Veteran Rich Thompson enjoys game of firsts

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – For 13 seasons in the minors, Rich Thompson has taken an endless journey of dreary late-night bus rides on the back roads of America and boarded early-morning commercial flights to small towns across the land – all in search of a big league dream.

Throughout his odyssey, Thompson had managed just one at-bat in the majors, grounding into a ninth-inning double-play as a pinch-hitter for the Kansas City Royals in April 2004.

But the lefthanded-hitting outfielder never stopped believing he could make it at baseball’s top level, even as he and his wife Teresa raised their three young children the past seven years, and even as time seemed to be running out for the 33-year-old from Reading, Pa.

And this week, the long and often uncertain road took a sudden turn out of the shadows. The Tampa Bay Rays obtained Thompson in a trade Wednesday from the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A club in Lehigh Valley – in exchange for their own Triple-A outfielder, Kyle Hudson.

Then, on Thursday night, things got interesting – well before the Boston Red Sox handed the Rays a 5-3 loss and snapped their winning streak at four.

One evening after entering the game as a pinch-runner, Thompson made the first major league start of his life – penciled in by manager Joe Maddon to play left field and bat ninth.

Thompson’s first plate appearance was shaky, retired on a called third strike by left-hander Felix Doubront. But one inning later, he came back up with Sean Rodriguez on second and Boston leading 3-1.

And that’s when something both routine and remarkable happened.

On a 1-0 pitch, he bounced a grounder up the middle, past fast-closing second baseman Dustin Pedroia. There it was – his first major league hit.

He even drove in Rodriguez for his first major league RBI in the process. The Tropicana Field crowd, aware of the magnitude of the moment, responded with booming cheers and a standing ovation for Thompson as he rounded first base – a 90-foot trek that took 13 years to complete.

To top it off, he stole second and swiped third on a double steal before the inning ended.  When he returned to the dugout, Thompson received a round of congratulations and high fives from his new teammates.

“It was great – you never know how long it’s going to be or if it’ll ever come, so it’s really nice to get it out of the way in your first start,” Thompson said.

Theresa and 7-year-old son Clay were there in the stands, watching excitedly as it all unfolded. He didn’t have time to talk to her but after the game, he looked her way and waved. “She just gave me a smile from behind the dugout,” he said.

Thompson nearly added some additional fireworks before the night was through. His next at-bat in the sixth was a towering shot that sent center fielder Marlon Byrd back to the warning track before hauling it in.

In the bottom of the eighth, with Boston leading 5-2, Thompson was back in the thick of the action. After a one-out double by Matt Joyce, he was hit by a pitch from reliever Vicente Padilla, bringing the potential tying run to the plate in Ben Zobrist.

Moments later, Thompson was forced out at second while Zobrist reached on a fielder’s choice. The rally continued, however, as B.J. Upton singled in Joyce to cut Tampa Bay’s deficit to 5-3. And following a passed ball, Zobrist and Upton moved into scoring position. But Luke Scott’s groundout to Pedroia ended the Rays’ final threat of a game in which they left 12 players on base.

Despite the loss, it was a memorable night for the newcomer, who was later presented with the glass-encased baseball from his special night.

“I really enjoyed that myself,” Maddon said. “The base hit – and the ball to center field was well-struck, too. Two stolen bases. He did everything that had been advertised about him regarding a speed guy. He works a good at-bat. I was surprised by the power, because that ball went pretty far to center field. He’s got a nice little back-spinning swing. It was a great night for him and his family.”

Thompson is still adjusting to the surreal change of direction in his life. On Wednesday morning, he was driving to an Allentown, Pa., elementary school to read to students when the call came from Lehigh Valley manager and Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg.

“He said, ‘Good game last night,’ and I said, ‘Thanks’ – hoping there was more to the conversation,” Thompson recalled. “And then he told me I was coming here – not only going to the Rays but to the big leagues. I almost had to pull over. And I called my wife and she almost had to pull over. It was pretty overwhelming.”

Wednesday was filled with emotion for Thompson. He was flooded with calls of support from his teammates and the coaching staff with Lehigh Valley, where he has spent most of the past five seasons as a mainstay of the Ironpigs. He and his wife have maintained a home in Tampa since he was in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system seven years ago, giving him easy access to the organization’ spring and Class A home in Bradenton. And one of the highlights Wednesday was giving Clay the big news.

“His mom told him that I was with the Rays and he was like, ‘What!’ and scratching his head like, ‘How did this happen?!’ He was pretty happy.”

None of his kids have ever seen him in a big league uniform – until now. That makes what happened Thursday even sweeter.

“I love playing the game and I’ve been able to support my family doing it, and I always felt I was good enough to get back to the big leagues,” he said. “And now I’m here.”

The Rays have had their eye on the fleet, left-handed hitter for a while now, especially with the wave of injuries that have decimated their roster, with nine players on the disabled list. They liked his speed – seven seasons with 40 or more stolen bases and an International League-best 48 last year at age 32.

They liked that he got on base, hitting .307 this season with a career minor league batting average of .280. And they liked his overall profile. “His key attribute is his speed and he uses it extremely well, both offensively and defensively,” vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.

Maddon felt an instant connection with Thompson when they met. The Rays’ skipper hails from the same corner of the Keystone State in nearby Hazelton, and he spent the formative part of his own career playing and coaching in the minors.

“I know that he’s learned his lessons and I know that he really appreciates it,” Maddon said Thursday prior to the game. “I spoke to him briefly earlier and he’s outstanding. He’s just well-grounded and well-rounded.”

Maddon is especially impressed with how Thompson has maintained a high level of play for so many years – especially the speed that’s allowed him to steal 442 bases since first breaking in with Toronto’s Class A Queens, N.Y., organization in 2000.

“I think you have to have the body to do it – you have to have a really resilient body between the early-hour plane rides and bus rides,” he said. “And he’s still a speed guy. That’s part of it. He’s been able to retain his speed over the course of time. That’s a big part of the reason he’s so attractive, because his legs still work as well as they do.”

Thompson put his first major-league uniform on in 2004 when he made the Opening Day roster of the Royals. And during his few weeks on the roster, he mostly saw action as a pinch-runner, scoring one run with one stolen base – and the ill-fated pinch-hit into a double-play against Cleveland’s Tim Laker, a catcher who pitched the ninth inning of a 15-5 Kansas City rout.

Soon after, before his next at-bat would come, Thompson was designated for assignment, returning to a life of long bus rides and baseball obscurity.

He almost made the Red Sox in 2008 but was cut at the end of spring training. It was a low moment and Thompson wondered if that was the end of the line for him, but three weeks later the Phillies contacted him. They signed him to a Double-A contract in his hometown of Reading, and then promoted him to Triple-A Lehigh, where he’s been ever since.

He’s never batted below .265 for the Ironpigs and has been above .276 five times. He even got his own bobblehead night this past April, with the club giving away figurines depicting him sliding head-first into second base to the first 3,000 fans in attendance at Coca-Cola Park.

“It’s hard playing when it’s 30 degrees in Buffalo and Rochester … and everybody else is banged up, called up or traded,” he said.

But his upbeat attitude and determination to forge on has sustained him through the long ride.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that bitter Triple-A guy, even though I’m 33,” he said. “I’ve had some good years and I still have fun playing. I just have a lot of respect for people who keep doing it. I actually I think I’m one of the older guys on this team and it’s a big league team. But I think I’m holding my own and I’ve always been one bad year from being done or one injury from being done.

“So it’s a blessing that I’ve been healthy and put up good enough numbers to keep putting a uniform on.”

And finally, for however long it lasts, a major league uniform.

NOTES: Will Rhymes, who passed out at first base Wednesday night after being struck by a fastball from Boston’s Franklin Morales, is mending fast. He awoke Thursday feeling considerably better than he expected. Though the training staff prevented him from any baseball activity Thursday, Rhymes says he thinks he can play Friday when the Braves come to town for a weekend series.

“I feel pretty good today, a little nauseous this morning and stuff but getting better and the arm actually feels pretty good,” he said.

The Texas native is currently staying at the home of his former high school baseball teammate and buddy Jeff Niemann, who suffered a broken leg Monday in Toronto when struck by a line drive. When they returned home Wednesday night, Rhymes saw the replay of fateful impact from the pitch.

“It was a little weird,” he said. “… We turned the TV on literally the pitch before it happened. I didn’t really have time to look away. I knew it hit me square. It’s hard to watch. It was loud and it just got me really square. … I just couldn’t make any move to lessen the blow.”

Meanwhile, Rhymes and Niemann find themselves in the house of the walking wounded.

“We’re going to get online and get somebody to come over there and take the hex off,” he quipped. “He’s yelling at me trying to get me to let the dog out, because he can’t get downstairs. And I’m trying to get him to carry stuff for me. It’s not a good situation.”

Rhymes said that Morrales texted him after the game to say how sorry he was about the ordeal: “I really appreciated it. I texted him back and just told him, ‘Look, it’s part of the game and I appreciate the concern but it’s just part of the game and no worries.’ “