For Thames, Asian awak­en­ing pow­ers a ca­reer re­birth

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY DAVE SHEININ

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.

PED sus­pi­cions

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.

DY­LAN BUELL/GETTY IMAGES

MORRY GASH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

DY­LAN BUELL/GETTY IMAGES

“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.”

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