Bulls outfielder is the ultimate one-hit wonder

Durham Bulls outfielder Rich Thompson played 13 seasons in the minors before getting his first – and only – hit in the majors. Was it worth it? Without a doubt.

cwright@newsobserver.comJuly 28, 2012 

  • A minor star Rich Thompson ranks among the top 5 active career leaders in numerous minor league categories:
    Stat Total Rank
    Source: Baseball America
  • Graceful aging Rich Thompson recently became the oldest A.L. player since 1970 to record his first major league hit. Here the five oldest MLB players to do so in the 2000s.
    Player Team Age Year Career hits Minor league at-bats Minor league hits
    Alan ZinterAstros34 years, 43 days2002135,8431,507
    John LindseyDodgers33 years, 225 days201015,7651,646
    Chris CostePhillies33 years, 132 days20062193,8731,153
    So TaguchiCardinals33 years, 67 days20023821,299341
    Rich ThompsonRays33 years, 24 days201215,1081,434
    Sources: Elias Sports Bureau, Baseball America

— There is something Rich Thompson wants you to know.

It could take 13 long, winding years to tell the tale, but this is what matters most: He didn’t need to get the hit two months ago at Tropicana Field to justify the journey.

Oh, he’s happy it scooted between two Boston Red Sox infielders and into center field for his first and only big league hit, but as for life-altering impact, about the only difference in it being a single instead of another groundout was ...?

“Checked off a box,” the 33-year-old Durham Bulls outfielder said recently, showing the sense of accomplishment of a man taking a red pen to his wife’s grocery list. “I hit it to where the second baseman certainly could have been playing, but he had shifted over a bit.”

It was May 17, and two nights earlier Thompson was in Class AAA not sure he’d ever get back to the majors.

His new Tampa Bay Rays teammates celebrated the occasion. They called for the ball and later presented it to him. After Thompson stole second and third base, they joked he should have taken one of the bags as a memento, as well.

One great night … a lifetime in the making. The ultimate one-hit wonder. That’s what everyone else sees.

Thompson sees something else. To him, the milestone hit – he also became the American League’s oldest player since 1970 to record his first hit – wasn’t nearly as impressive as the process that led to it. Drafted in 2000, he climbed each step on the minor league ladder and made his major league debut with Kansas City in 2004.

“Your natural progression,” he said. “At that point, I thought I was going to be a major league/Triple A guy, but it wasn’t that simple.

“Eight years later, I finally made it back.”

The journey begins

Thompson appeared in six games with the Royals. He batted just once – and grounded into a double play against Tim Laker, a catcher forced to pitch in the 15-5 blowout. He returned to the minors and never wore another major league uniform until May 16, 2012.

Eight years he waited, each offseason filled with increasing uncertainty. The only thing more expendable than an ever-aging career minor league center fielder might be the wood bats they use.

“Everyone says stuff all the time,” his wife, Teresa, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Why does he keep doing it? It’s hard to say why, except that he really loves it. He’s able to provide for us. It’s a nice thing. Our kids love it.”

Thompson said there aren’t many Class AAA players who retire because they don’t want to play anymore.

“Most of the time,” he said, “it’s because there are no jobs.”

Yet Thompson continued to find one. Durham is his 12th minor league team. Sitting in the Bulls dugout, his Bulls’ T-shirt soaked from an afternoon round of batting practice, he quickly fills in the gaps on his resume. He does so without a trace of resentment. Instead, Thompson, who is hitting .303 with the Bulls and leads all active minor league players in triples (85) and steals (453) and is fifth in hits (1,433), mentions his good fortune numerous times.

“It’s tough. It’s competitive,” he said of his minor league career, “so you need to learn to be content wherever you’re at while also working toward a greater goal. Just have success at wherever you’re at. That’s important in life in general. And if you can’t do it in baseball, you’re going to be miserable a lot of the time.”

After the brief debut in Kansas City, he was sent to Class AA, “which was a little bit of a shock,” he said. The following year he was a Class AAA All-Star and was then invited to spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. He hit .300 in camp.

“They called me into the office the day before the season started,” he said, “and said I was either going to be released or had to go to extended spring training.”

With a new daughter in Tucson, Thompson opted for extended spring training.

“There are no jobs at that time anyway,” he said.

A spot eventually opened with the Diamondbacks’ Class AAA team. He batted .295, enough to draw interest from the Red Sox the following spring. That didn’t work out either.

“I had the best spring training of my life and still didn’t make the team,” he said. “I went home, waited around for a little bit, then I got a call from the Phillies.”

Another chance

Without that call, maybe the journey ends. Maybe Thompson would be in his fifth year as a CPA (he returned to school for accounting and recently passed the CPA exam). It was a perfect marriage. The Philadelphia Phillies were a veteran, World Series contender and lacked a lot of young outfield prospects. Thompson, married and a father of three with bills to pay, provided their Class AAA team with a proven, trouble-free veteran who could hit .280, steal 20 bases and still run down a ball in the gap. From 2008-2012, Thompson signed a series of one-year deals to remain in the organization.

Thompson holds several Class AAA Lehigh Valley hitting records, and earlier this season, the IronPigs honored him with a Rich Thompson bobblehead night. It featured the speedy outfielder sliding head first.

His current boss, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, understands why. He also understands Thompson. Montoyo spent 10 years in the minors and has exactly two major league hits. They could talk about their big league highlights in less time than it takes Montoyo to make a pitching change.

“For years, one of our players kept telling me we had to get this guy,” Montoyo said. “Told me he is a real pro. I was happy to get him.”

Thompson, whose walk-up song is a Christian rock number called “Take My Life,” agreed his outlook helped extend his career.

“Some of my worst years were there (in Lehigh Valley), and they kept giving me a job,” he said. “I think it was the Phillies and that situation. … And just being a positive guy in the clubhouse. If there are enough jobs out there, there’s no reason to hire guys who are a cancer in the clubhouse. Really I just filled a role that was there. Very fortunate.”

He probably still would be in Lehigh Valley if not for another phone call.

‘You’re going straight up’

Thompson played well in May but was sidelined in April with an injury, so such calls are nerve-wracking. Prospects look forward to them, not veterans.

“Get a call from your manager, you just don’t know what to expect, and so far mine have not been good,” Thompson said with a wry smile.

Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg changed that.

“He said, ‘nice game last night’ – I said thanks, I had three hits – ‘but the better news is you got traded to the Rays,’ ” Thompson said.

“I said, that’s great, I’m going to Durham (the Rays’ Class AAA affiliate). Certainly a good opportunity. I’ve been wanting to come over here for a while. They always seem to call guys up. Good place to play …

“Then he said, ‘you’re going straight up.’ It was unbelievable. In two hours, I was packed up, moved out and on a plane to Tampa.”

Thompson played for the Rays that first night. He started the next game. Teresa and their young son were in the stands.

And in his second at-bat, just the third in a major league career interrupted by eight years, he smacked a 1-0 ground ball up the middle.

“It wasn’t hit particularly hard, but well enough,” he said. “As soon as I hit it, I was just hoping it would get to the outfield.”

It did, and drove in a run in the process. His first and only RBI. Another box checked.

The moment, of course, was fleeting. A wife knows.

“I’m so happy for him,” Teresa told MLB.com. “He’s worked so hard for so long. I just want him to play well. The moment is so sweet, but it can turn bittersweet really quick. I want him to have success for however long it lasts.”

A month and 15 hitless at-bats later, Thompson returned to Durham, to Class AAA.

Was it worth it? The bus rides, the uncertainty, the 1,400 minor league games in six different minor leagues?

“Oh yeah, and it was worth it before I got the hit,” Thompson said. “The hit certainly validates it, not necessarily for me, but for everybody else who has come in contact with me or hears the story, ‘Oh, he got his hit, now it’s all worth it.’

“I wouldn’t have done it before if it wasn’t all worth it. I don’t think people necessarily get that. I don’t blame them, but some think, now all of the sudden your career is validated. I don’t really feel that’s true. Do your best at what you do. And never give up. … Being content is a big deal. Be happy where you’re at, but always strive for more. For me, that’s been a pretty healthy outlook.”

Wright: 919-829-4643

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