For Thames, Asian awakening powers a career rebirth
milwaukee — The sense of isolation was overwhelming in the late spring of 2014. It was all-consuming. Eric Thames was all alone in a foreign land, but it was worse than that. While he was standing in place, exiled, forgotten, a new Major League Baseball season was getting underway some 6,500 miles away, without him. Jobs were being won. Playing time was being gained. Multimillion-dollar contracts were being earned. Somebody, somewhere was getting a chance that could’ve been, should’ve been his. Thames knew these players. He knew he was better.
Alone in his high-rise apartment outside Changwon, South Korea, Thames, then 27, contemplated his options. He was off to a poor start for the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization, his problems at the plate the same ones that doomed him in the states — a propensity to chase bad pitches, a lack of patience. He was bewildered by some of the quirks of Korean baseball — the five-minute smoke breaks in the middle of games, the tradition of busing to and from the team hotel in full uniform. The food was a mystery, the language an enigma. And he was alone. Even his two American teammates on the Dinos had their families with them.
“At one point I was like, ‘I’m going to have to
After reinventing himself during three years in South Korea, Eric Thames is off to a successful start this season with Milwaukee in his return to the majors.
go home,’ ” Thames recalled one recent afternoon at Milwaukee’s Miller Park, where he is now the Brewers’ first baseman and the best story in baseball at the season’s quarter mark. “‘I could go home, get a minor league deal.’ Those thoughts creep in.”
Instead, in a quiet moment at his lowest point, Thames made what he describes as “a pact with myself”: Stick it out, work hard, make a change, get better. And though it seemed impossible, embrace the loneliness.
“Adjust and adapt,” he said. “Learn everything you can. Improve yourself.”
He started with the body. Forced by the isolation and the language barrier to be his own hitting coach, he spent the lonely hours in his apartment studying swing theory and watching videos of Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera and others. In his spacious living room, with high ceilings and hardwood floors, he took thousands of dry swings.
And then he focused on the mind. Boredom and loneliness became assets. He learned some Korean, delved into Eastern philosophy, began to meditate. He read “The Book of Five Rings,” the ancient samurai text, and Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.”
Soon, he came to realize the mind and body were one. He learned to harness the power of visualization, bringing it all the way to the on-deck circle with him, picturing pitches in his mind and what to do with them: Slider in the dirt, pass. Fastball at the belt, unload. By necessity, since Korean pitchers threw more breaking pitches and off-speed stuff than their American counterparts, Thames learned to be more patient at the plate. And by necessity, because this was likely to be his last chance, and because it was either make a meaningful change or pass permanently into baseball oblivion, he altered his very essence, as both a ballplayer and a human being.
“I was able to let go of being a perfectionist and embrace becoming result-independent,” he said. “Not worrying about what happens. Just doing what you have to do to be prepared. The rest is up to fate. If you hit a ball hard, whether it’s in the gap or in somebody’s glove, it’s out of your hands. To be able to let go of that, and the pressure I put on myself, and just play the game, was everything.”
And that’s how it really happened, how a 27-year-old major league flameout, a hitter of formidable power but little else of use, could reinvent himself in a second-tier professional league halfway across the earth, put up three years’ worth of Ruthian numbers, become a cultural phenomenon across South Korea — where the people called him “God,” sang a song about him every time he homered, and plastered his bearded face on everything from beer bottles to wrist watches — then return to American shores, five years after he last appeared in the majors, garner a $16 million contract and make it seem, with 13 home runs and a 1.128 on-base-plus-slugging percentage through the first month and a half of the season, like the free agent bargain of the decade.
If it doesn’t seem plausible, it’s because it hasn’t happened in such a way in more than a quarter of a century, since Cecil Fielder returned from Japan in 1990 and hit 95 home runs the next two years for the Detroit Tigers. People have offered alternative theories for Thames’s rise, some of them sinister. But the best explanation is the simplest and timetested: Man is forced to adapt for his own survival, man adapts.
“What people have a hard time coming to grips with is [the idea that] you can disappear and get better,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said of his new best player. “He went on this baseball journey, and people didn’t see it, so they don’t believe it. He figured some things out about himself, as a human. When you’re on your own for three years like that, there’s a lot of conversations with yourself.”
For much of those three years, conversations with himself were the only kind available to Thames.
Finding his power
A decade before Eric Thames reinvented himself as a professional ballplayer, he had to do the same thing as a collegian. In his first season at Pepperdine University, as a strapping sophomore junior college transfer with power to spare, he managed to go an entire NCAA season, 53 games’ and 200 at-bats’ worth, using aluminum bats, without hitting a single home run.
“He was a big kid, very strong,” recalled Pepperdine Coach Rick Hirtensteiner, who was the hit- ting coach when Thames played there. “So to go a whole season without hitting a home run — I mean, we have little guys who hit home runs — it was very odd.”
Thames, Hirtensteiner recalls, had a downward swing that tended to drive well-struck balls into the ground. “We worked on getting him to swing a little more flat, or even upward. He went from zero homers to 13 [as a junior].”
He also hit .407 that junior season and slugged .769, catching the attention of big league scouts, among them Toronto Blue Jays scouting director Jon Lalonde, who convinced J.P. Ricciardi, Toronto’s general manager at the time, to spend a seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft on Thames.
“I saw [Thames] on video, and I kept asking Jon, ‘You know, he looks kind of stiff — he has a stiff swing. Are you sure this is the guy?’ ” Ricciardi recalled. “He was adamant: ‘This is my guy. This is my pick to click.’ I said, ‘If you’re that adamant, let’s get him.’ ”
Four years later, under a different front-office regime, Toronto would become the first of four MLB organizations to give up on Thames. He was 25 years old, hitting a paltry .243/.288/.365 as a platoon outfielder in Toronto when the Blue Jays traded him to Seattle.
A year later, in the summer of 2013, Seattle traded him to Baltimore. And three months after that, the Orioles, having kept him at Class AAA Norfolk all summer, put him on waivers, where he was claimed by Houston.
“We needed a roster spot,” recalled Orioles farm director Brian Graham. “And he was the guy the front office decided to let go. Big, strong kid. Super-athletic. But we couldn’t get him consistent atbats.”
Though his Korean enlightenment has made Thames acknowledge his own deficiencies, he can’t help but speak of his first goround in professional ball as a series of broken promises and opportunities that never came, his own failures largely the result of inconsistent playing time. He had just one shot at being an everyday player in the big leagues, he said, as a rookie in Toronto in 2011, but it lasted just weeks before he was dropped into a platoon. Later, the Mariners, he said, put him on waivers shortly after he was injured when his hand was stepped on. “That was a low blow,” he said.
With Houston at the end of 2013, Thames played in one game, a playoff game for Class AAA Oklahoma City — going 2 for 4 with a homer in what could have been his final statement in a major league organization — and went home to California. About to turn 27, Thames was further than ever from establishing himself in the majors. He was now labeled an organizational player, a “Quad-A” player, doomed to be shuttled back and forth from Class AAA to the majors — and that was a best-case scenario, seeing as how he didn’t appear in the majors at all in 2013.
When the offer came from Korea — for around $800,000, more than twice what he had earned in the states to that point — Thames’s first reaction was a firm no. Asia, he knew, was a black hole from which few Americans return, and even fewer return to be productive big leaguers.
“My agent convinced me to give it a shot, just for a year,” Thames said. “It was a fresh start. Erase the last year and a half. For me it wasn’t about the money at all. I just wanted to get a shot. So I went.”
The KBO’s NC Dinos — named for its owner, the South Korean video game publisher NCSoft — negotiated Thames’s purchase from the Astros, who still owned his MLB rights, with a young Astros assistant manager named David Stearns.
a guy is bouncing around on waivers, and has an opportunity to go overseas and make a lot of money,” Stearns said, “you’re not going to stand in his way.”
The awakening Thames went on to experience in Korea encompassed the professional, the cultural and the spiritual. In a certain way, he came to love it there. When he won the KBO’s MVP award in 2015, he donned the traditional crown of flowers and delivered a gracious acceptance speech. After initially bristling at the Koreans’ fascination with his appearance — everybody wanted to feel his biceps and touch his beard — he eventually accepted it to the point where he and his Dinos teammates developed a complicated handshake routine that ended with the other player grabbing Thames’s beard.
Last November, after three years and 124 home runs in Korea, Thames, now 30, was ready to entertain offers to return to MLB, and this time he was in charge of his own destiny. The winning bid, a three-year deal for $16 million, featuring a clause preventing the team from sending him to the minors without his approval, came from the Brewers and their second-year general manager: Stearns, the same executive who, three years earlier, had helped facilitate Thames’s exit from MLB.
Thames believed he could be a solid everyday player in the big leagues, but otherwise he had no expectations and only one goal for 2017: to hit 13 homers, thus exceeding his previous career high.
It took him all of 31 games to reach it.
When the news reached Thames in Korea in February 2016 — “Indians outfielder Abraham Almonte suspended 80 games for PEDs” — he immediately dashed off text messages to some of his old friends from his days as a Mariners farmhand. To their small group, it was a very interesting development.
Thames believes he was passed over for promotions in favor of Almonte during their time together in the organization, culminating with Almonte’s promotion to the majors in August 2013, two months after Thames was traded to Baltimore. While Thames isn’t accusing Almonte of using performance-enhancing drugs way back then, the 2016 suspension, in Thames’s mind, confirmed a suspicion that he had been leap“When frogged by dopers during his first flameout in MLB — a flesh-andblood victim of PED use.
“There’s always guys who — you don’t know if they’ve taken the stuff,” Thames said.
The sentiment is a common one among players in Korea, many of whom were one infinitesimal notch below being an impactful big leaguer — a notch that others may have gained through PEDs.
“A lot of those players have pushed guys like us out of the picture,” said Dinos pitcher Eric Hacker, Thames’s teammate from 2014 to 2016. “It happens. You’re in the minors, or on the fringes of the majors, and someone’s just a little better than you, and they’re taking something, and you’re not. We spent a lot of time talking about that.”
That is the backdrop to what confronted Thames in April, when, thanks to his out-of-nowhere story and sensational start with the Brewers, the insinuations of PED use began to surface. They were fueled largely by several members of the Chicago Cubs, who, after Thames went 6 for 11 with a homer and three doubles against them in a midApril series at Wrigley Field, used loaded language to question his extreme career turnaround — calling it a “head-scratcher,” among other things.
“It really is insulting,” Thames said. “But I’m used to it. I know my genetics. People are shocked, but it’s not like I’m hitting balls out of stadiums. I’m just swinging at strikes. I wish there was a drug I could take to make my mind hone in on balls in the zone, but you have to do that yourself. I take it as an honor and compliment that people assume I’m hitting this well because of [PEDs]. It’s like, ‘thank you.’ ”
Hacker, the Dinos pitcher, is less judicious. “Knowing the stories we’ve shared over the years, and then seeing the comments from the Cubs, it’s frustrating for me to see that,” he said. “This is a guy who has gone halfway around the world to put himself in position to be successful.”
According to Jeeho Yoo, a journalist who covers the KBO for Yonhap News Agency, the league subjects foreign players to a minimum of two to three drug tests per season, and because of Thames’s prominence and the Dinos’ postseason runs, he was tested as many as six times in a season.
“I think he’s clean. I just think he underwent a transformation here,” Yoo said. “He came to the KBO at a time in his life and his career when he was becoming a more mature ballplayer and a more mature person.”
What stands out about Thames now isn’t his size — at 210 pounds, he is actually 10 pounds lighter than when he left — or his power, which he has always possessed. It is his approach. The pre-2014 scouting reports on Thames are worthless now. No longer can he be counted on to chase breaking balls out of the strike zone. According to data at FanGraphs, he swung at roughly 36 percent of out-of-the-zone pitches in his first big league stint in 2011-12, one of the worst rates in the game. But this season, his “chase rate” is down to 20.7 percent, ranking 10th in the majors.
“His at-bats are just deeply personal to him,” Counsell, the Brewers’ manager, said. “His at-bats mean everything to him. He never takes one off, and he almost never gets himself out [by swinging at bad pitches]. It’s this intense focus he has. That’s what stands out.”
Another ex-teammate from Korea, pitcher Thad Weber, said Thames had a “chip on his shoulder” while overseas — “His goal was always to get back to the big leagues and prove people wrong,” Weber said — but Thames himself says his mission was never about disproving the doubters.
“I’m not looking for revenge on old GMs and coaches. This is all about pride for me,” Thames said. “Coming back here was a challenge to myself. I wanted to come back here, embrace the challenge and apply everything I learned over there.”
The adjustment now has been in reverse. He has had to reacclimate himself to American food, a clubhouse full of English speakers, a parade of relievers throwing 99 mph, a big league lifestyle. At least once, someone had to remind him that in the majors, you don’t have to clean your own spikes. With his eye-popping numbers, the media crush has been so great that at one point he had to shut off one-on-one interviews for a few days.
Instead of finding himself alone at all times by default, Thames now has to make a point of seeking out those moments of solitude. And he does so, because he knows better than most: There is knowledge in the loneliness. There is power in the quiet.
“Coming back here was a challenge to myself,” said Thames, who hit 124 homers in three years in South Korea. “I wanted to come back here, embrace the challenge and apply everything I learned over there.”