Six years sober, Thompson savors his second chance

White Sox Class A skipper has rebounded from a long, painful battle with addiction

March 23rd, 2014

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Tommy Thompson never has bad days anymore.

If a pitcher on his Class A Winston-Salem team walks four straight batters in an inning, it's not a problem for the Dash's manager. If his team surrenders a three-run lead with two outs in the ninth, it's just a blip on the radar that is life.

Why so optimistic? He's glad to be alive, maybe even lucky.

Thompson is an alcohol addict, something he announces with the same pride as if he were talking about being part of the White Sox organization for the past five years. It took him a while to get to that open level of admittance, but he fully understands the weight of his six consecutive years of sobriety next month.

"The greatest thing I have today is a gift of life," Thompson told during a candid interview at the White Sox Spring Training complex at Camelback Ranch. "I took some things for granted. I got comfortable with my job and with my life. Now I appreciate things a lot more, from just waking up in the morning to the breath of fresh air to sleeping in a bed.

"I experienced some things through my addiction and disease that I wouldn't want anybody to experience. I was close to death. Inside, I was dead. I had lost myself."

He also lost his family, his house and his job (his first stint with the White Sox). During his long battle with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine -- which Thompson referred to as "the big one for me" -- Thompson said his destructive behavior effectively held his family and friends hostage.

But Thompson, at age 57, is now in a position to sustain happiness and normalcy better than ever.

"I've known a lot of people that have had addiction issues in life. I think we all have," said White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams of his friend and co-worker once again. "I don't know anyone that has gone to Tommy's depth and has come back in such a -- I don't even have the words -- such a grand way and fashion."

"He provides a lot of energy and is probably one of our better instructors if not one of our best instructors," said White Sox director of player development Nick Capra. "We are fortunate that he cleaned up his act, and [we] have him back with us. Tommy is more than nuts. He takes that to the extreme, too. But it's in a beautiful way, and people really gravitate to him because of who he is."

"Numbing the pain"

Capra's relationship with Thompson goes back to their days at the University of Oklahoma, when Thompson's father passed away. Thompson tried to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol. Years later, when he was hit with three crises in a short period of time, he returned to that poor decision-making process. In 2003, Thompson's son, Michael, went to prison. Shortly thereafter he was divorced from his first wife, Mary Jo, and his mother passed away. It was simply too much to handle.

"We all have different personalities and obviously Tommy had an addictive personality," Capra said. "It just kind of mushroomed into more and different. There are so many pressures in life, and if you let them get to you, they can lead you on the wrong path. I think that's what happened to Tommy."

Two stints in rehab, provided by the White Sox, followed. He would be clean for a month, or a year, but then he'd let up.

"You have work that has to be done on a daily basis," Thompson said.

Eventually, those bad decisions became too much for the White Sox to overlook. He had been the organization's catching coordinator since 1992, and had a connection to the club dating to 1988. But after the 2005 season, Thompson was let go.

"Well, I had fired myself," Thompson said.

"That was a tough one. That might have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Williams said. "We tried everything. And at the end of the day, we couldn't put him in a position to be around kids with some of the issues he had. We stood in my office when I did it, and he said he understood. He was going to go out and seek more help. We stood in my office and we cried together."

At that point, Williams and many others who considered Thompson part of the White Sox family weren't sure if they were going to see him again.

"Coop [pitching coach Don Cooper] and I had conversations where we just, we worried about him every day. Every day," Williams said. "Buddy [Bell], you can throw him into that mix, and Jerry Reinsdorf on down.

"It can be said so much that it gets lost in translation sometimes, but we are a family. Some of us have been together so long we've seen each other's kids born, grown up and married and all kinds of stuff. We have gone through each other's personal issues."

"That ring meant a lot to me"

While living in New York in 2006, during what he called "the bottom of my bottom," Thompson needed money to simply survive. So Thompson took his '05 World Series ring to a pawn broker. He had a period of three months to buy back the ring, but he called two days too late. By contract, they had the right to keep it.

"One of the less proud moments of my life, because that ring meant a lot to me," Thompson said.

The ring was put on eBay, and to this day, Thompson has no idea of its whereabouts. When asked if the organization was hurt by Thompson's actions, Williams paused. Then, a simple "Yes."

"It's a memory and today I still ... I made amends with Kenny," Thompson said. "I still need to make amends. I tried to talk to Jerry one day, and he just said 'I'm proud you are back and proud you are doing good.' I need to sit down with him and apologize at a better man-to-man situation over that deal.

"My life was embarrassing, but that moment was embarrassing, too, for a man like Jerry, I think. He deserves that apology."

"Life is golden"

Thompson had gone to rehab for his family. Thompson had gone to rehab for the White Sox. When he finally went to rehab for himself, his life changed.

"I'm in the program of AA now," Thompson said. "My sobriety and my life with God are No. 1."

After that came family and baseball.

"And if that changes, I'm in trouble," he said. "Life has changed. Life is golden, and I'm very thankful to have that opportunity."

Thompson's offseason still consists of visits to a sober house in Delray Beach, Fla., where he put himself in 2009. There are meetings from "sun up to sun down," Thompson said, and they have a great support group.

During Spring Training, Thompson has meetings as well. He speaks at area rehab facilities.

"Instead of going to a bar, I go speak or I go to a meeting, and that's my therapy," Thompson said. "That's my life. I'm good with that."

"A great teaching model"

Stops with the Orioles as manager of Class A Frederick in 2007-08 and with the Windy City Thunderbolts of the Independent Frontier League in '09 preceded Thompson's return to the White Sox in 2010 as a roving coaching assistant. With all the history, the White Sox had to make sure Thompson was clean before he came back.

"He was pretty strict on his program," said White Sox pregame instructor Mike Kashirsky, who had been Thompson's bench coach with Windy City. "If there were ever times we went out, I went with him, and we just talked and did our thing. He was pretty strict on his program and stayed with it and never really had any trouble."

Williams admitted worrying about a relapse during Thompson's first year or two, but can't remember the last time he thought about such a possibility. Not with Thompson committed to his program and supported by his second wife, Lee Anne.

"To be hired by them is unbelievable," Thompson said. "It's a dream -- more of a dream come true this time than the first time."

Marcus Semien played under Thompson at Class A Kannapolis in 2011 and for a '12 Winston-Salem team that finished 87-51.

"Funniest manager I've ever played for," Semien said. "There's a reason we won so many games down there -- because we had fun, but he also held us accountable when we weren't doing things right.

"He's the manager that I came up with in 2011 when I got drafted, so he introduced me to pro ball and taught me how to be a pro. I learned a lot from him, and I had a lot to learn coming from college. I'm still learning now. He taught me a lot about how to play the game right, how to be a good teammate and also how to win."

His story of hardship, survival and eventual triumph is shared yearly by Thompson with his players. Semien and pitcher Jake Petricka, who also played in 2011 and '12 for Thompson, admire the honesty and candor that Thompson employs in using his tale as a great teaching model.

While bringing Thompson back had its risks, Williams and the White Sox understood the potential upside.

"What a tremendous opportunity, if any of our kids are even thinking about going down that path, or any drug path ... who better to stand up and counsel and tell the story of what it can do than this particular guy," Williams said. "He can do it in a way that is from the heart and soul.

"He can laugh about it now. He can make others laugh about it, so it's therapeutic for him. At the same time, it's beneficial and educational for the kids that come through. They look at him now and say, 'Wow, not only did he fall, but he got back up, and he is able to help others.'"

Life is never without hardship, and Thompson has since experienced tough times similar to the ones that fueled his alcohol and drug addiction in the first place. There have been losses and firings, and his relationship with his son, who is no longer incarcerated, still isn't the best. But Thompson knows how to deal with it now.

Days can be tough. They are never bad.

"No matter how bad the day is, it's not bad because I haven't used," Thompson said. "I still make bad decisions, don't get me wrong. But they are all my decisions, and I take pride in what I do.

"I lost it all. I lost everything: My house, my wife, my family, my job, me. But I got it back. Not everybody gets it back. So I mean -- a bad day for me?

"I haven't had one in six years."