Dodgers' Trayce Thompson proving to be more than just Klay's brother
NEW YORK — When Trayce Thompson reached the major leagues last season with the White Sox, he expected to be heckled in New York, where Yankees fans are known for their jeers. He knew it would be bad in Cleveland, the city that his brother had recently tormented in the NBA Finals, and he wasn’t wrong. “They were getting on me with a lot of words I can’t say,” he says.
Thompson was traded to the Dodgers during the off-season, but the now 25-year-old outfielder still can’t understand the negative reaction he occasionally gets in Los Angeles, where the Lakers and Clippers fans in the bleachers have taunted their own player, even as he has quietly emerged as one of the team’s best hitters.
“Those are our home fans, they're supposed to be cheering us on,” a perplexed Thompson while sitting in the visitors’ clubhouse at New York’s Citi Field in late May. “It's mind boggling to me.”
The razzing, of course, has nothing to do with Trayce and everything to do with his older brother, who is also one of the Splash Brothers: Klay Thompson, the All-Star shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors.
Ever since Klay and fellow Warriors three-point demigod Stephen Curry joined forces in lighting up the NBA, he has invariably been part of Trayce’s story. As Trayce hacked his way through the minor leagues during that time, there was his brother, torching opposing defenses and helping Golden State end the franchise’s 40-year title drought by beating Cleveland in 2015 and following it up with a regular-season record 73 wins in ’15–16 before losing to those same Cavaliers in this year’s Finals.
But as Klay, 26, made history, Trayce, 13 months his junior, was beginning to make his own name. Acquired from the White Sox last December as part of the three-team deal in which Cincinnati sent All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to Chicago, Thompson entered a situation in which playing time was no guarantee. Jostling for position in the Dodgers outfield were four former All-Stars: Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig; a fifth, longtime second baseman Howie Kendrick, would be added to the mix when the season began.
But through a combination of injuries and poor performances by his competitors, as well as his own talent, Thompson has quickly gone from depth to indispensable. He has played 63 of 73 games and ranks third on the team in home runs (11), OPS (.805) and OPS+ (118). But as Trayce seeks to turn his hecklers into admirers, he’s also continuing to carve out the path that he started down early in his life—one that takes him away from the basketball legacy that his family built, and toward one that is his alone.
“We hear Trayce referred to as ‘Klay Thompson’s brother,’” says his father, Mychal, himself a former NBA player. “But I tell him, if he keeps it up, Klay will be known as ‘Trayce Thompson’s brother,’ too.”
Wednesday night offered a hint that that may already be happening, and that Trayce is earning acceptance from the home fans after all. During L.A.'s 4–3 win over the Nationals at Dodger Stadium, Klay showed up to root on his little brother. When his picture was shown on the video board, his name was misspelled as "Clay," and he was the one who got booed.
Trayce Thompson knew he wanted to be a major leaguer from an early age, and it didn’t take him long to show the talent and the righthanded swing that would one day get him there.
“Whenever we would play baseball in the back yard,” Mychal Thompson says, “he would pick up the bat, at three years old, and crush the ball even farther than his brothers.”
Though Trayce joined his brothers—including eldest sibling Mychel, who is now 28 and plays for the Warriors’ D-League team—in competing at every sport they could, he immersed himself in baseball. “I remember trying to watch spring training games when I was young,” Trayce says. “Everything about the game, I fell in love with.”
Growing up just outside of Portland, Ore., in the town of Lake Oswego, one big factor pushed Thompson toward the sport: Ken Griffey Jr., then with the Mariners, who was omnipresent in highlight reels and a living legend to every baseball-loving child in the Pacific Northwest. “The Mariners had a huge influence on my life,” he says. “Griffey was like a folk hero to me.” Thompson did everything he could to emulate The Kid: his swing, his stance in the batter’s box, his style of play. “I still feel like I have a little bit of him in me,” he says. “I've always been trying to hit like him.”
It’s perhaps fitting that Thompson would pattern himself after one of the most famous sons in sports. His father is best known as the former No. 1 pick of the 1978 NBA draft who helped the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar win back-to-back titles in ‘87 and ‘88. It’s no surprise that Mychel, now 28, and Klay followed their father into basketball. Trayce, however, found a different path.
It helped that Trayce’s talent in baseball was obvious. Despite being the youngest brother, he was the biggest and the strongest on the diamond. “[Mychel and Klay] were both really skinny growing up, but I was kind of chunky, so I had some power,” he says. In backyard games with his brothers and their neighborhood friends, Trayce was a slugger, routinely spraying line drives off of his father, who was the pitcher in his sons’ scrimmages. “I would pitch to them until my rotator cuff felt like it was going to tear,” Mychal says.
Trayce’s homers elicited their fair share of complaining from his brothers—“They still talk about it to this day that Dad cheated for me,” he says—but the youngest Thompson starred in tougher matchups, too. At nine years old, Trayce would routinely practice with his bigger brothers’ Little League team, according to their coach, Bill Mooney. “We let him take batting practice,” Mooney says, laughing. “I was excited for him to be a 10 year old.” When Trayce did join the team, he impressed Mooney with his fearlessness—evident when he went up against one of the league’s most imposing players, future Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love.
“Kevin was, as a 12-year-old, about my size, 6'1” and 180 pounds,” Mooney says. “He was huge. But when Kevin would pitch, Trayce would not be intimidated. That year, Kevin's team, nobody was supposed to beat them. They lost three games that year, all of them to us.”
The two older Thompson brothers had been speedy, up-the-middle players who led off, stole bases and also pitched. Trayce, however, was parked at first base and in the middle of the order, cleaning up and driving in runs. “I don't think there was a time that he ever didn't have a bat in his hand,” Mooney says. “The kid just loved to hit. I tried to teach him how to pitch, but he wanted to hit.”
While baseball was Thompson’s focus, he kept playing football and basketball as well.
A broken hand in the eighth grade ended his football ambitions—an injury he says he got from a fight with Klay over a video game. (“He turned it off,” Trayce says. “I was in the middle of one, and I was winning. That's guy code, you can't do that.”) Basketball remained his second sport when the family decamped for southern California in 2004, when Trayce was 13. As a junior at Santa Margarita Catholic High in Rancho Santa Margarita in 2007–08. Trayce even starred alongside Klay on the basketball team that won a Division III state title. But after a rough junior year on the diamond in which he hit just .233, Trayce knew he had to commit fully to baseball.
“The summer going into your senior year is a huge summer for a guy who wants to get recruited or drafted, and I didn't have a very good summer,” he says. “I saw all these guys, my peers, make the Area Code teams, and I didn't make them. They got invited to all these showcases, and that never was me. I knew I was better than these guys. I knew I could play and I was just as good, but it just wasn't happening.”
Thompson rebounded in his senior year, hitting .333 with nine homers, a performance that paid off with a second-round selection by the White Sox in the 2009 draft.
As a child raised in a family of athletes—his mother, Julie, was a volleyball player at the University of San Francisco, and his paternal uncle Colin Thompson was regarded as the best baseball player the Bahamas had ever produced—Trayce Thompson found little difficulty in the physical side of baseball.
“I'm not going to say it was easy, but I never worked at it,” he says. “When we moved to California, I'd play with all these kids, and they'd go to the batting cages straight after school forever. [My brothers and I] never did that type of stuff. We just got home and would go outside and go play.”
Instead, as Thompson began his professional baseball career, he found that the true adjustment was mental. He hit .198 in two rookie league stops as an 18-year-old in ’09 and continued to struggle after moving to the Class A Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators the next year. As if his eventual .229 batting average weren't troubling enough, Thompson also endured a broken right thumb that cost him most of the summer. “That was probably the lowest point emotionally in my career,” he says.
Over the next four seasons, Thompson’s minor league career played out in fits and starts. He was back in Kannapolis in 2011, where he hit 24 home runs and drove in 87 runs, then had 22 homers and 90 RBIs for high A Winston-Salem the next year, helping earn brief promotions to both Double A Birmingham and Triple A Charlotte. He returned to Birmingham for the 2013 season and flailed his way through a miserable year in which he hit .229 and struck out 139 times in 135 games.
“I was in quicksand,” he says. “I was so close to the majors. I feel like each game, I was trying harder and harder, and that almost worked against me.”
At Birmingham that season, Thompson worked closely with hitting coach Gary Ward, who made two All-Star teams in his 12-year big-league career. Ward’s mission was twofold: get Thompson to learn how to use the whole field—“He was always strictly trying to pull everything,” Ward says—and reduce the pressure that he relentlessly put on himself to be perfect.
“I told him that you're going to fail seven of 10 times. It's just how you handle the failure, how you process it,” Ward says. “There are a whole lot of players in the Hall of Fame who failed.”
Despite that reminder, Thompson had to endure more failure in 2014: a .237 average and 151 strikeouts in 133 games, all spent at Double A. The pressure was taking its toll. “I was so focused on making the adjustments that I was working on the wrong stuff, and that dug me an even bigger hole,” he says.
Eventually, however, Thompson found success at the plate, bashing 11 of his 16 home runs from June 1 through the end of the season. He was bumped up to Triple A for the 2015 season, then got the call to the big leagues that Aug. 4. In his brief stint with the White Sox, Thompson flashed All-Star caliber ability, batting .295/.363/.533 with a 147 OPS+ over 44 games.
“Sometimes, I just try to think like I'm 12 years old again, because that's when the game was so easy and such a joy,” he adds. “I try not to force the issue, just pretend like you're in your backyard playing a game.”
That strong start to his major league career has carried over in Los Angeles, where Thompson took over as the Dodgers’ starting rightfielder in early June after Puig went on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. Puig returned from his DL stint on Tuesday, but Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has said that Thompson’s terrific work this season has earned him everyday work as the team’s regular leftfielder and as Puig’s backup in right.
Whether Thompson will keep that role once Ethier is back from a broken leg (expected to be sometime after the All-Star break) remains to be seen, but at the least, he could form the righthanded side of a platoon in left with Ethier. His strong defense, meanwhile, makes him a natural backup to both Pederson in center and Puig in right.
In any case, Thompson says his focus isn’t on his competition. “I can't control who else is in this locker room,” he says. “I can only control how I approach it.” It’s hard to see how Thompson doesn’t remain a fixture in the clubhouse, however: He has supplied valuable offense on a team struggling to score or hit for power, and he’s even provided some signature moments along the way, including walk-off home runs against the Mets on May 10 and the Rockies on June 7.
Will feats like those be enough to make Trayce Thompson a household name for baseball fans the way Klay is in the NBA? Even if they aren’t, that’s fine with Trayce. There’s no rivalry with his famous brother (or with Mychel): They talk about seemingly everything but their respective careers. “We'll text each other ‘Good job tonight’ or ‘You'll get ‘em tomorrow’ if he has a good or bad game,” Thompson says, but notes that in the ongoing group text he has with his brothers, the most frequent topic of discussion isn’t baseball or basketball but Klay’s bulldog, Rocco.
“He'll never be Klay Thompson to me,” Trayce says. “He's always just going to be Klay. My dad's always going to be Dad, and Mikey's always going to be Mikey. They're just my dad and my brothers.”
That May night, after the Dodgers beat the Mets 9–1 and as the players were getting dressed and packing up, the TVs in Citi Field’s visitors clubhouse were tuned to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, where the Warriors were trying to stave off elimination at the hands of the Thunder. Golden State had trailed for most of the game, only to be kept alive by the preposterously hot shooting of Klay Thompson. The guard buried three-pointer after three-pointer, sending pockets of the Dodgers’ clubhouse—in particular Pederson, a Bay Area native and diehard Warriors fan—into shouts of awe.
With five minutes left in the game and Golden State down by seven, Thompson drilled a 30-foot three-pointer, one of his NBA-playoff-record 11 on the night. The Dodgers, led by Pederson, erupted into laughter and screams. All of them, that is, except Trayce Thompson. He had quietly left the clubhouse and was already en route to the hotel to get some sleep (albeit keeping an eye on his brother’s exploits) so he would be ready for the next day’s game. Klay Thompson’s stardom is secure; Trayce must now build his.