Remembering 2014: “COOLanta”
The off-season is upon us, but we have plenty of content to keep you occupied here at BlogToBlogChamps. Each Monday, we’ll publish a feature from the 2014 York Revolutionary Times, the official game day magazine of the York Revolution, for you to re-enjoy, or read for the first time in case you missed it at the ballpark. This week, we re-visit 2012 York Revolution pitcher Ian Thomas making his Major League debut this past season for the Atlanta Braves. Paul Braverman and Darrell Henry caught up with him in Philadelphia in April.
By Paul Braverman
“I liked baseball but it wasn’t my life. I wanted to go to the beach. I wanted to surf.”
Forgive former York Revolution relief pitcher Ian Thomas if that isn’t a quote typical of a player just two weeks into his rookie season in the Major Leagues. But Ian Thomas is hardly your typical big league ballplayer.
As Darrell Henry and I arrived at the visiting dugout during batting practice before the Atlanta Braves game at Philadelphia on April 14, the laid back Thomas happily greeted us on his way off the field after throwing. “Hey guys, do either of you need any water or anything?”
In hindsight, I wish we’d have taken the offer; after all, how many media hangers-on ever get beverage service from a player they came to cover in an MLB dugout?
Those two standout quotes provide a brief window into how Thomas has completed his meteoric rise in just five years: From undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University, to York, to making the Atlanta Braves opening day roster by completely skipping Triple-A as a relative longshot and a non-roster invitee in spring training. Not putting too much pressure on yourself and kindness can go a long way.
It’s difficult to get Thomas to talk himself up. He made about as grand a debut as a bullpen lefty can; making his Major League debut on opening day in Milwaukee where he got Lyle Overbay to ground out as the first big league batter he faced, before striking out Bryce Harper swinging on a 93-mile-an-hour fastball in his second big league outing in Washington. To himself, Thomas had to be ecstatic about whiffing one of the game’s top phenoms for his first Major League strikeout, but ask him publicly and you’d think you’re talking to Harper’s agent.
“Bryce, he’s a great hitter, a great player and that’s why he was called up at what, 19? I mean, the kid’s a stud. We’re all human, we’re all imperfect, we all make mistakes. But at this level, those guys get paid to hit my mistakes,” said Thomas.
Thomas offering to get us water from the clubhouse was just the first of a couple surprises the Virginia Beach native offered up.
“I had never been to a Major League game until I pitched in my first one in Milwaukee,” said the 6’4” southpaw. “I was never like ‘mommy, daddy’ let’s go!…when I was a kid,’” right before he made the surfing comment. “So, I guess it’s pretty cool that I played in my first in-person big league game,” said Thomas with a shrug.
The first phone call to family is always a fun story when a player is just called up to the big leagues for the first time, and when Thomas tells his story, you see that perhaps the easy-going attitude he displays runs in the family.
“I called my sister, I pretty much have called her first every time. I called her when I was in York in 2012 when I was signed by the Braves. She wasn’t like ‘oh my gosh yay!’ – she was like ‘awww good.’ And I was like…’uh, I’m a big league baseball player now, you know. I finally reached my dream.”
One thing you should never do is mistake Thomas’s modesty and easy demeanor as a lack of motivation, or an indication he is taking this opportunity for granted. After all, with the odds as long as they are for any high school or college player to reach the Majors, that was exponentially true for Thomas as a late bloomer coming out of school.
“It’s one thing to reach your dream,” he says, “it’s another to stay working for it after it’s happened.”
When talking about his time with the York Revolution, Thomas isn’t shy about acknowledging how his time here, albeit brief (just seven appearances, 9.1 innings, 12 strikeouts and just a 0.96 ERA to begin 2012), was instrumental in reaching that dream, which began north of the border with the Winnipeg Goldeyes out of college. Thomas made his professional debut there from 2009 through 2011 after leaving VCU.
“Through those years, I was putting up really good numbers, but wasn’t getting signed by any Major League Clubs. I felt like I should’ve been. When I saw other guys get signed, I’m comparing myself, my numbers, and they were all matching up so I didn’t understand why,” remembered Thomas.
Former Revolution third baseman Vince Harrison, who had played with Thomas in Winnipeg before coming to York, made introductions with Thomas and then Revolution Manager Andy Etchebarren prior to the 2012 season hoping to ease his frustration, a move that would prove to be a launching pad for Thomas all the way to the bigs.
“Etch called me in January of 2012 and wanted to bring me on. I was elated because at that time no one had signed me yet. I had just gotten back from a Tampa Bay (Rays) workout and they passed on me and I was just down about it.”
Thomas’s story is a crucial one as the Atlantic League nears the end of its second decade, with the league positioning itself as a third Triple-A level circuit, and a league players will aspire to reach, rather than simply fall back on:
“I know how many guys came into the Atlantic League and then left the Atlantic League to go back and play big league ball. So I felt if I went there, I’d have a legit shot. Two weeks later as we’re into the season, Etch says ‘come here.’ You know, he’s smoking a cigarette and says ‘hey, the Braves want to sign ya, but I don’t like where they wanna put ya, in Low A…you wanna go?’”
“I was like, ‘Etch, I’ve been waiting for this call my entire life man, of course I’ll go.’ The rest is history. I just keep moving forward, I’m just worried about the game tonight, and that’s about it. I want to thank everyone for the support out in York for sure. It was a great time in my career and I had a lot of fun playing for you guys.”
Only worrying about “the game tonight,” allowed Thomas to prove Etchebarren right regarding where Thomas should’ve reported after York, as he made short work of the Braves minor league ladder. After finishing 2012 at Class A Rome with a 3.15 ERA in 26 games, he skipped A-Advanced and excelled at Double-A Mississippi in 2013, with a 2.76 ERA in 39 games including 13 starts. That effort earned him an invite to Major League spring training, where he pitched in 13 big league exhibition games and for the second time skipped an entire level of the minors, making Atlanta’s 25-man roster.
Thomas’s “aw shucks” persona about his first season as a Major Leaguer is nothing if not charming. However, the un-fazed attitude works for the rookie, helping him come off as much more professional than his 26 years would suggest amidst the Braves star-studded roster, despite all the congratulations and gaudy excess of the big league lifestyle. Case and point, as we parted ways and left the field, he asked:
“You guys get to watch the game from the press box? That’s cool!”
With the Braves then heading from Philadelphia to New York, it looks like the surfing will have to wait until the offseason.