Home­town hero still has big league dream

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The crowd at South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs games at Re­gency Fur­ni­ture Sta­dium in Wal­dorf, Mary­land, is a lit­tle louder than nor­mal, a lit­tle more bois­ter­ous when for­mer Wash­ing­ton Nationals pitch­ing prospect Daryl Thomp­son is on the mound — the home­town hero.

“He brings a lot of ex­cite­ment to the ball­park with the fans that come out to see him pitch, fam­ily and friends,” said John Har­ris, Blue Crabs man­ager.

It’s the crowd that grew up watching him pitch in Charles County Lit­tle League, and at La Plata High School, just a few miles away from the At­lantic League ball­park — which may be a long dis­tance from the ma­jor leagues, but Thomp­son has pitched his way into a ca­reer that is par­tic­u­larly unique to in­de­pen­dent league base­ball.

For six sea­sons now, Thomp­son has pitched mi­nor league base­ball for his home­town team.

“It’s al­most too good to be true to come here and feel like I’m play­ing right in my back­yard,” Thomp­son said. “It’s not the big leagues, but be­ing able to come out and play for my home­town is spe­cial, like I used to in high school.”

This is some­thing that couldn’t have hap­pened with Thomp­son when, af­ter be­ing drafted in the eighth round by the Mon­treal Ex­pos in 2003, he pitched in the Nationals, Cincin­nati Reds, Min­nesota Twins and New York

Mets or­ga­ni­za­tions. Those stops in towns like Sa­van­nah and Day­ton and Louisville and Rochester were all with af­fil­i­ated mi­nor league teams, in which the ma­jor league or­ga­ni­za­tions dic­tate the ros­ters.

One of the beau­ties of At­lantic League base­ball, the in­de­pen­dent league the Blue Crabs have played in for 10 sea­sons now, is that they are just as they sound — in­de­pen­dent. The fran­chise it­self de­cides who is on the ros­ter, and for six sea­sons now, the Blue Crabs have signed Thomp­son to play in his back­yard.

“Hav­ing Daryl Thomp­son be such an in­te­gral part of our or­ga­ni­za­tion for six sea­sons now is in­cred­i­bly rare in any sport,” Blue Crabs gen­eral man­ager Court­ney Knichel said. “It’s a spe­cial and unique trait that the At­lantic League presents, and Daryl’s com­mit­ment to the or­ga­ni­za­tion and his home­town is un­ri­valed.

“When Daryl is pitch­ing at home, there is al­ways an ex­tra “pop” from the crowd when his name is an­nounced, it’s a neat moment,” Knichel said. “He has a great fol­low­ing of friends, fam­ily, old coaches, teach­ers, and oth­ers.”

Thomp­son is not just the lo­cal at­trac­tion, though. The Blue Crabs have two other lo­cal play­ers on their ros­ter — pitcher Jesse Beal and in­fielder Michael Sny­der, both of whom played high school ball in North­ern Vir­ginia. Thomp­son has been one of the Blue Crabs’ best starters, with a 34-32 record and a 3.96 ERA in 104 ap­pear­ances — 98 starts — and 5981⁄3 in­nings pitched. And this year, at the age of 31, he may be at the top of his game. He is 3-3, lead­ing the staff with 52 strike­outs in 10 starts, the lat­est an im­pres­sive nine-in­ning, 10-strike­out per­for­mance, al­low­ing just two runs, in a 5-2 loss to New Bri­tain. He has a ma­jor league curve­ball.

“Daryl can pitch,” Har­ris said. “He works hard, and is a plea­sure to be around, a first class guy and a great team leader.”

“This year is prob­a­bly the best I’ve felt in three or four years,” said Thomp­son, who has also pitched in win­ter ball in Venezuela and Mex­ico for the past five sea­sons.

That’s a long way from the Sa­van­nah, Geor­gia, Sand Gnats in 2005, where Thomp­son, mov­ing up through the Nationals or­ga­ni­za­tion, suf­fered a torn labrum — that was first mis­di­ag­nosed by the cir­cus that was the Jim Bowden-led front of­fice.

“I don’t know what hap­pened,” he said. “I felt a lit­tle some­thing, it was aching and aching. I had to fly to D.C. to see the team doc­tor for the Nationals. He told me I prob­a­bly strained it or some­thing, gave me a cor­ti­sone shot, flew me back to Geor­gia. But It never got bet­ter. Then they sent me to Dr. (Tim) Krem­chek in Cincin­nati, who saw I had a torn labrum. They re­con­structed it.

“Dr. Krem­chek (the Reds team doc­tor) said from the looks of it I would come back stronger, and the next year I was traded to Cincin­nati,” Thomp­son said. “I guess that was part of the rea­son I was traded.

Thomp­son, who played with Ryan Zim­mer­man, Ian Des­mond and other well-known Nationals while he was in the mi­nor league sys­tem, was traded in July 2006 to the Reds in the deal that also sent pitch­ers Bill Bray and Gary Ma­jew­ski and in­field­ers Royce Clay­ton and Bren­dan Har­ris in re­turn for Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wag­ner. Two years later, Thomp­son was mak­ing his ma­jor league de­but — at Yan­kee Sta­dium.

“That was great,” Thomp­son said. “It was my first time be­ing at Yan­kee Sta­dium, and the first time for a lot of my fam­ily and friends as well who came up to see me pitch.”

Thomp­son pitched well in his de­but, al­low­ing no runs while strik­ing out two, walking four and al­low­ing four hits over five in­nings. But he strug­gled with arm prob­lems on and off af­ter that. “I had bur­si­tis in my shoul­der,” he said. “In 2010 I had arm trou­bles and I was think­ing about re­tir­ing. My grand­fa­ther had just passed away, my shoul­der wasn’t feel­ing right, I was just taken off the 40 man ros­ter. I kept throw­ing through the pain. By the time In­struc­tional League started, the Reds had just signed Aroldis Chap­man, and he didn’t want to go to the Ari­zona Fall League, so they asked me if I wanted to go. I said yes, and that is where to me I started feel­ing bet­ter and throw­ing good. I got back on the 40 man ros­ter in 2011.

“I didn’t get called up, and took it kind of hard,” Thomp­son said. “I signed with the Twins. I felt I could have a fresh start some­where else, but it didn’t work out.”

In four ma­jor league ap­pear­ances, Thomp­son went 0-3, giv­ing up 16 runs in 171⁄3 in­nings from 2008 to 2011. Then he found a home at home — the South­ern Mary­land Blue Crabs, just 10 min­utes from his house.

“When I first came back here, it brought back a lot of mem­o­ries,” Thomp­son said. “When I pitch at home now, it’s like some­thing spe­cial hap­pens to me. Peo­ple I know come out and see me pitch. In­de­pen­dent base­ball, you have more lee­way in this league, and it gives me a chance to pitch for my home­town. And the Blue Crabs have ac­cepted me with open arms from day one. I don’t take this for granted. We have a re­ally good team and we’ve been play­ing good base­ball lately, and that makes it that much bet­ter.”

Still, while he en­joys be­ing the home­town star, Thomp­son’s sights are still set on some­day get­ting an­other ma­jor league op­por­tu­nity — like so many play­ers who spend some time in the At­lantic League and then get the call. More than 40 per­cent of the play­ers in the league have ma­jor league service time, with an av­er­age of more than 50 play­ers a sea­son sign­ing with ma­jor league or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“Some­one could call me to­mor­row,” Thomp­son said. “I could keep get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter and be in the big leagues by the end of the year. I feel like I could help some or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

THOM LOVERRO

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