It took eight years, 2,944 days and 3,710 minor-league plate appearances, but Rich Thompson finally found his way back to the big leagues with the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.
And in keeping with the general theme of his career, the actions that led to the 33-year-old outfielder appearing in his first major-league game since 2004 were far from easy. Thompson woke up as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies minor-league organization, was traded to the Rays just before lunchtime and arrived in Florida for a game against the Red Sox just before dinner. Known for his speed, he entered the contest in the eighth inning as a pinch-runner for designated hitter Luke Scott and then drew a balk from Red Sox reliever Franklin Morales. He was on third when Will Rhymes was hit with a pitch before fainting.
So was Thompson nervous before playing his role in the Rays' 2-1 victory?
"Surprisingly not," he told reporters after the game. "Everything kind of slows back when you get back on the field, but it's all the anticipation that makes you nervous. I might have been a little jumpy, kind of tipped my hand a little bit when I was trying to get my jump ... I did draw a lot of attention to myself, so I guess it ended up working out OK."
It'll work out even better if Thompson gets a few plate appearances while he serves as outfield depth on Tampa Bay's roster. He only has one career plate appearance to his name and that was when he grounded into a double play against the Indians on April 20, 2004, back when he was a member of the Royals. He made Kansas City's opening day roster that year and appeared in six games as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. But he was sent down on April 24, starting an eight-year run of perseverance and dedication that serves as a great example to just about anybody who strives toward anything.
The natural impulse is to compare Thompson's plight to that of Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, the member of the 1905 New York Giants who appeared in just one game and was later immortalized by Burt Lancaster in the movie "Field of Dreams." That's not entirely accurate as Thompson still has one more plate appearance than Graham, who is one of only 37 players since 1901 to have appeared in one game without ever seeing the plate.
Thompson, meanwhile, is currently one of just 76 non-pitchers since 1901 to have only one career PA to his name. (He's also the only one to have used his only chance to ground into a double play.)
Still, the themes of fleeting glory and the eternal quest to recapture that feeling are present here. Thompson has played for 11 different minor-league teams in places ranging from Tucson to Syracuse, just so that he could one day get to the majors.
In a great piece of timing, Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an excellent feature on Thompson's quest just last weekend, chronicling what keeps a guy chasing a dream all those years. For one, he makes a decent living as a veteran at the Triple-A level. For another, there was the dream of making it to the majors again — though the toll of eight years more or less required Thompson to install a self-defense system against the possibility of the ultimate disappointment.
Here's what Thompson said in Gelb's feature (which, again, was written before this week's unforeseen trade to Tampa Bay and spot on the team's 25-man roster):
"(Being called up) 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."
Now the Thompson children will love seeing their dad on the big stage again. There's no telling how long he'll occupy the roster spot that was created by injuries to Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer. But it would seem that he has at least a week, maybe more. Given manager Joe Maddon's reputation, I wouldn't be surprised to see Thompson not only get a few more plate appearances, but also maybe his first big-league start.
At least I hope it works out that way for Thompson. He's certainly earned it.
UPDATE: The starting lineup for tonight's game against the Red Sox is out. Rich Thompson is batting ninth and playing left field.
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