This story appears in the March 27 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
The Babe Ruth of Korea is a Jesuit prep school graduate who is built like Terry Crews, wears a beard down to his chest, and was nicknamed God. But Eric Thames’s rock star life in Changwon reached its most outrageous point one late night last year.
“I was on a date,” he says. “We were on the street kissing, and a fan came up, hit me on the shoulder and was like, ‘Hey, can you sign?’ I’m like, ‘I’m with a girl right now! Get out of here.’ I was blown away.
“Wouldn’t matter if it was six in the morning, three in the morning, a dark alley or what. It was crazy. Because of my look—the beard, the tattoos—and because of what I did on the field, I couldn’t go anywhere.”
This year Thames said goodbye to South Korea, where for the past three seasons he put up video game numbers for the NC Dinos (.348 with 124 homers in 388 games), to take his second crack at fame in major league baseball. His first stint here, in which he bounced among the Toronto, Seattle, Baltimore and Houston organizations, was nondescript. Now, at age 30, he has a rebuilt swing, a newly found love of meditation and visualization, and the security of a three-year, $16 million contract to play first base for the Brewers.
“Our expectation is for him to be a productive major league player,” says Brewers general manager David Stearns, who not only signed him without anyone from the organization scouting him in person but also cut Chris Carter, the 2016 NL home run champion, to make room for him. “There’s a wide range of outcomes, and we recognize that.”
Like Cecil Fielder, who left for Japan in 1989 because of sporadic playing time and production in the majors (.243 with 31 home runs in 220 games), Thames (.250, 21 HRs in 181 games) left for Korea after the 2013 season to play every day and for a better paycheck. His slash line there for three seasons (.348/.450/.720) resembles the career slash line for Ruth (.342/.474/.690). Korean fans, who bestowed the God nickname on him, loved Thames as much for his outsized personality as for his home runs. He was so popular he had his own line of watches. Thames wore metallic gold arm and leg guards and celebrated home runs with a choreographed two-man skit that ended with a teammate tugging his beard and the two of them spinning on their heels to give a military-style salute to the home fans.
“Uh, not here,” says Thames, who this spring wore white body armor. “You want me to get hit in the ribs?”
Says Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, “Our fans are going to love him. I mean, look at the way he’s built. The guy’s ripped. It’s sick. All he needs to do is walk past the weight room, look in, and he gets even bigger and more shredded.”
When Fielder returned from Japan at age 26, he hit 51 home runs and drove in 132 runs for the 1990 Tigers. One projection model, Steamer, forecasts Thames to slug .515 this season—better than Kris Bryant. But he will see more velocity than he saw in Korea, bigger ballparks and a more grueling schedule. (Though some aspects of MLB life are healthier: “Over there, they all smoke,” says Thames. “There’s a fifth-inning smoke break. A two-minute break. The umpires run in, the coaches run in, they all just go to their little spots, smoke, and they all walk out. It smells like a casino in the locker room.”)
Says Brewers manager Craig Counsell, “What we saw on tape was he made an adjustment to his swing. It’s flatter. Players should be rooting for him. It opens up a whole new avenue for second chances.”
On April 5, 2012, Thames was the Opening Day leftfielder for the Blue Jays. Over the next 20 months, he bounced from Toronto to Las Vegas to Seattle to Tacoma to Sarasota to Norfolk to Oklahoma City to Caracas to Changwon. Asked why he gave up celebrity for Milwaukee, Thames said, “The challenge. I knew if I stayed, yeah, the money would have been great. Good environment.
“But I knew if I stayed I’d always ask myself, If I came back here, what would have happened? Because I’m not the same player I was.”
Already improbable, his journey now has another twist. Where will it take him? As his many fans in Korea might regard it, God is in the details. ±