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Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rich Thompson finally gets his hit

Rich Thompson

Rich Thompson

ST. PETERSBURG

Don't strike out, the kid said to himself. Whatever you do, don't strike out.

After all, this was the first at-bat of his career. And who wants to embarrass himself as he is saying hello? Besides, his team was ahead by 10 runs, and things had turned so ugly that the opponent had a backup catcher on the mound to finish things up. Heroics could wait for another day. Couldn't they?

So young Rich Thompson swung at the first pitch he saw, a fastball, and the ball bounded up the middle …

… and eight years later, the ball sneaked through the infield and into centerfield.

Finally.

In the meantime, Thompson spent an eternity stuck in the minor leagues, the purgatory of baseball. Night after night, year after year, Thompson kept swinging, and still, his telephone did not ring. Other players arrived, and other players departed, and Thompson and his career stayed still in the lesser leagues, waiting for a second chance that seemed as if it would never come.

For 2,950 days, he waited.

For 1,022 minor-league games, he waited.

For 3,250 minor-league at-bats, he waited.

There were times it was frustrating, and there were times it was confusing. And somewhere along the line, Thompson seemed to get labeled with what baseball execs refer to as a AAAA player, an in-betweener who is good enough to play well at the second level of baseball but who lacks the necessary skills to be a bit player in the majors. The longer he waited, the further he seemed to be from a big-league opportunity.

Until now.

Why, look at who finally has a big-league batting average?

It is the coolest story of the Rays season. Eight seasons after his only at-bat in the majors, Thompson, 33, has found his way back to the plate. He is a big-leaguer again. He finally has his first big-league hit. It only took, oh, forever.

"For eight years, he was Moonlight Graham," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, referring to the former player featured in Field of Dreams. "Then he got the hit, and he was Rich Thompson."

Call the single eight years in the making. Call it validation for a player baseball couldn't chase away. Call it worth the wait.

For Thompson, the waiting finally ended Thursday night against Boston, when he had an RBI single. It made Thompson the oldest position player in the American League to get his first major-league hit since Minnie Mendoza back in 1970.

"The sweetest thing is looking back at it," said Thompson, whose family has lived in Tampa for the past seven years. "At the time, it felt like every other hit up the middle. You're just hoping it can get through before the second baseman catches it. But afterward … it was surreal. It's something I thought I was capable of doing but something I wasn't sure I would get the chance to do."

Once, when Thompson was younger and the big leagues didn't seem so elusive, there was another ground ball. Thompson was 25 then, and he had appeared in five games for the Royals as a pinch-runner or a defensive replacement. But on April 20, 2004, he found himself walking toward the plate.

It was the ninth inning of a blowout game, and Cleveland had turned to Tim Laker to finish up the misery. On the first pitch, Thompson hit a chopper up the middle for a double play. Two days later, he was sent down.

For eight years, he stayed there.

Nothing wrong with that, Thompson will tell you. It's baseball, and it's a living. And what's wrong with either of those? Still, there were times when he thought he could help a team and the call never came or when the rosters were expanded in September or when a player with a similar (or lesser) skill set was called up instead. Once, when he was in the Pirates organization, the team called up third baseman Jose Bautista … to play centerfield. That one stung.

"I'm never going to get there," Thompson thought.

There are a lot of 30-somethings in the majors, but most of them have a half-dozen stints where they were called up because of injury or need. After his stint with the Royals, Thompson never got one.

But baseball is a game where a player is always trying to get one more base, and Thompson kept running.

"Someone else was going to have to tell me I couldn't play anymore," Thompson said. "A lot of people ask me why I kept playing. A lot of people would if the front office didn't tell them it was time to go home."

For the past five years, Thompson has been an IronPig. Nothing wrong with Lehigh Valley, Pa., either. Once, someone asked Thompson's 7-year-old son, Clay, his favorite baseball team.

"The IronPigs are the best," he said.

"I never thought, 'The minor leagues stink,' " Thompson said. "That's not my personality. I was striving to get to the majors, but if you can't play in the majors, Lehigh Valley is a pretty cool place to be."

Perhaps this is why Thompson was able to survive. He believed he could play in the big leagues as a fourth or fifth outfielder. He wanted to play. But he didn't let it eat at him. As Maddon said, "He didn't give in to the victim mentality."

Now he is a big-leaguer again. He likes it. After all, he is playing for a franchise where former player Elijah Dukes once said that being in the minors was like a "sewer" while the big-leaguers "showered with Evian."

Thompson has heard the story. He grins.

"I haven't tasted the water in the shower yet," he said. "But what they have in the fridge is just fine."

Drink up, Rich. After eight years of waiting, drink it all up.

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rich Thompson finally gets his hit 05/19/12 [Last modified: Sunday, May 20, 2012 2:13am]

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