Nostalgia colors the air. The mind races back a quarter century or so. For the first time in what seems that long, I am interviewing a power hitter who doesn’t sport massive forearms and the jawbone of a cave man.
This lean young man’s name is Tony Thompson. Nothing about him screams Paul Bunyan. Everything about this 6-foot-4, 220-pound native of Reno, Nev., screams major-league-baseball prospect.
To hear Thompson talk is to realize he doesn’t think he has it licked, even after a sophomore season in which he won the Big 12 Triple Crown playing for Ritch Price’s Kansas University baseball team. He produced a .389 batting average, 21 home runs and 82 RBIs.
If baseball cops can stay ahead of crooks, Thompson one day might play in a juice-free era, something Mark McGwire said he wishes he could have done, words that rang so much more true than many of his others.
Thompson’s lucky he didn’t have to play in an era that wears a black eye that all the makeup in New Jersey couldn’t mask.
“I don’t think I ever would have done it in the first place,” Thompson said of juicing. “I think steroids didn’t help the game at all. All those numbers people put up were kind of ridiculous. I don’t think it was all because of steroids, but I would have liked to see what they would have been able to do without it. For guys like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, maybe the numbers would have been pretty close.”
Quite a bit smaller, very likely, yet much louder historically.
No asterisk accompanies Thompson’s numbers, but duplicating them will require serious improvement. He’s a marked man.
“Last year, we’re at Oklahoma, two outs, runners on second and third,” Price recalled. “They pitch to him, and he hits a three-run homer. He comes up later in the game, we’re down three and there are two outs, and he hits a grand slam. One of the conversations I had with him is, ‘This year, runners on second and third and two outs, you’re not going to get a pitch to hit. Everything’s going to be off the plate. You’re going to have to be Barry Bonds. You’re going to have to be disciplined enough to take your walks, and the guys behind you are going to have to protect you.’”
Thompson serves as proof that Price delivers on the words he utters during recruiting home visits.
“The way I’ve been able to attract players like him is I recruit the best prospect I can get, and then I’m not afraid to play him as a freshman,” Price said. “If you look in our league, you’ll see all the top 20 recruiting classes, and yet you’ll play Texas, and one freshman will play; Oklahoma State, and one freshman will play. We’re not afraid to go through the growing pains associated with a player playing that early in his career.”
Said Thompson: “That was huge for me because I really wanted to play right off the bat, and I got to. And the Big 12 was a big sell, too, because I’d get to play against the best competition.”
In baseball, more than most sports, sitting stunts development. Playing against weak competition constructs a low ceiling. Playing regularly from the start against elite pitching has enabled Thompson’s natural growth into a superstar.