The Washington Post
A drive handed down
Nationals’ Thomas learned all he needed to know about competition by watching his father’s drag racing career
The first time Lane Thomas signed an autograph was more than two decades ago — before he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays, before he roamed the outfield for the Washington Nationals. He was 3 years old with a mop of dirty blond hair.
It was 1998, and Thomas’s father, Mike, had just won a National Hot Rod Association race outside Chicago. When Mike was asked to sign autographs, his son started doling out his as well.
“Now that I’m old enough, I’m like, ‘Well, I was just handing them out.’ They probably didn’t even want it,” said Thomas, now 26. “They probably thought it was cute or something, but they didn’t even ask me.”
This year, the demand for that autograph has increased as Thomas’s profile has risen during his first full season with Washington. His hitting in June was a bright spot for the struggling Nationals. Thomas has rotated in and out of the lineup and spent a stretch in the leadoff spot. His bat has cooled of late, but the outfielder has been working to regain the stride he hit earlier in the summer. With three more years of team control after this season, he is expected to be a part of the club’s immediate future, whether as an everyday player or a reserve outfielder.
There are ups and downs, of course. But navigating those ups and downs — Thomas learned about that from his father, too.
Thomas attributes much of how he views competition, both winning and losing, to watching his father on the NHRA circuit. He saw his dad work through slumps and emerge with thrilling wins, watched him make minor adjustments that could have major payoffs. He said it translates to baseball, where he takes diligent notes that help inform tweaks at the plate. He wants to be aggressive but still show good judgment in the batter’s box.
As much as he loved traveling to watch his dad race, baseball caught Thomas’s eye from a young age. He and his father would play catch on the road at any opportunity, memories that Mike looks back on fondly.
“He could never get enough baseball,” Mike
said. “You could say, ‘ Want to go to the lake this weekend, son?’ He’d say, ‘No, I want to play baseball, Dad.’ That’s been his life desire, and he’s living it.”
Mike remained involved as Thomas saw his dreams turn into reality. Thomas was drafted in 2014 by the Blue Jays, but in 2017 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent time with Class AA Springfield in Missouri and Class AAA Memphis in his home state of Tennessee, and his father would travel frequently to watch him play.
Thomas received his first major league call-up in April 2019, beginning a two-year stretch that saw him split time between St. Louis and Memphis.
When Thomas was traded to the Nationals in July 2021, Mike continued to travel to see him play, a combination of flights to Washington for homestands and strategically scheduled road trips. Mike tries to watch his son play at least once or twice a month; he made the trip to Atlanta for a recent series against the Braves, and he’ll be in attendance for Washington’s series against the Dodgers in Los Angeles this week.
It’s a reversal of their situation from two decades ago, when Thomas tagged along for his father’s cross-country trips.
“He’s always telling me, ‘You know what you can do,’ ” Thomas said. “The biggest part of it is just being my biggest fan.”
Thomas also appreciates that his father holds him to a high standard, even expecting more out of him than the outfielder does himself. The two talk frequently before and after games — often but not always about baseball. Drawing on parallels from his own career, Mike tries to provide guidance, sometimes waiting to chime in until he’s asked and other times sharing his thoughts more readily.
Mike said that balance has at times elicited a joke from his son — a reference to “Moneyball.”
“Sometimes he’ll say, ‘Dad, you just think you’re Billy Beane, don’t you?’ ” Mike said with a laugh.
Mike coached his son as he was growing up in Knoxville. The elder Thomas was an assistant coach, and his retirement from drag racing in 2008 allowed him to spend even more time with his son’s team.
“He was just a workaholic,” Thomas said of his father, who previously owned a chain of carwashes and now owns a metal fabrication company. “And then he got to do his hobby as a job for a little bit, too, like I do.”
Mike considers it heartwarming to know his career helped shape what his son’s has turned into, and he laughs when he thinks back to playing catch on the road as a child. Other stalwarts on the drag racing circuit would remark on the boy’s arm — a funny pattern to reflect on now.
“It’s so difficult to make Major League Baseball,” Mike said. “It’s just unbelievable sometimes.”