Former Cardinal Brad Thompson is pitching for the Somerset Patriots in the independent Atlantic League. (Team photo)
By Rob Rains
It was three years this week that Brad Thompson last threw a pitch in the major leagues, retiring Hideki Matsui on a popup for the final out in the top of the ninth inning of a 7-1 Angels win over the Kansas City Royals.
The dream that he might one day get back to where he was on May 31, 2010 is what has led Thompson to the independent Atlantic League. Like almost all of the other former major-leaguers who dot the rosters of the league’s eight teams, he just isn’t ready to stop playing the game he loves.
“I figure if somebody is going to give me a uniform and I’m having a good time doing it, I’m going to play,” Thompson said. “Obviously the goal is to get out of here. Everybody plays Indy ball to get back into affiliated ball but it’s a good league, a talented league. I see guys I played with and against in the big leagues and Triple A. It’s good competition. It’s a good place for me to try to get my foot back in the door.”
The former Cardinal, now 31 years old, pitched in St. Louis from 2005-2009 as both a starter and reliever. He was released after the 2009 season and signed with the Kansas City Royals. He was with them until June 2010, when he opted to became a free agent instead of going back to Triple A Omaha, moving to Houston’s Triple A team.
Two weeks after leaving the Astros at the end of July, he had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, which kept him out of baseball in 2011. He signed with the Twins organization last year but got released right before the draft. He then went to pitch for a friend’s Independent league team in Arizona before winding up in the Atlantic League.
He is now a member of the Somerset Patriots in New Jersey, working hard to erase bad habits which came from trying to avoid the surgery on his elbow.
“The process of coming back has taken a lot longer than I expected,” Thompson said. “I got into so many bad habits when the arm was hurting and I kept trying to compensate for it. It’s been two years now.”
Thompson made his sixth start of the season on Sunday, getting the win against Bridgeport, pitching six innings in which he allowed four runs on 11 hits. He is now 3-1 for the season with a 3.55 ERA.
“The first couple of starts I was feeling it a little bit but the last start I felt really good,” he said. “I finally had command of three pitches and was getting guys to swing over sinkers, which is something I need to have. I am excited about this year and I’m having fun. It’s easier to have fun when you are succeeding. I hope to have fun all year.”
Thompson recently missed a week of action to come back to his home in O’Fallon, Ill., for the birth of his first son, Dylan. He said the support of his wife Andrea has allowed him to continue living his dream.
“I love baseball more than anything but it was really tough leaving my wife and new son,” he said. “She is supportive and that’s what really helps. If she was dragging on me to stay home I might not make it.
“I don’t want to ever say ‘what if I would have.’ I want to give it a chance as long as I am physically capable of doing it, and I can get people out. I’m not going to come out here and get my butt kicked all the time just because. I feel like I can compete and I feel great.”
Thompson was never a pitcher who relied on a blazing fastball, but he needs to be consistently in the mid 80’s with a good sinker to be effective. He thinks he is close to finding that consistency.
“It’s tough to read up here because a lot of the parks don’t have radar guns, and you shouldn’t be worried about that stuff when you are out there pitching anyway,” he said.
Thompson is one of five former Cardinals currently playing in the Atlantic League, along with pitchers Brian Tallot, Brett Tomko and Mike Parisi and outfielder Brian Barton. The manager of the Sugarland Skeeters is former Cardinal Gary Gaetti.
“I would call this a glorified beer league,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot of talent but everybody is kind of loose. A lot of stuff guys get away with in this league is definitely not going to happen in affiliated ball. I’m guessing guys who play here for a long time have trouble adjusting if they do get picked up.
“The biggest challenge and the thing I see out of a lot of guys that hurt themselves is that you are really policing yourself. There is nobody to say, “Hey Brad, you threw 100 pitches last night you better go run today’ or ‘you had better go work out.’ There’s a bunch of grown me in this league and you’ve got to take care of yourself. I see a bunch of guys who don’t do it and it definitely shows on the field.”
Thompson is realistic enough to know there is a chance his life as a professional baseball player could end in this league, whether it comes this year or in the future. It is a decision he doesn’t want to think about just yet.
“This is something I have done my entire life, and for the last 10-11 years professionally it’s what I’ve done,” he said. “I have not had to get so-called real job yet and I’m enjoying it. If I can still do it, have fun and take care of my family doing so, why not?
“At the end of the year I will sit down and look at the body of work if I am still here. If I feel good and I think I pitched well I might look at going overseas for a little bit. It will definitely be a family decision at that point. Hopefully I won’t have to worry about it. It’s been a good ride so far.”
Thompson does have one idea of a “real” job he might pursue when the day comes that it becomes necessary. He filled in for former Cardinal Chris Duncan on an afternoon radio show last year in St. Louis and came to like doing it.
“I got the call to fill in for Chris for one day and I thought it might be fun,” Thompson said. “I ended up being there for three months and really enjoyed doing it. Hopefully when I am done playing that might be an option.”
It’s just an option that Thompson is not yet ready to explore.