ANAHEIM, Calif. — What you learn about the game is there is nothing you can teach it. That it saw you coming. That it will treat you like the rest, given the time and at-bats. That today’s revelation, as often as not, is tomorrow’s fourth outfielder/backup first baseman/pinch-hitter.
“I saw a really cool quote from Joe Rogan last night,” Eric Thames says, “and it was like, ‘Everybody loves the success story. But what I really love is somebody who messes up and gets back on top.’”
Not that Thames messed up. That’d be too strong. He did tear up a thumb, though. He did hit .219. He did lose his job to Jesús Aguilar. And he did not ever again hit 11 home runs across 22 games, as he did to start 2017, when he’d returned from three years in Korea to assault baseballs and light up Milwaukee.
Made and remade over years of obsessiveness, thousands of swings and many more miles, he was the latest — at 30, bearded, bulky, relentless, charming — to be sent to test the game, to push a magical month into two, into three, into a career no one saw coming.
The success story that runs straight and downhill — “The perfect path and boom,” Thames says — was never him anyway. His story would run a bit harder. Those 11 home runs across 22 games were real though, and those 31 homers across an entire season were, too, just as real as the injuries that followed, and the pitches that seemed to get nastier as he went, and then the nightly battles in his own head, and the fight to get back into the lineup, and that’s what got him to Wednesday afternoon, in the visitors clubhouse at Angel Stadium, quoting Joe Rogan.
“It’s the guy who lost it and hit rock bottom, and getting back up there,” he says, smiling. “I don’t know. I liked it.”
Which was not to say he’d hit rock bottom, only to say he’d put a fair distance between himself and the month, the summer, when it seemed he’d come to teach the game a little something. Even then, when it was impossible to continue the way he’d begun, when so many others had come and temporarily lit up other towns, Eric Thames wasn’t not possible either. Though it tries to beat it out of you, the game allows for the notion that, yeah, this is the one, he’s not like the rest, he’s special, he’s figured it out, go ahead and believe.
“That’s what makes those stories so great,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, “is that we see that and we think, ‘Is this something different?’ I think it made us all ask, ‘What happened [in Korea]? Should we all go there? Should every player go there?’”
What it leaves, most of the time, is a guy and his batting cage, a guy and his optimism, a guy and his uncertainty, sorting it out like everybody else, some of it good and some of it not. In 96 games last season, Thames batted .219, had an on-base percentage of .306 and hit 16 home runs. He was not included on the Brewers’ postseason roster. In choppy playing time this season, he is 4-for-22 in the Brewers’ first 13 games, including two three-run homers against the Chicago Cubs. He struck out 11 times.
Still he smiles and commits to the job, whatever it is, on Wednesday night batting seventh and playing first base for the slumping Aguilar. He’d passed this way before, when there was something to prove, before he could’ve imagined another seven hundred and some major league at-bats, another 49 major league home runs, and $16 million, too. Now he’s 32, and that becomes part of the imperfect path back, another one.
That month, that summer, allowed for the good in him. What came after and what comes now might actually be asking for better, for more. And so when he’s asked if he’s changed since then, he says, “Oh, yeah, definitely. Any time anybody goes through some hardship, you have two choices — to give in to it, kind of just quit or keep on going. Like, last year, after I got hurt, I tried to do too much. I tried to catch up to everybody else. It kind of spiraled out of control. But this year, my approach is pretty simple. It’s a matter of, every day I’m going to show up and do the same things. I don’t care if I’m not playing for a week. I’m still going to show up and work out, go to the cage for an hour or whatever, get my sprints, my strength program, everything. Because you never know, opportunities come at any moment. So you gotta be ready to go.”
That’s what’s next, whatever it will be — when Eric Thames rediscovers the approach and the stroke and the results that challenged the game or when he does not. It will not come easy, in spite of how the game once teased him, but he probably would expect that. It’s easier to mess up, if you want to call it that. The rest is the boom at the end of the path, the one you hope doesn’t take you with it.
So, he says, “My goal in life, besides having a family and that kind of stuff, is the pursuit of self-mastery. Like, controlling your mind. Like, in hitting. You’re up there, thinking, ‘OK this guy throws 95 to 98, good split, good slider, and, OK, I’m looking for this pitch here, but what if he goes fastball in? I don’t want to get beat on the fastball in, and then, chase and chase and ...’ If I just trust myself, trust my body, get in the habit of just trusting it, then OK.”
He laughs. It all happens so fast.
Almost like it didn’t happen at all.
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