PORT CHARLOTTE — Three days removed from the career highlight of playing in the World Series, Rays reliever Ryan Thompson had an emotional breakdown.
After returning from Texas with the team, Thompson drove to St. Augustine to visit a girlfriend he had paused a relationship with, planning to next head to his old college town in North Carolina.
The meetup with Alana Ranucci didn’t go well. Thompson decided instead to fly home to Oregon. Sitting on the plane, the weeks and months of denial and frustration he had been living with came pouring out.
“I was in the middle of a flight, and I cannot explain it,” Thompson said. “I just had a breakdown. Everything just hit me at once. ... I’ve never cried in public before, and it just hit me.
“I had all these revelations. I had sacrificed this relationship that I knew was a gift from God. I sacrificed my relationship with God. I had basically given up everything I could give up for this baseball dream.”
A cavalcade of contrasting thoughts swept over him: He had no regrets. He was living a lie. He had to make changes. He felt unburdened, and even blessed.
“I was basically in a puddle of tears,” Thompson said. “And I’m trying to make sense of what I was going through.”
Answers did not come clearly.
The genesis of the breakdown seemed to trace to Thompson drifting from his core principles, including his strong religious beliefs since becoming a (nondenominational) Christian in 2016, to assume a persona he believed he should project after making the majors for the first time.
In one telling, he recalls a remarkable July moment when, during a workout in Port Charlotte at the end of Spring 2.0 camp, he was summoned to a FaceTime call with Rays general manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash. They delivered the news he had been waiting for forever — that he had made the opening-day roster and was a big-leaguer at last.
“I visualized this my whole life,” Thompson said. “I thought that I’d fall down on my knees and I’d start crying. There’d be all this thankfulness, all this joy, all this stuff. It wasn’t that. … In reality, I looked at that (cellphone) camera and I told Erik, I just said, “Let’s f-ing go.’
“I had shame that that’s how I responded. That’s not how I’m supposed to act. That’s not how everybody else acts. I was kind of confused by that all year, and I felt like it was just a constant struggle for me.”
Thompson would get asked in interviews about the details of his call-up, his dad flying cross-country to watch his debut from a nearby bar since Tropicana Field was closed to fans, TV shots of his mom crying during the World Series.
“Everybody’s asking me, how does it feel? How does it feel? I almost felt like I was faking it,” Thompson said. “I felt like I was giving everybody the answers that they wanted to hear.”
“Going as far as I did, making it to the World Series and performing in the World Series, I thought that was the Holy Grail. That’s the pinnacle of my sport. I’m there and this is supposed to give me this pleasure, this reward. And it didn’t.”
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He tried to sift through the wreckage, to see where he veered wrong, when he started being untrue to himself, letting the game define him.
“I sat there and I just kind of evaluated who I was in my life, all the things that I sacrificed to get there,” he said. “I thought about it, and I’m still acting like baseball is who I am. I’m trying to tell myself how I’m supposed to act, but who I am is a Son of God.
“It was hard in COVID. I had sacrificed a lot with my faith. I wasn’t resorting to prayer. I was just kind of doing everything on my own. I went on a break with my relationship for a while last summer. There were a lot of things that kind of gave me shame.”
Thompson said he wanted to become a Christian before he was drafted by the Astros in 2014 out of Campbell University but had “a lot of skepticisms.” A life event a couple of years into pro ball — one that brought him “to a place of vulnerability” and “a broken moment” but that he doesn’t want to discuss — led him to do so.
He now speaks and posts openly about his faith, trying to strike the balance between proselytizing and informing. “There’s a lot of misconceptions out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that people think that we are about, that we say, ‘We hate you if are (gay), we hate you if you think this.’ That’s the farthest thing from the truth. We’re called to love everybody.”
He said he feels strongly about sharing his wealth through tithing, noting his modest lifestyle (he still drives a 1995 Ford Ranger) and donation at the advice of teammate Jalen Beeks to 2ndMilk, an organization that provides formula for malnourished babies, educational information and “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ” in developing countries. (Thompson sponsors twins in the African nation of Malawi.)
He found connection in church services and — particularly during the pandemic — sessions run by the Baseball Chapel group. That was where he was first introduced to the message that “baseball is not who you are, it’s just what you do,” which took a while for him to grasp. “That shook my world,” he said. “Because baseball has been — it seemed like it was — my identity.”
Thompson’s breakdown occurred after he lost sight of this message. He slipped back into letting his career identify him and wasn’t honest with himself about it, the stresses of the pandemic shutdown and protocols adding to his discomfort.
He found catharsis in an unlikely place — writing. He bought a laptop and started typing what he was feeling, quickly filling nearly 100 pages about his path to the majors, journey as a Christian, now on-again relationship with Ranucci (a former Astros athletic trainer he started dating after he left for the Rays) and how all three stories intersect.
Thompson found clarity in hearing a podcast interview with author Douglas Brackmann, whose book, “Driven,” details genetic differences found in successful people. He specifically related to how having alleles in some dopamine receptors prevent them from being satisfied with success, forcing them constantly on to something else. Thompson quickly ordered the audio book, then got a print version he went through and highlighted.
“So many things that I wrote are in his book,” Thompson said. “It was liberating to me to know one of (Brackmann’s) main themes is that there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just different.”
Eventually, Thompson resolved his conflicts, concluding baseball was a job he very much loved but not the source of his happiness: “This is the first time in my life where I really just committed to myself,” he said. “I feel like I have a little bit more of a pep in my step this year. I’m not reliant on my performance to have a smile on my face.”
The breakdown, he says now, was “such a blessing.” And the confessional he’s written? He is planning to turn his thoughts into a book. The working title? “Three Days Removed.”