team more closely because of him. Sometimes the good guys do win.

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  21. matty brown says:

    Vincente Padilla must not have known that Thompson had already played an MLB game when he “continued the old-school tradition” of plunking rookies.

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  22. deadeyerr says:

    Great job Bradley. Not bad for an English Major.

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  23. Urban Shocker says:

    Fantastic piece. Fangraphs FTW!

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  24. mcbrown says:

    Great story. I don’t totally understand the move from the Rays’ perspective, since they traded a guy 8 years younger with basically the exact same minor league profile to get Thompson, but maybe there are meaningful differences between the two players (defense?) that are apparent from scouting but not from basic statistics.

    Regardless, this is awesome for Rich Thompson. Anyone who thinks “he’s getting paid to play, why should we care?” obviously hasn’t thought about what it means to be 34 years old and facing the end of your career with no skills that are translatable to other fields, at a time when most people your age are just getting ramped up in their careers. That must be tough enough if you’ve managed to bank one 7 figure contract (a million bucks isn’t as much to retire on as it used to be at age 65, let alone at 35). It must be absolutely frightening if you’ve barely cracked 6 figures along the way… Kudos to him for sticking with it for all those years!

    And count me among those who are mystified that the Phillies never found a September role for this guy.

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  25. Adam Sampson says:

    Love the story, well written but is Casey Kotchman one word? ;)

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  26. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    Bravo!

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  27. BurleighGrimes says:

    Just awesome.

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  28. Marc Hulet says:

    I remember being annoyed when the Jays traded Thompson to Pittsburgh for John freakin’ Wasdin.

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  29. Cardinal Rules says:

    Made me happy to read. Well written. Thanks for highlighting this story.

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