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A long time coming for Thompson

Outfielder gets second big league at-bat, seven years after first

In his first Major League at-bat, an anxious Rich Thompson swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded into a double play. In his second Major League at-bat, a more patient Thompson took a called third strike.

He had to wait awhile between those two moments -- from April 20, 2004, with the Royals, until May 17, 2012, the day after the Rays traded for him to add some depth to their injury-depleted outfield.

"For the last few years it's become a reality that I'm not going to have a 10-year Major League career," said Thompson, who has played 1,388 games in the Minors. "Part of the allure of the big leagues is that you can earn the kind of money that'll set you up for the rest of your life.

"At some point, the pressure came off. It was all about baseball. That other stuff was no longer weighing on my mind. I had to make enough money playing to support my family, but it just became about the game and trying to get back."

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Tampa Bay acquired Thompson from the Phillies in a trade of Triple-A outfielders because, "Rich is a guy whose key attribute is his speed, and he uses it extremely well, both offensively and defensively."

After striking out in his second at-bat, Thompson got his first Major League hit, a single up the middle. At 33, he became the oldest American League position player since Minnie Mendoza of the 1970 Twins to get his first big league hit. It also was Thompson's first-ever RBI in the Majors. Before the inning was over, he also had back-to-back stolen bases.

Six games later, he scored his second career walk-off run, sprinting from first on B.J. Upton's drive down the left-field line.

"When I hit that ball, I thought it was going to be second and third ... and when I went into second base he was already around," Upton said. "It kind of blew my mind that there was no play at the plate."

Thompson was a sixth-round Draft choice by Toronto in 2000, beginning a 13-season odyssey of trades, free-agent signings and re-signings involving the Pirates, Padres, Royals, Pirates (again), D-backs, Red Sox and Phillies.

He spent all or part of 11 of those seasons (880 games) in Triple-A -- and six games with Kansas City. Along the way he got married, and he and his wife Teresa set up housekeeping in suburban Tampa, Fla. They have three children.

"For people in baseball the separation between 'big leagues' and 'not big leagues' is huge," Thompson said. "But as far as the talent level between Triple-A [and the Majors], people realize it's not that great. Some guys get breaks and some guys don't.

"There were plenty of times when a young guy coming up had to play, and I'd be stuck on the bench for April. But injuries, trades and stuff happens, and you just have to be ready. There's a lot of players that I came up with, and they're not playing any more -- and it's not because they don't want to."

Thompson has prepared for that time, taking accounting classes the past few years, passing the CPA exam and earning a degree in finance in order to be able to support his family, enabling Teresa to stay home with the kids.

"I consider myself fortunate," he said. "I think a lot of people think that since I played so long in the Minor Leagues I must have been so frustrated. But at the same time, I was so thankful. I've been this close to the big leagues, but I've also been way closer to being released or not having a job at all."

Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.