- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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The question everyone always wants to ask Rich Thompson is how ever did he manage to do this? And the simplest way he can explain it is for the past 13 years he made a private pact with baseball: He was not going to let go of the game until it let go of him first. "Somebody in someone's front office was going to have to tell me it was time to go home," he says. Otherwise? "I wasn't going home on my own."
That was the understanding Thompson and his wife, Teresa, came to, and then stuck to, even after their first, then second, then third child was born, and even after they put down roots in Tampa seven years ago. Starting in 2000, Thompson bounced from organization to organization, from the Blue Jays to the Pirates to the Padres to the Royals and back to the Pirates, then out west to the Diamondbacks and back east to Boston, which gave him his first-ever outright release in 2008.
That was a blow. He was 29. It was late in spring training. His phone didn't ring for three weeks.
"That time I did think, 'This might be it,'" Thompson admits.
But a call finally came from the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Philadelphia Phillies' Triple-A team that plays not far from Thompson's birthplace of Reading, Pa. And for the last five years, the familiar pattern of his career snapped back into place. Other players came, other players went. Other players always got called up to the big leagues ahead of Thompson even when the 6-foot-3, 195-pound outfielder had good seasons. He stole 48 bases in 2011 at the age of 32 and thought that might finally earn him a shot with the Phillies. It didn't. Even when rosters were expanded in September, once again no call-up came.
In all his prior years in pro baseball, Thompson's solitary taste of big league action remained an early-season stint with the Royals in 2004 in which he appeared in six games, mostly as a pinch runner or defensive replacement, and finished with one big league at-bat. That's it.
Not surprisingly, he remembers everything about it. The Royals were winning, 15-5, on a cold April night in Cleveland. Not wanting to burn another pitcher, the Indians sent catcher Tim Laker to mop up. As Thompson grabbed a bat he remembers thinking, "Getting struck out by a backup catcher in my first major league at-bat is not something I'm interested in talking about for the rest of my life." He jumped at the first pitch and hit a bounding ball up the middle that seemed to have a chance -- until Omar Vizquel flashed to his left and snagged it and turned a double play.
"Irritating," Thompson says.
And that was it.
He was sent back to Triple-A two days later.
He played in 1,022 more minor league games.
He took 3,250 minor league at-bats.
For the last eight years -- a span of 2,950 days -- that one-pitch at-bat was technically "all" Thompson had.
But neither Thompson nor his wife looked at it that way. "I've always still been able to support my family playing baseball," he says. And is there not some honor in that? He was with Lehigh Valley a long time and became such a local hero for the community work he did off the field as much as for what he did on the field, the team gave him his own bobblehead day this year. "And that was nice," he laughs.
At Lehigh Valley, he also got to play for Ryne Sandberg, the Hall of Fame second baseman who gave one of the all-time great induction speeches about loving the game.
If anyone knew why Rich Thompson was still playing minor league baseball at age 33, it would be Sandberg, right? The career minor leaguer and the one-time star, who shared a dugout, waiting for a call, understand how baseball creeps into your soul and doesn't let go.
Which is why Sandberg says he took such great pleasure in a call he made to Thompson the morning of May 16 as Thompson was driving to an elementary school to read to some students -- something Thompson, the son of a former missionary, often does.
Even though Thompson was hitting .307 this season, his voice still tightened ever so slightly as he answered the phone and warily said, "Hey, Ryno, what's up?" After an exchange of pleasantries -- "Nice game last night" Sandberg began. "Is that why you called?" Thompson asked, still wary. Sandberg said, "No, I've got some news for you." And Thompson had no idea what it might be.
"I mean, I'm a guy who's been put on phantom [injury] disabled lists before, I'm a guy who's been sent down to Double-A so another guy could play at Triple-A," he explains. "So when people always ask me, 'How did you persevere this long?' one thing a lot of people don't understand is some of those years, I was lucky just to have a job, period. It's hard to keep a job in baseball.
"So when Ryno said to me, 'You've been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays' I was already thinking, 'Really? What's going to happen to me now? I've got to get myself to Durham somehow. At least that's supposed to be a nice [Triple-A] place to play '
"Then Ryno added, 'And the better news is you're getting called up to the big leagues right away' and well, I mean I just had all these overwhelming emotions."
"One of THE best phone calls I ever made in my life," Sandberg said with a laugh in a phone interview this week. "I could hear tears of joy on the other end of the line. And Rich just kept saying to me, 'Thank you, Ryno! Thank you, Ryno!' It was as if I'd just given him something he's been waiting for someone to say to him for all those years. He finally happened to be going good when he was being looked at for six or seven games, and boom! -- there it was." Something happened for him that we talk about all the time in baseball.
"He finally found himself being the right person, in the right place, at the right time."
The next seven or so hours were a blur for Thompson. He hung up and quickly called his wife, who also happened to be driving in her car in Florida, and she yelled, "Are you KIDDING me!" when he gave her the news. Then she started crying too.
Thompson's best asset -- "my one 'plus' big league tool" he says -- is his speed. And it showed. He packed like a madman and made his 1:45 p.m. flight to Tampa. Teresa and their kids, who range in age from 2 to 7, met him at the airport when he landed, then clambered back into their family minivan and followed the car the Rays sent for him all the way to the stadium.
It was pouring rain, and Thompson says, "I thought to myself what a blessing it is that we play in a dome, because I actually know guys that have been called up for a spot start, got rained out, and they were sent back down to the minors the next day and they never got called up again."
It was already the second inning when Thompson arrived. But Rays manager Joe Maddon put him in as a pinch runner just to get his feet wet. The next night, the lineup card still wasn't posted when Thompson went out to the field for pregame stretching. Someone told him that he was starting in left field but, as he now admits with a laugh, "I thought to myself, 'Well, that certainly can't be right. We're facing a lefty pitcher, and I'm a left-handed batter.' I didn't believe it."
Believe it, all right. You see, Maddon is another man who understands how baseball can crawl into your soul and never let you go. He indeed had Thompson making his first big league start and batting ninth.
Maddon spent 19 years in the minors before the Angels finally gave him his first break, and now he's considered one of the top two or three managers in the game. And he knows his baseball history, too.
After Thompson struck out on four pitches in his first at-bat -- "Nervous? My bat never left my shoulder and I told myself it's got to get better than this," Thompson says -- his second at-bat against Boston's Felix Doubront was something to see. Thirteen years after Thompson turned pro and eight years since he swung at the first pitch in his first big league at-bat, he sent another ground ball skittering up the middle and
this time it finally happened for him.
The ball bounded past a diving Dustin Pedroia and into center field for a single.
It drove in a run.
"Just surreal," Thompson stammers.
"For eight years he was Moonlight Graham," Maddon told reporters after the game, referring to the character depicted in "Field of Dreams." "Then he got the hit, and he was Rich Thompson."
Thompson's RBI single made him the oldest position player in the American League to get his first major league hit since Minnie Mendoza in 1970. It also liberated him from being the only non-pitcher since 1947 that had batted once in the big leagues and recorded two outs with his only swing.
He says he was too worried about missing a sign once he got to first base to notice that the crowd was giving him a standing ovation because fans were aware of his story, or that many of his new teammates had rushed up to the dugout rail to cheer for him -- especially when he stole second base, then third.
"One of the sweetest things was I felt like I really contributed to the team," Thompson says.
Welcome to The Show.
The Rays traded for Thompson because they had three other outfielders on the disabled list. He has no idea how long this call-up will last. On Wednesday -- the one-week anniversary of his Rays debut -- Thompson started again in left and went 0-for-4 against Toronto. But he was also grazed by a Darren Oliver pitch in the 11th inning and scored from first on a double by B.J. Upton to give the Rays a 5-4 win.
After 13 years, that pact Thompson has with baseball is still intact.
Look who's finally a big leaguer.
Look whom nobody's front office has told to go home just yet.
17mAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com