On Sunday, Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson will join a fairly exclusive club of NFL rookies who have started in the Super Bowl. A standout from the University of Washington, Thompson declared for the NFL Draft after a junior year in which he was named a first-team All-American and won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. He was selected in the first round, 25th overall, by the Panthers in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Three years earlier, before he’d played a single down for the Huskies, Thompson was drafted by another team – the Boston Red Sox. Dubbed a five-star football recruit out of high school, Thompson was contacted by Red Sox scouts who were interested in his athletic prowess, regardless of his lack of polished baseball skills. Thompson played for the varsity baseball team his senior year – his first action on the diamond since sixth grade – and wowed scouts with his raw abilities in the outfield despite a lackluster performance at the plate where he struck out nearly as many times as he reached base safely. Boston drafted Thompson in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB Draft, launching the worst baseball career in modern history.
Many have spilled words about the spectacular failures of Thompson’s month-long foray into the national pastime. It’s an oddity, a fun sidebar in the story of an incredible athlete that seems poised to have a long and successful football career. We’re not here to talk about those failures. In his 47 plate appearances, Thompson put the ball in play just twice. This is the story of those two at bats.
July 6, 2012 – GCL Twins 4 @ GCL Red Sox 9 (Final, 6 innings – Rain)
In the bottom of the second inning, Thompson strode to the plate with a runner on first and one out for his first plate appearance of the game. Starting for the sixth time in his professional career in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, Thompson entered the game 0-for-16 with 16 strikeouts, three walks and a run scored. Thompson faced Adrian Salcedo, a then 21-year-old right hander from the Dominican Republic who missed a huge chunk of the 2015 season after receiving an 80-game ban in April for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. There’s no way to know if Salcedo was juicing at the time of this at bat, but we’ll say he was just for laughs, so that Thomson’s one shining moment came against a hulking, roided-out human monster.
Standing on first base was Iseha Conklin, a 19-year-old outfielder drafted a round after Thompson. George Lombard, the first base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers (who was the manager of the GCL Red Sox at the time), put on the green light for Conklin, clearly anticipating the big moment for our hero. Conklin swiped second base, and later advanced to third on a botched pick-off attempt from Salcedo, who was unable to contain the artificially enhanced muscles in his arm and launched the ball into center field. The stage was set.
Thompson took a hack and for the first time in his professional baseball career, made contact with a ball that landed in fair territory. It’s likely that old habits kicked in for Thompson at that point, reminding him what to do. However, baseball is a strange game that often seems shrouded in a mist of destiny, and so it is perhaps no accident that the ball made a bee-line for first base, showing Thompson the way like the bouncing graphic on a children’s sing-along program. Thompson was out on the grounder to first, but this is not a story of failure. Rather it is of his greatest success – scoring on the play was Conklin, tying the game at two and giving Thompson his first and, as it would turn out, only career RBI.
The game would end up being Thompson’s finest as a professional. Later in the sixth, Thomson led off a big Red Sox rally with a walk. Two batters later, Cleuluis Rondon ripped a triple to center field, scoring Thompson. In total, he went 0-for-2 with a walk, a run and an RBI on the day, bettering the line of his opposite number in center field, who finished the game without reaching base.
That man was Byron Buxton.
July 20, 2012 – GCL Twins 10 @ GCL Red Sox 4
Entering his second at bat of the afternoon, frustration was almost certainly at a boiling point for Thompson, who had struck out in 11 of his previous 12 at bats and was still without a base hit on the season. With his commitment to the University of Washington’s football team looming, Thompson knew this would be his final game of the season. Because of the utter and complete failure that was his first month in the Gulf Coast League, I'm sure he knew that it would also be the final game of his professional baseball career.
In the bottom of the fifth with the Red Sox trailing the Twins 7-1, stakes were relatively low, even after the first two batters of the inning reached on walks to give the Red Sox a hint of life. Thompson came to the plate facing Luke Bard, now a 24-year-old still toiling away in the lower levels of the Twins system. Thompson was able to work Bard into a battle, fouling off a pair of two-strike pitches. And then, the sweetest sound of them all: the crack of ash on leather and cork, made all the sweeter for Thompson as he watched the ball stay fair for the first time in two weeks and just the second time in his career. Thompson had pulled something between a fly ball and a line drive to right field. With his teammates on the top step rooting for their struggling but not defeated brother, it looked like it had a chance to fall in for a Texas-leaguer to finally wipe at least two of the zeroes off of Thompson’s batting average.
Alas, this is no Disney movie and in baseball as in life, sometimes the winds of fate blow the best story lines off course. In this case, those winds blew Thompson’s liner into the outstretched glove of Joel Licon, the Twins’ 21-year-old right fielder. Perhaps, had he realized what was at stake, Licon might have taken one less step and allowed the ball to drop in. With his team leading 7-1 and both runners holding, anticipating the possible catch, it’s not likely that a base hit from Thompson would have significantly altered the course of the game. Perhaps, had he known what it would have meant to Thompson – seeking his first professional base hit in his final professional game – he might have played the ball on a hop, giving a wink and a nod and pointing his glove at Thompson, beaming at first base as his teammates cheered loudly in the dugout.
But Licon didn’t know. Or maybe he did, and he just didn’t care – these guys can’t be expected to lay down for the sake of the story, folks, they’re out here trying to make a living. Licon made a stumbling, shoestring catch – if the tales are to be believed – and Thompson returned to the dugout to receive the sort of congratulations from his teammates normally reserved for game-tying home runs.
It would be his final at-bat. With Thompson due to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning Lombard, perhaps realizing that the line drive in the fifth was likely as close as Thompson would ever come, pulled him in the top of the frame as he shuffled his outfield defense. Thompson finished his baseball career with a .000/.170/.000 batting line, scoring three times and driving in one with a stolen base in two attempts. His wRC+ of -24 was only slightly better than what you would expect from, say, a toaster to which you affixed a pair of googly eyes and stuck a Louisville Slugger in one of its slots. In 13 games and 39 at-bats he struck out 37 times, just five times fewer than ultimate one-tool Phillies prospect Willians Astudillo has in 1482 PAs over his five year career.
Ted Williams once said, "I think without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball." It seems likely that Thompson would agree with the Splendid Splinter, who struck out just 27 times in his legendary 1941 season when he became the last man to hit better than .400. Inevitably at some point this season, while you’re sitting in the bleachers watching your local nine, you’ll hear some drunken bozo loudly proclaim, "I could hit better than this guy!" when the utility infielder whiffs on a 3-2 slider.
Buddy, no you couldn’t.