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Rays' Thompson takes long road back to majors

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 02:49 PM

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ST. PETERSBURG -

Clay Thompson wanted to visit the touch tank in center field, leave his sweet seat in the Tampa Bay Rays family section at Tropicana Field, turn his back on Thursday's game and pet a cownose ray.

No, his mother, Teresa said. They were not leaving the seats, not with Clay's dad, Rich, holding a bat and walking to the plate. Not after Rich Thompson spent forever in the minor leagues waiting for another at-bat in the big leagues.

Not after fate stepped in Wednesday and reunited the family in their Westchase home with a trade that sent Thompson from the Phillies' Triple-A team in Allentown, Pa., straight to the Rays clubhouse at the Trop and back to the majors.

And certainly not after Teresa hustled her daughter, Charlotte, to her preschool graduation that afternoon and then hustled the family to the Trop in time to catch her husband's first big league at-bat since 2004. And this after Teresa told her friends the only way she would miss Charlotte's graduation was if Rich Thompson were to get his first major league start that day.

On Thursday against the division rival Boston Red Sox, 33-year-old Rich Thompson made his first major league start. He got his first big league hit, drove in his first big league run. He stole two bases. He played left field.

"It was great," Rich said.

Teresa described it as "overwhelming."

"And wonderful," she added.

Thompson was the oldest position player to make his first major league start since 36-year-old Minnie Mendoza did it for the Twins in 1970. He is the seventh player this century to return to the majors after a gap of at least eight seasons.

It had been 8 years, 24 days since his last big league game when Thompson entered as a pinch-runner during the eighth inning Wednesday night.

His first big league stint happened in 2004 with the Royals. It lasted six games. He batted once and grounded into a double play.

The at-bat happened in Cleveland in a game the Royals were winning 15-5. Indians catcher Tim Laker, a former Devil Ray, was pitching. Thompson said he got a good pitch to hit and chopped it up the middle. Future Hall of Fame shortstop Omar Vizquel grabbed it, stepped on second and threw Thompson out at first.

Thompson didn't think much of it at the time. He expected the big league ride to continue, but soon he was back in Triple A and even Double A a few times, seeing the country through the windows of a Greyhound bus.

He and Teresa started a family – Clay 7, Charlotte 5, and William, 23 months. They moved to Tampa to establish some roots.

Thompson found work during the offseasons. He served as a caddy, worked for a mortgage banker, gave hitting lessons, went back to school and finished his degree in accounting. He's now working toward his master's.

And he continued to dream.

"It made it easier going to sleep knowing I had been (to the major leagues), but at the same time, it made you get up every morning trying to get back," he said. "If all I got was one at-bat it was more than a lot of people, but it certainly would be nice to have a second go at it."

The years passed before Thompson received the second go at it. He played 915 more minor league games.

Rays manager Joe Maddon, who spent 19 years in the minor leagues as a player, coach, instructor and manager before getting called up to the Angels as a coach, said he can appreciate what Thompson has endured.

"I always tell my kids sometimes the struggle is the most fun, though you don't want to struggle that long," Maddon said. "But I know that he's learned his lessons. I know that he appreciates it."

Thompson is a Ray because the team needed a backup outfielder who can play center field. Injuries to Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer forced them to search outside the organization. Thompson's speed – 442 stolen bases across 13 minor league seasons – and his ability to play all three outfield spots fits their profile.

"I love playing the game," Thompson said. "I was able to support my family doing it, and I always felt like I was good enough to get back to the big leagues. Now, I'm here."

Thompson was hoping to reach the majors this season, but he figured it would be with the Phillies. This was his fifth season with their Triple-A affiliate, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He was one of the team's more popular players. He had his own bobblehead night earlier this season.

"He was so loved up there," Teresa said, "We flew up for that, because I thought that might be the only big thing that happens to him."

Her husband's dreams are her dreams. His struggles, her struggles.

There were times when Thompson wondered if he should move on, when he questioned the logic of someone in their 30s still looking for that rookie season. They decided Thompson would play until he was no longer offered a job.

"And jobs are hard to come by," Teresa said, "even in Triple A. And at his age, teams weren't banging down the door to sign him."

She would tell Clay that his daddy played in the big leagues.

"He'd say, 'Yeah, I know.' But I didn't think he really knew," Teresa said.

Clay knows now. Wearing a Matt Moore T-shirt, he watched Moore pitch Thursday and his daddy play left field and get a hit. He even heard some fans boo his dad after Thompson struck out in his first at-bat.

"They're saying mean stuff about Dad," he told Teresa.

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

But the mean stuff turned to cheers when Thompson's fourth-inning single trimmed the Red Sox lead to 3-2 and the cheers grew louder for a few seconds in the seventh when Thompson sent the center fielder back to the wall to catch his long drive.

Thompson was interviewed on the MLB Network on Friday afternoon. His name was once again on the lineup card for Friday night's game.

"I'm so happy for him," Teresa said. "For me it's just a nervous excitement. He's worked so hard for so long. I just want him to play well. The moment is so sweet, but it can turn bittersweet really quick. I want him to have success for however long it lasts."


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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