SAN DIEGO — On any given day under any normal circumstance, Tommy Pham appears to be a caged lion — as if he has somewhere to be and you’re keeping him from it and he can be bothered with you only for a short time before putting a hole in your person and running off to get something important accomplished.
So imagine this man during the 3 1/2 months of no baseball, then the period in which he had to quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Basically, the former Rays outfielder worked out and tried to keep himself from going crazy.
For this lion, baseball is his prey.
So it was Thursday night that the 32-year-old was driving near his downtown condominium when he saw the lights on at Petco Park and the gate open to Gallagher Square.
“I stopped because I saw the game going on,” he said. “I’m still a fan of baseball. I play baseball, but I’m still a fan.”
As he stood off to the side of the park’s berm watching the game — an appearance that caused some to question why he was out in public when he had tested positive for COVID-19 — it was clear, even through the mask he was wearing, that he deeply longed to be on a different patch of grass.
The next day, a week after summer camp started, he would join the Padres for an afternoon workout, then three at-bats as a designated hitter in Friday night’s intrasquad game.
“I felt like a little kid back on the diamond,” he said Saturday morning.
As for that foray into Gallagher Square that caused so much hand-wringing, as Pham signed autographs for those who approached him, Pham calmly explained Saturday that he had been cleared by the city’s health department on July 4 to end his self-quarantine. He reiterated what he said Thursday night, as well — that he had tested negative for COVID-19, tested positive for the presence of antibodies in his blood and passed cardiological examinations. He was, he said, just awaiting word on the second negative test required by MLB for his return to the field.
“Technically, I’ve been testing negative every day this week,” he said. “It’s just MLB has been slow in my response to getting me my results. I technically could have been on the field Wednesday. I just haven’t had the results. The doctor told me earlier in the day I developed the antibodies and I was good to go.”
Pham said he understood the lab Major League Baseball contracted with has been overwhelmed, but he lamented the slow process.
“If MLB doesn’t get this testing together,” he said, “it’s going to be a bad year.”
For now, Pham is simply happy to have been released into his natural habitat.
“Physically, I was able to keep myself pretty active,” he said of the months in which baseball was shut down. “I think I’m in better shape just from all the months without baseball. I was able to lift more and do a lot of things I normally wouldn’t be doing in the middle of summer. But mentally, it was frustrating because of the uncertainty of whether we’d be playing or not.”
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This was the first year in which he was to receive a significant payday and the next precious year in which he was to show he was worth even more for longer. The latter remains the case.
Pham, acquired in a December trade with the Rays after two seasons in Tampa Bay, agreed with the Padres on a one-year deal that was to have paid him $7.9 million. That number is now $2.92 million over 60 games. Next year will be his final year of arbitration before becoming eligible for free agency.
“It’s very important for me where I’m at in my career, as far as me still trying to build my resume for free agency or a possible extension,” Pham said. “Everything matters right now — this year and next year. I’m trying to separate myself from the other outfielders in (free agency).”
What he has done the past few years has served to do that, and it is why he is essentially the only Padres outfielder assured of starting virtually every game this season.
Pham, three-time American League MVP Mike Trout, 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich and 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts are the only players to have at least a .380 on-base percentage and 50 stolen bases over the past three seasons.
The Padres have consistently said they expect Pham to be ready for opening day.
“Barring any setbacks,” manager Jayce Tingler said Saturday, “I definitely think he’s going to be ready to go.”
The caged lion aspect of Pham’s personality is a significant part of why that is.
Pham has been throwing from 150 feet since mid-March and was expected to be able to play leftfield on opening day before spring training was suspended and the season’s start pushed back. He lengthened out during the shutdown, continued to employ the kind of speed training that more closely resembles what an NFL defensive back does than most of his baseball colleagues and also honed his already-excellent plate discipline through workouts at Petco Park and in his home.
“I don’t want to get myself in too much trouble with my landlord …” he said.
But he not only has a gym, he also bought a pitching machine that fires miniature Wiffle balls. Initially intending to merely catch the machine’s offerings, he also took swings at them.
“The purpose of it was to do vision training,” said Pham, whose 21.1 percent rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone is 10th-lowest in baseball over the past four seasons. “I call it the Barry Bonds drill. I read about this a long time ago when I was in Triple A. He used to take a glove and catch balls from the pitching machine to work on plate discipline. I bought it to work on my plate discipline. Through quarantine, I did a couple extra things with it.”
Friday night, he hit the ball hard all three times he batted, though each was directly at a fielder.
“I saw the ball great,” he said. “I felt very balanced and under control.”
He is finally uncaged.
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