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Why we can’t all relate to Tommy Pham’s fire

A fractured family background, a degenerative eye condition, a long path to the majors all factored in.
Tommy Pham is always focused on being great, his former Cardinals bosses say. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Tommy Pham is always focused on being great, his former Cardinals bosses say. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Published Mar. 2, 2019
Updated Mar. 3, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — Watch Tommy Pham play for the couple years he was in St. Louis, or the couple months he was with the Rays last season, or even for a couple minutes.

What you are struck by is how much intensity he plays with, how driven, focused, even angry, he looks.

“Tommy has been hungry to be great since Day 1,’’ said Mike Shildt, his Cardinals major- and minor-league manager. “He’s very driven. … Some people would say it’s hard to maintain that level of intensity. Generally speaking, I would say that’s true. But that doesn’t relate to Tommy Pham. That’s who Tommy Pham is. … Tommy Pham is always on.’’

What you may not know is why. None of us can fully understand, which Pham makes clear when he agrees to talk briefly about the unusual background that shaped him.

The fractured family situation framed by a teenaged mom and a dad in jail. The degenerative eye condition that distorted his vision and threatened his career. The frustration of spending nine years in the minors that nearly drove him to quit.

“It comes,’’ said Pham, who turns 31 Friday, “from everything I’ve been through in life.’’

* * *

Tawana was 17 when Pham, and his twin sister Brittney, were born. “Welfare babies,’’ Tommy said.

Though Tawana had struggles, she, with help from her parents, was there for the kids.

Their father, Anhtuan, has been imprisoned most of their lives for a long list of assorted crimes, some violent. He is currently in federal detention with no set release date. Tommy has talked with him a few times, but says now they are done. “That relationship is gone.’’ (Pham also has had issues with his stepfather, who he said stabbed him about six years ago: “We always had differences, me and him. We used to fight. Things happen. Just leave it like that.’’)

The family impact on Pham’s career, however, is indelible.

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“I’m not your typical baseball player,’’ Pham said. “Most of these baseball players, they grew up in a two-parent household where their dad went out and played catch with ‘em, and stuff like that. I’m the complete opposite. My dad’s been in prison my whole life. If I wanted to play catch, I had to play catch with a brick wall with a tennis ball. If I wanted to work on my hitting, I had to throw a whiffle ball up and hit by myself. …

“I come from a background where my mom was getting evicted out of houses, getting her car repo-ed, stuff like that. She always had to work for stuff that people take for granted. I used to see her work so hard. …

“So some of the drive comes from that. And some of it is self-belief in proving everything wrong.’’

There was ample inventory, as Pham grew up in Las Vegas without so much, such as presents for birthdays and Christmas, making do with the reality.

He specifically remembers being sat down at age 12 for a frank talk: “My mom told me, 'The odds are against you.’ And I’ll never forget this: She said, 'You’re a black man, your father is in prison, the odds say you’re going to be in prison.’

"So, she goes, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ ’’

Pham started by focusing on school work, determined to graduate high school with good grades, then sports, dealing with doubters along the way.

He did well enough to draw interest from multiple Division I colleges, but chose to sign with St. Louis as a 2006 16th-round pick for $325,000.

And then he dedicated himself to making it to the majors.

“Tommy came from a background that was a challenge, and Tommy met that challenge,’’ Shildt said. “That’s what Tommy is. Tommy is a guy that lives with a chip, and that’s a chip that fuels him.’’

There is something else, too.

Amid all the family hassles, there has also been a blessing. Brittney’s soon-to-be 9 year-old-son, Clayton, idolizes his uncle. Pham has worked with kids before, hosting clinics and dropping in to Boys & Girls clubs, but his nephew has become a guiding force, and one of the reasons he’ll occasionally flash what Shildt reminds him is “a million-dollar smile.”

“I know I have to do what’s right on the field because of him,’’ Pham said. “I know he’s watching. That’s one reason I play the game hard, try to play the right way.’’

* * *

Pham struggled through his first three seasons in the minors, hitting .204, and when the Cardinals insisted he get his eyes checked, the news was mixed.

The good? There was a reason he had trouble seeing the ball.

The bad? It was a rare degenerative condition, keratoconus, in which the cornea changes shape, bulging from round to cone shaped, like the tip of a football.

Even the slightest distortion in vision can impact a hitter; Pham’s condition has been described as looking through Vaseline or bent glass.

Pham tried glasses, then a series of corrective lenses, one pair reportedly costing $11,500. A breakthrough procedure in 2011, involving ultraviolet light and vitamin application, stabilized his condition. Trial and error with a series of custom-shaped contacts has led to a solution that has him seeing 20-15 in both eyes (a big step from the uncorrected 20-40 in his left, though not, he said, legally blind as was reported.) He is currently researching a new stem cell surgery being done only in Spain.

“His overcoming that issue, and this is not hyperbole, that’s one of the most impressive athletic feats,’’ said Shildt, who also has keratoconus. “Baseball is the most highly visual game there is. This guy has dealt with a disability that is hard for people that have it, speaking from experience, to just function. And you’re talking about being an elite major-league player.’’

Rays pitcher Blake Snell (4) laughs with Tommy Pham (29) during a Feb. 25 game in Port Charlotte. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Rays pitcher Blake Snell (4) laughs with Tommy Pham (29) during a Feb. 25 game in Port Charlotte. MONICA HERNDON | Times


* * *

Spending nearly nine full years in the minors would be frustrating for anyone, compounded by the lost time and money. “I think that’s part of his motivation,’’ Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said.

Pham would share his feelings at times with his Cardinals bosses, candidly and coarsely, without necessarily caring what they thought. Injuries also were an issue, as he missed the bulk of three straight seasons, limiting his progress. More than once, he considered quitting, but the drive to succeed prevailed.

“He’s always been someone willing to bet on himself,’’ Mozeliak said. “He pushes himself. He’s very self-motivated.’’

Pham immersed himself into extreme training and extensive research, exploring every opportunity (equipment, technology, specialized drills) to get an edge.

“I’m very studious of the game,’’ he said. “I don’t think people understand that enough about me. I’m probably one of the one percent of the game that understands the sabermetrics.’’

Going to arbitration with the Rays yielded another valuable lesson, noted as he tweeted the rap song Get Paid to mark his win.

Last season, including the July 31 trade to the Rays for three minor-leaguers, was Pham’s 13th in pro ball and the first he spent fully in the majors. The $4.1 million salary he won in arbitration marks the first time he’ll make more than $570,100, and he won’t be a free agent until 2022, in his age 34 season.

“This guy persevered where other players would have just hung it up: 'I tried, I gave it three-four years, I’m done.’ He didn’t,‘’ said former Cardinals scouting and player development boss Jeff Luhnow, now the Astros GM. “He still saw himself in the big leagues, and he got there. That perseverance is part of what drives him. And he still, I think, is motivated to be better.’’

The best, actually.

“I know people say that, man, but people don’t really mean it,’’ Pham said. “I mean it. I want to be able to say at the end of my career that I gave everything I possibly could to be the best player I could possibly be for as long as I did it.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.