Shaq Thompson’s historically futile pro baseball career concluded with a round of high-fives in the dugout.
A prized high school football recruit bound for the University of Washington, Thompson took one last swing that managed to make authentic contact. And though the fast-falling liner was grabbed with a shoestring catch, Thompson had achieved a breakthrough: hitting a ball hard enough to travel beyond the infield, a feat his teammates celebrated with the glee of preschoolers released for recess.
Thompson is a superior athlete — the recipient of the 2014 Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player, the linebacker/safety/running back figures to be a top-half-of-the-first-round draft choice — whose 2012 inability to hit in low Single-A drew national attention.
He went 0 for 39, with 37 strikeouts.
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Baseball’s roots can be traced to the 1840’s, when statistics and records were not kept with a particular vigilance. It’s possible somebody besides Shaq Thompson has struck out out 37 times in 39 at-bats while possessing a professional contract.
It’s also possible — perhaps even likely — the swing-and-miss season Thompson spent in the Gulf Coast League was unprecedented.
And yet I hesitate to call Thompson’s crash-course baseball career a colossal failure. It was more like an inconclusive experiment borne of earnest intentions.
Boston Red Sox scouts were encouraged to look for physically gifted projects when they noticed Thompson’s uncommon combination of speed, size, quickness and strength as a high school football player in Sacramento.
That Thompson hadn’t swung a bat between the sixth grade and his senior year at Grant High School only added to the intrigue. The Red Sox drafted him in the 18th round, gave him a $40,000 signing bonus, and went to work on transitioning a hard-hitting football player into a hard-hitting outfielder whose skills were raw, but whose makeup and desire were off the charts.
A baseball position player ideally excels at five skills, the “five tools” of running, fielding, throwing, hitting, and hitting with power. Thompson was the fastest man on the field and had a strong throwing arm, and worked hard at mastering the deceptively difficult task of tracking fly balls in the outfield.
As for hitting, and hitting with power? It was going to take some time, lots of time — a luxury Thompson didn’t have during the abbreviated summer preceding his first football training camp with the Huskies.
The Red Sox deserve credit for thinking out of the box. The talent search in baseball is an exercise that spans the globe, from Australia to Asia to South America, where scouts are combing Colombia in hopes it’ll produce the haul of prospects Venezuela annually delivers. Obscured in the frenzy to acquire international players is the untapped talent pool available in such communities as Sacramento.
The notion that inner-city kids are turned off by baseball because of its dearth of action is an insipid stereotype. Inner-city kids are turned off by baseball because they’ve never enjoyed it as an unsupervised recreation — the only sandlots left, it seems, are in Latin America — and participation on an organized level requires access to ball fields that aren’t there and privileges (equipment, uniforms, umpires) that aren’t cheap.
The 2014 Chicago-area team that advanced to the Little League World Series finals as the U.S. champions — only to have their crown stripped six months later because Little League officials capitulated to jealous rival coaches — underscored baseball’s potential to reconnect with inner-city kids.
Hitting a waist-high baseball released from a batting cage machine, at 65 mph, can be difficult for a coordinated athlete unfamiliar with the timing necessary to produce a smooth, compact swing. Hitting a 90 mph fastball proved all but impossible for Thompson, perhaps the best athlete ever to suit up for the Huskies.
But he gave it a try, he persevered, and on the last official swing of his life, Thompson did something the Mighty Casey couldn’t when his Mudville Nine team counted on him.
Baseball isn’t for everybody, yet it’s for anybody. The tent is wide, and while top prospects from around the world are filling it, unpolished prospects from the U.S. shouldn’t be overlooked.
There’s another Shaq Thompson out there. The first one went 0 for 39, with 37 strikeouts, and returned to the dugout for a high-five reception no baseball player has deserved more.