Catching up with Thames: KBO to coloring books

May 6th, 2020

The return of the Korea Baseball Organization this week brought back memories for . The Nationals first baseman played three seasons for the NC Dinos from 2014-16, where he made the most of his stint in international competition.

In 2015, Thames led the KBO in homers and posted its first 40-homer, 40-stolen base season en route to winning the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. By the time he returned to the Major Leagues with the Brewers in ‘17, Thames had earned two All-Star selections and compiled a .349 batting average.

Oh, and he managed to find time to compete in a televised singing contest. Talk about multi-tasking.

On Wednesday, Thames joined a video conference call from his home in Las Vegas to look back on his KBO days, share what he’s been up to during the delay and showcase a non-baseball talent.

Playing ball in Korea
The differences in style of play and culture helped Thames appreciate his three-year experience. One of his favorite parts of the game was the excitement that emanated from the cheering section.

“When you’re hitting, there’s always music, there’s always noise going on,” he said. “After a while, you get used to it and you kind of use the energy. It’s like, 'This is awesome.'”

Thames gleaned offensive discipline from the approach of the pitchers. He had spent 2013 in the Minor Leagues, and he hit 31 home runs his first season back in the Majors.

“There, guys throw 90, 91, 92 [mph],” he said. “But they would throw a lot of soft stuff to kind of get you off that, and then they would try to blow it past you with two strikes. And it worked. If you watch some of the games now, they throw a lot of forkball or splits with big curveballs. They nibble the zone, and they try to get you to chase. I learned how to really zone in on the pitch I wanted to hit, which is what you have to do in the big leagues.”

Thames dominated in the batter’s box, but there was moment at the plate he never quite got the hang of: the celebratory bat flip.

“For me, it’s cool to watch,” Thames said. “The pitchers, those are the guys that get all mad because you’ll see bats fly by them. But that’s part of the baseball culture. … I tried so hard to do it. I have a very low finish when I swing. So, if I finish low, I can’t just throw a bat up. … I had a routine -- I had 10 swings a day in the cage where I’d hit the ball and try to bat flip. It never took over in the game.”

While Thames was a power hitter there, he enjoyed that it didn’t rule the game in the KBO.

“It’s all homers now and driving the ball,” he said. “Over there, it’s bunts and slapping. It’s more of like small ball. It’s more of an old-style kind of baseball, but it plays into their style. It’s kind of cool to watch that.”

Staying ready for the Nationals
Fast-forward to present day, wherein Thames has been working out in his garage to prepare for baseball. He has been stretching and readying his shoulders and hips without adding too much muscle to his already-towering frame.

“I’m still hitting off a tee,” Thames said. “You know all the rules, we’re not trying to get close with anybody. There’s been no BP … but [I am] hitting off a tee so I don’t hurt anything when I show up.”

Thames did run into a familiar face a few weeks back while grocery shopping -- Las Vegas native Bryce Harper.

“I was getting some meat for steaks,” he said. “I walked by, I saw him, I saw the bun, the hair. … We gave little elbow dab.”

Not much of a TV or movie watcher, Thames has been occupying his downtime with an occasional video game. He’s also diving into books, as in reading and coloring them.

“I’d done it years ago,” Thames said of coloring. “All of sudden, it was like I’d lose three hours. … It’s nothing special. It’s not like me drawing this stuff. It’s something to pass the time, and I feel like art, it’s always good. But it’s not me drawing. If it was me drawing, it’d be stick figures. I don’t want someone to find this notebook and be like, ‘Oh, this guy is terrible.’ I’ll stick to coloring books.”