Montrose’s Thompson shows no signs of slowing down

BY DONNIE COLLINS, Times-Shamrock Writer

His speed helped Montrose’s Rich Thompson land a college scholarship, and since then he has gleaned enough about the game to parlay it into a 12-year minor league career. Thompson is currently an outfielder and leadoff batter for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. TIMES-SHAMROCK PHOTO/MICHAEL J. MULLEN

When he stepped into the batter’s box to lead off on Tuesday night, the first thing I thought was, “Wow. He’s still around?”

That’s a thought usually reserved for the gray beards in the International League, the sluggers and the lefty relievers and the crafty-if-not-dynamic starting pitchers who for one reason or another have become mainstays around Triple-A baseball. They’re grinding out a living, one pitch at a time.

It hardly seems like Rich Thompson should qualify. After all, it doesn’t seem like all that long ago when he was sprinting around the outfield at Montrose High School, causing havoc on the basepaths, unwittingly keeping opposing catchers awake the night before a game.

But he’s 32 now. Those days he spent in Meteors maroon are more than a decade into the past. He has been showing up with one team or another at PNC Field for the better part of the last 10 years, and when your Triple-A tenure precedes the Red Barons’ glory years, then you might be a gray beard.

“He’s still around?” He is, and here’s the thing about that: What a compliment it is to think of him in that way.

In baseball, there are a few different kinds of players. Some seem to have been born with an uncanny knack of hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely. Some throw 90 miles per hour or can backhand a hard ground ball taking a trick hop like it is second nature. Then there are others who had to work hard, for years, to make doing any of that seem natural.

Thompson puts himself firmly in that group.

Surrounded by players who played baseball year-round as teenagers to prepare themselves for a professional career, Thompson played somewhere between 10 and 12 games per year in high school. He was a great player at Montrose, he knew. But how far was his unrefined athleticism going to take him?

“I feel like I’m getting better and better now,” Thompson said. “But I didn’t know anything when I went to college.”

The summer before his senior year, he went to a baseball camp at James Madison University. His family drove him to the camp. He was asked to run a 60-yard dash, and he ripped it off in 6.8 seconds. The next day, after another player at the camp was asked to run the 60, Thompson asked coaches if he could give it another try.

“I ran a 6.8 after being in the car all day, and I told them I thought I could do better,” Thompson said. “I ran a 6.5 the next day. And right after that, they said, ‘Do you want to come here?’ ”

They hadn’t seen him play much baseball. Honestly, he hadn’t played much baseball. But in getting the full scholarship to James Madison, he made good on a wager he and his classmates had with his algebra teacher back at Montrose. That challenge: That nobody at the school could get a Division I college scholarship offer.

Thompson and current New York Giants guard Chris Snee made good.

Thing is, Thompson is still making good.

He was given a scholarship based on his speed, and he learned to hit well enough that he was picked in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by the Blue Jays.

He picked up enough about the nuances of the game to become a .279 career hitter in the minor leagues, a player with 403 career steals who has established himself as the best leadoff hitter the Lehigh Valley IronPigs have ever had.

“Everyone growing up wants to play for a certain team, and for me, that was the Phillies,” Thompson said. “It’s nice not to feel like I’m bouncing around all the time. I have a sense that I belong here.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if Rich Thompson can get back to the big leagues one more time? To get some playing time in Philadelphia? A case could be made – a good case – that Thompson is the best leadoff hitter in the International League. His .403 on-base percentage ranks in the league’s top five. None of the players ranked ahead of him are leadoff men.

As far as his 16 stolen bases are concerned, he has no peers in the IL.

He’s still around. He’s still going. He’s still valuable.

In many ways, he’s better than he has ever been.

Back at Montrose, it was hard to imagine all of this. A kid who got a baseball scholarship because he could run has turned himself into a 12-year minor league veteran showing no signs of slowing down.

“As a kid, you always imagine it until it doesn’t happen,” Thompson said.

“Everyone in Little League thinks they’re going to play in the major leagues, and even in high school, you think you’re going to be great. I’ve just been lucky. I haven’t had my dream broken, I guess.”

Hardly. In fact, it may be stronger than ever.