They always asked him what he was doing still hanging around. What was he waiting for, exactly? These were not ridiculous or rude questions. There were stories written about him, calling him a modern-day Moonlight Graham, and these stories were nice -- but at some point he'd have to let go of the dream, wouldn't he? When they asked why he was still in the game after all these years he didn't really have much of an answer, other than that he didn't know anything else but baseball. Sometimes he would say he was waiting for a call-up so he could make enough money to buy a car. He wasn't kidding.
The story of the 33-year-old rookie ballplayer who would never let go could begin on an April night eight years ago. Rich Thompson was 25 then, and on that night at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, anything seemed possible. Thompson had begun the year on the Royals' big league club, his wife, Teresa, his mom, Anne, his sister and his uncle were all there that night. Rich entered the game in the 10th inning as a pinch runner, stole second and scored the winning run. That was a good night. A week later, on April 20, he stepped up to the plate against Cleveland's Tim Laker, and grounded into a double play to end the ninth inning. That was his only major league plate appearance before he was sent back down to the minors, but there were no tears then -- it wouldn't be long, everyone thought, before he'd be back in the Show.
Eight years passed. The next call-up never came. He shuttled between organizations. He and Teresa had three kids, born in three different states. He spent his offseason selling home mortgages over the phone and caddying at golf courses for $100 a loop to support his family. He was a light-hitting outfielder who could always run faster than just about everyone else, but this was a time when teams didn't seem all that interested in a player who could do little else but run. As the years passed, he got the question all the time: What was he hanging around for?
"From the outside looking in, most people think, You're in your 30s playing Triple-A baseball, there's something wrong with your head," says Thompson, who led the International League in stolen bases in 2011 with 48. "I always felt like I was close. That may have been wishful thinking. Most players, they get a break. I just never got mine."
Here he is now, sitting at his locker at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the most improbable rookie in all of baseball -- after years of waiting, he's back in the majors, now being used as a late-inning pinch running specialist, an unlikely weapon for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are fighting for their lives and running out of time in the American League playoff race. Late in games now, the 33-year-old rookie -- knowing he's going to be called upon to make something happen, at a time of year when one run can be the difference between making the postseason and watching it from home -- can barely sit still in the dugout.
"It's the adrenaline," he says, all that energy bottled up for all those years.
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The low point? So many to choose from: There was the time he was demoted back down to Double-A so another player could play at Triple-A; there were the many times he was put on phantom disabled lists; there was the time he was demoted to Double-A while his second son, William, born seven months early, was in the hospital. There was 2008, when he had the best spring training of his life with the Red Sox, only to be cut outright after spring training was done. "By that point so many people he came up with weren't playing anymore -- it happens someday to everyone," says Teresa, "and we thought Rich's time had come."
He began to consider, for the first time, life without baseball, and he decided to take classes in accounting. Three weeks later the Phillies were calling, and he had a job again. "We were always hopeful and expecting that he'd get another chance, but that had lasted for about five years" -- until around 2008, says Teresa. "After that, I think he was just playing because he loved what he was doing."
Five years passed until that day in May 2012 when Thompson was in his car, on his way to an elementary school to read to students. He got a call on his cellphone: it was his manager at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Ryne Sandberg, to tell him that he'd been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays --- he was being sent straight to the big league team. Thompson pulled over and called his wife, who was at the checkout line at Target, and "he was crying and talking so fast I couldn't understand him," says Teresa.
Within 24 hours he was in a game as a pinch runner for the Rays, taking a lead off first base. The following day, he started for the Rays, stole two bases, and, after 1,388 minor league games, recorded his first-ever major league hit; his RBI single made him the oldest AL position player to get his first major league hit since Minnie Mendoza in 1970. When he was sent back down to the minors later that month, he wasn't necessarily expecting a call-up in September -- after all these years, he's always prepared for disappointment -- but at the end of August, the Rays promoted their 33-year-old rookie, who even at his age, is as fast as the team's fastest burners, B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, and Elliot Johnson.
"Rich is right there with them," says Tampa Bay bench coach Dave Martinez. "He's very deceptive, with these long strides. The other day he scored on a ball hit to second base. The guy bobbled it, and I looked up and Rich was rounding third. I remember turning to [manager] Joe [Maddon] and saying, 'He's going to score.' And he did. Standing up."
On Sept. 2, Thompson, facing Toronto's Aaron Laffey, recorded his second major league hit -- "to prove that the first one wasn't a fluke," he says. The Rays have since been using Thompson as a player who can change a game late with his speed, and he's stolen three bases since Sept. 8.
"We love having this guy on the bench right now, any time we get a chance to put him in the game when we need a run or two we get him in the game," says Martinez. "These guys are hard to find, a guy who can come right off the bench and steal a base or two and score, on a double in the gap. A few years ago we had Fernando Perez on the roster on playoffs to pinch run, and he was so valuable for us. Rich can be the same kind of weapon for us."
But time is running out on the Rays. After their 7-5 loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday night, they dropped to 6 games out of a playoff spot. With his team's playoff chances suddenly looking dim, Thompson doesn't know how many days he has left in the big leagues.
Is this the beginning, or is this the end? "At the start of the year," says Teresa, "I didn't know what he was going to do after this year, because he passed the CPA exam, he was going to be done with the classes he needs for his master's by December. I really didn't know if he's going to re-sign to play, or just become an accountant. Then all this happened."
Earlier this summer Thompson was offered a job with an accounting firm in Tampa. The other day he came home and started talking to Teresa about it. After all these years, though, the wife knows better. "He may act like it's a possibility, and I know he's always prepared to walk away from the game if he needed to or if we needed to make ends meet," she says. "But he just loves it. He's just so happy playing it. I can't imagine him not playing."