PHOENIX – Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson hugged his teammates, put on a commemorative postseason cap, listened to the roar of the crowd, and stood in awe in the middle of the field, soaking up the moment.
Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, one of his closest friends, ran over to Thompson last Tuesday when they clinched the NL West title, gave him a long, emotional embrace and said: “How cool is this? Did you even think this was a possibility?’’
Thompson, his eyes welling with tears, didn’t answer.
It’s so hard to talk when you’re about to cry.
Thompson, 31, the younger brother of four-time NBA champion Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, bouncing around nine organizations – including three stops alone this season – has finally arrived.
“One of the main things I deserve is to go out and have fun.’’ Thompson says, “because I've been to some dark places in this game. I've been in some places that people don't even know about.
“It was never necessarily about quitting, because quitting is not in my nature. It was more so like I don't know if this is going to happen, but I’m going to give it everything I have.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life and my career to get back to this level. I knew, deep down one day, I could do this.’’
It just took a whole lot longer than he ever envisioned, and here he is now as an integral piece of the Dodgers’ championship run, with 10 homers, 32 RBI and a .905 OPS in 61 games. He has the second-highest on-base percentage (.377), second-highest slugging percentage (.595) and third-highest WAR (1.9) in the second half among his teammates with a stunning 170 OPS-plus.
“We’ve seen all of his big hits, what he’s done on the field,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says, “but I’m telling you the impact he has made on his teammates is bigger than what he’s done on the field. I’m talking about everyone from Clayton [Kershaw] to Austin Barnes to Mookie Betts to Freddie Freeman. He’s such a professional, and his focus is always on doing whatever it takes to win.
“He’s finally figured out himself to become a major league baseball player."
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This is a guy who was drafted in the second round by the Chicago White Sox in 2009, made his major-league debut six years later, and then became a one-man transaction list.
He was traded to the Dodgers in 2016 where he suffered two fractured vertebrae, shutting down his season in August. He opened spring training with the Dodgers in 2017, but in a 16-day stretch, went from the Dodgers, to the Yankees to the Athletics to the White Sox. He spent 2019 in the Cleveland organization, went to Arizona and played in its alternative camp in 2020, played for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in 2021 and finished the year getting just 35 at-bats with the Cubs. This year, he began the year playing for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas, then the San Diego Padres, then the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, and back to the Dodgers in June.
Thompson, the only member of his athletic family to choose baseball over basketball, spent most of the past 13 years riding buses in the minors, playing just 284 games in the big leagues, when he found himself at his career crossroads in May.
Thompson, who signed a minor-league contract with the Padres in March, was called up to the big leagues in May, but was given just 16 plate appearances to prove he belonged. He hit .071, struck out seven times, and was designated for assignment.
Now, for the first time, he wondered if he should even bother trying to get a big-league job that lasted more than a few weeks. He had an opportunity to play every day in Japan and Korea. He could simply forgo the dream of being a major-league ballplayer, live comfortably overseas, and never to be heard of again.
He decided to telephone Buddy Bell, vice president of the Cincinnati Reds, the man he calls his “second father,’’ who was in the White Sox’s front office when they drafted Thompson 13 years ago.
“It was a tough time for him,’’ Bell tells USA TODAY Sports, “he didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t going through anything horrible, but in his mind he was. Like every young player, it’s really hard to deal with adversity.
“We talked almost every day for about 10 days. We talked about maybe playing internationally and things like that. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to get another chance here again.’’
The Detroit Tigers called, offered him a Triple-A job playing for the Mud Hens, and he decided to give it another shot. This time, everything seemed to click. He hit .299 with a .352 on-base percentage and .639 slugging percentage with eight homers in 25 games. He thrived against left-handed pitchers, hitting .391 with four homers.
“He told me, ‘Buddy, I’ve never felt like this as a player in my life,'’‘ Bell said. "' I’m a really good player right now. I just need someone to have faith in me.’’’
The Tigers, 55-90, one of baseball’s worst teams, decided to stick with the young kids instead of calling him up, leaving him in purgatory, wondering if anyone was paying attention.
When Mookie Betts cracked a rib colliding with center fielder Cody Bellinger in June, the Dodgers needed a right-handed bat. They thought Thompson would be the perfect fit as a temporary solution. They had him before, loved his athleticism and makeup, so why not give him a shot?
The Dodgers called the Tigers, who weren’t going to deprive Thompson of perhaps his last opportunity. They didn’t even asking for a player in return, just a little cash.
“I was so excited because he’s one of my best friends,’’ Barnes says. “I face-timed him right away. I just know how much he wanted to get that shot again. I know how hard he works. He deserved this.’’
What was supposed to be a brief stopover until Betts recovered, turned into a long-term stay. Thompson hit a double in his first game back, then a homer, and before he knew it, was playing nearly every day. He has started 41 games and came off the bench in 20 other games. He’ll be on their postseason roster, and will soon be playing in the first playoff game of his career.
“This is my dream,’’ Thompson, 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, says. “I mean, it’s everything I’ve wanted since I was 5 years old. I always wanted to be a professional baseball player.’’
The secret is that everyone who has met Thompson along his journey wanted him to reach his dream nearly as much as he did.
You talk to former teammates. Managers. Coaches. Equipment managers. Groundskeepers. They’ll all tell you that Thompson is one of their favorite people in the game. He deserves this happiness.
“I’m one of his biggest fans, even though he’s beaten up on us,’’ says Padres manager Bob Melvin, with Thompson hitting two homers with three doubles against them this season. “You could always see there was something in there. It was going to be about the opportunity at the right time that he was going to do well. I was hoping it would be here, it just didn’t happen here."
Thompson may have been his worst enemy. He wanted to be a star, and when it didn’t come, he grinded to a point of no return. Bad games would demoralize him. Slumps would send him spiraling into despair. The confidence he desired never came as easily as it did for his brother, Klay, and father, Mychal Thompson, a two-time NBA champion with the Lakers.
“For me, a big thing is trying too hard,’’ Thompson says, “instead of just letting stuff come naturally. You know, trying to force the issue in this game. Sometimes you just spin your wheels and it almost makes it worse.’’
He learned to deal with the failures, no longer permitting doubt to suffocate his confidence, and putting his faith into those who believed in him.
“When he was younger, just every at-bat, every pitch, everything that happened,’’ Bell says, “he was affected by it. He’s had a lot of ups and downs, but he handled it like a champ."
Thompson profusely thanks Bell, White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston, San Francisco Giants outfielder Joc Pederson and hitting coaches Gary Ward, Matt Martin and Shawn Wooten for helping him along the way, not just in baseball, but also in life.
“I just feel like I kind of lost myself a little bit,’’ Thompson says, “so I kind of just had to reevaluate myself. I almost needed to hit rock bottom to find myself. I rediscovered myself and re-establish myself to this level.
“To put this uniform on, and be in this clubhouse again, it’s been great. I can’t wait to see what happens next.’’
Thompson paused, looked across the diamond, and without the slightest trace of a smile, said: “The way I’m feeling now, I’m thinking I really haven't even scratched the surface.’’
The Chicago White Sox have yet to determine manager Tony La Russa’s fate with strong debate ongoing inside the front office whether he should keep his job.
But if the White Sox ultimately decide not to bring him back for the final year of his contract in 2023, he certainly deserves to be back in the dugout one final time this season.
The White Sox are barely hanging on in the AL Central race under interim manager Miguel Cairo, but would have to sweep the Cleveland Guardians this week to have any dreams of winning the division. One loss to the Guardians would actually mean two considering it would give Cleveland the tiebreaker advantage, too.
If the White Sox are eliminated before their final three games of the season, why not let La Russa return to the dugout and manage perhaps the final games of his Hall of Fame career?
The Texas Rangers, Miami Marlins, Los Angeles Angels and perhaps the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, too, are expected to be looking for a new manager once the season ends.
One of the leading candidates for several openings, including the Rangers, is Mike Shildt of the San Diego Padres. Shildt was fired last October after leading the St. Louis Cardinals to three consecutive postseasons because of philosophical differences with John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations.
Shildt, who spent 21 years with the Cardinals, including 13 years in the minor leagues, certainly deserves another shot. He’s been a consultant for the Padres this year, but has spent about 40 games with the big-league club, doing everything from being a bench coach to a third-base coach to a first-base coach. He was even in charge of Fernando Tatis’ rehab assignment before Tatis tested positive for PEDs.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity the Padres have given to me,’’ Shildt says. “It’s given me a good perspective looking at different roles from different angles, and reflect on my tenure as manager. I’ve got a chance to work on being a better version of myself.
“I’d like an opportunity to manage again. I think I’ve more than earned it. I’ve got a real hunger to get back and help people get to the best version of an organization, and ultimately lead a team back to the playoffs and World Series contention.’’
Shildt, who was instrumental in the Cardinals’ turnaround, says he’s been rooting for the Cardinals this year, particularly manager Oliver Marmol, his former bench coach.
The best part of a Cardinals-Padres first-round matchup, Shildt says, is seeing Albert Pujols play in person one final time. The two teams will play for the final time in the regular season in a three-game series this week at Petco Park, where Pujols is expected to receive a surfboard among the gifts in his retirement farewell ceremony.
“One of the privileges of my career has been Albert Pujols,’’ Shildt says. “I’ve been fortunate to get to know him in early part of my Cardinals career. He was gracious enough to share his time, and also his wisdom. He made a big impact on me, talking about developing players, the strategy of the game, the mindset of the game. Those are conversations that really helped shape who I am.
“I couldn’t be happier for Albert to go back, get that closure in St. Louis, the adulation he deserves, and soon that 700th home run.’’
It's not 'about the money'
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have the biggest and richest payroll in the business, but it sure does not detract one bit from their greatness, winning their ninth division title in 10 years.
“What hurts me to see people think it’s just about the money,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says. “That’s a lazy look at it. It’s how you spend the money. How you allocate it.
“I hear people say if we don’t win the World Series, it's a loss. That’s B.S. You kidding me? People don’t get the grind and everything we go through.’’
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Waino in 2023?
While everyone was assuming that St. Louis Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright would retire alongside Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina after the season, never once did he declare his intentions.
For a reason.
If he pitched well, he was going to come back.
Well, he has had another great year, going 11-9 with a 3.29 ERA, and barring a change-of-heart, is expected to pitch in 2023.
“The reason for me playing next year would not be to chase the Hall of Fame at all …,’’ Wainwright told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If I play, I’m going to play because I love to play. The number I would play for next year would be Jesse Haines.’”
Jesse “Pop” Haines won 210 games as a Cardinal, second to Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s 251 in franchise history.
“That (210) would be the number I’d be chasing, just for my own personal validation’’ says Wainwright, who has 195 career wins. "And (Haines) is in the Hall of Fame.”
Around the bases
► Los Angeles Dodgers veteran pitcher David Price tells USA TODAY Sports he plans to retire after the season.
Price, the former Cy Young winner and five-time All-Star, has won 157 games in his career, including 20 games in 2012.
He was a consummate professional throughout his career, and beloved by teammates.
“It’s just time,’’ he says. “Everything on my body hurts.’’
► The New York Mets will strongly consider bringing Carlos Beltran back to the organization this winter.
Beltran was fired as manager two years ago before managing his first game when he was identified as one of the masterminds of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal in 2017.
Mets manager Buck Showalter wanted to interview Beltran to be on his coaching staff this year, but was denied by management. Yet, one year later, the Mets plan to welcome Beltran back in the organization.
► Three years ago, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon helped lead the Washington Nationals to their first World Series title, and were handsomely rewarded.
They each received seven-year, $245 million contracts.
And each turned out to be a massive mistake.
Strasburg, who told the Washington Post his career may be over, has pitched just 31 ⅓ innings in the three years for the Nats.
“I realize the clock is ticking,’’ Strasburg, 34, told the Post. “It’s been almost three years since I’ve been able to pitch competitively, and it’s not like I’m getting younger.”
Rendon has missed 229 games since signing with the Los Angeles Angels.
The two contracts are albatrosses before even the halfway point.
► Dodgers All-Star shortstop Trea Turner should earn at least $330 million this winter as the top free agent to hit the market and says that Los Angeles has grown on him as a city. The question is will the Dodgers give him that kind of money when they didn’t keep homegrown shortstop Corey Seager, who signed for $325 million last winter with the Texas Rangers?
The favorite to land Turner continues to be the Philadelphia Phillies, who have about $50 million coming off the books.
► The Mets are interviewing candidates to replace president Sandy Alderson, who is retiring after the season.
David Stearns, president of baseball operations for the Milwaukee Brewers, would be their No. 1 target, with former Rangers president Jon Daniels under consideration. But the Mets have been focusing their search on a business leader.
► Philadelphia Phillies pitching prospect Andrew Painter wasn’t expected to be in the major leagues for three more years.
Sorry, but he’s changing that projection.
Several veteran scouts who have seen him predict that he’ll be in the Phillies’ rotation next year.
“I believe,’’ one scout said, “that he’s one of their best five starters right now. The kid is going to be special.’’
► White Sox All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson, who has been out since Aug. 6 with a broken finger, is expected to return in 10 days and will be their everyday shortstop while Elvis Andrus likely moves to second base.
Meanwhile, Anderson and his wife, Bria, remain active in the community. They are hosting the ‘TA7 Sneaker Ball’ on Monday in Chicago, benefiting Anderson’s League of Leaders and White Sox Charities.
► Dusty Baker is the fourth manager in MLB history to have eight 95-win seasons, 2,000 career victories and be a World Series manager in the National League and American League.
The others: Joe McCarthy, Sparky Anderson and Tony La Russa.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trayce Thompson, brother of NBA star Klay, has finally arrived in MLB