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Nightengale: Eric Thames’ Amazing MLB Comeback Story

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Eric Thames. Photo: Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Eric Thames walks into the loud Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse after his historical evening, starts to strip off his uniform, when a stranger approaches him at his locker.

It was a representative from Major League Baseball’s drug-testing program.

They didn’t want his bat, the one he used to tie a franchise record by homering in his fifth consecutive game.

Only his urine.

“Random, right?’’ Thames says, laughing. “Guess it comes with the territory, right?’’

Ah, nothing like the price of splendid success that has captivated baseball.

When you’re exiled to Korea in 2013, spending the last three years playing for the Korea Baseball Organization, you’re not supposed to return to the globe’s premier baseball circuit and treat it like PlayStation.

And two weeks into the season, Thames is the greatest story in baseball.

He hasn’t seen big-league pitching since 2012, but is hitting .405 with a major-league leading seven home runs and 12 RBI to go along with a staggering .1.000 slugging percentage and 1.479 on-base plus slugging percentage. He now has more homers himself than the Boston Red Sox, two fewer than the Chicago Cubs.

“It’s as good as I’ve ever seen anybody be at baseball for a two-week period,’’ says teammate Ryan Braun.  “It’s been incredible.

“What a cool story, man, a story of perseverance. It’s a story that should give anybody hope that initially didn’t make it, and then comes back around full circle.’’

Welcome to the world of Thames, a 30-year-old first baseman bubbling with charisma, a voracious reader who will tell you about the power of Zen one minute, reading everything from Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, to updates on Ric Flair and the world of WWE the next, to being canonized in a country he adored, but one that also made him uncomfortable for the way he was revered.

The man that Major League Baseball forgot while toiling on the other side of the earth, has now returned from Changwon, Korea, leaving baseball executives scrambling to figure how they missed on him.

“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?’’ says Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Alex Anthopoulos, the first executive to give up on Thames five years ago while general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. “When we had him, you saw the raw power, the great swing and the work ethic. He was very motivated. But you just didn’t know if he could ever put it together offensively.

“Clearly, he’s made adjustments. You’ve got to give a ton of credit to the Brewers.’’

Thames, who bounced from the Blue Jays to the Seattle Mariners to the Baltimore Orioles to the Houston Astros before asking for his release after the 2013 season to play for the NC Dinos, put up cartoon numbers in the Korean Baseball Organization.

Thames hit .348 with 124 homers and 379 RBI in three years, and, at 6 feet and 210 pounds, became Korea’s version of Barry Bonds in 2015 by hitting 47 homers with 140 RBI, stealing 40 bases, winning a Gold Glove and MVP honors.

“I thought the coolest thing in the world was getting more walks than strikeouts,’’ says Thames, the first 40-40 player in Korean baseball history. “But I tell you, getting on base so much, and stealing all of those bases, I was exhausted.’’

He was nicknamed “God” by the Korean baseball fans, and was unable to even leave his apartment without admirers running toward him for pictures and his autograph.

That level of fame may not arrive in the USA. Still, Thames, sitting in front of his locker Monday before his first game at Wrigley Field, has trouble grasping what has happened to his life.

Four years ago, he jumped at the chance to play every day and also make $750,000 in Korea, which turned into a three-year stint, earning a total of $3.75 million.

He’s bounced back to the circuit that had no use for him, this time with a guaranteed payday in the form of a three-year, $16 million contract from the Brewers, a commitment that still suggests some skepticism this career renaissance is real.

“I figured my days in MLB were over,’’ says Thames. “When the season ended, I thought, ‘OK, MLB teams don’t want me, let me go to Japan. Then, my agent (Adam Karon) called me and told me that Milwaukee was interested. I’m like, on a major-league contract? I think everybody in the world was surprised they were willing to give me that kind of money. I’m still shocked myself.

“I came to Milwaukee before I signed, checked it out, and after an hour I knew it was where I wanted to be. I love the Midwest. I love the hospitality of people. And Milwaukee has great beer.

“I love beer.’’

His first two weeks back in the bigs suggests his new fans will always keep a frosty mug at hand for him.

In his Wrigley debut on Monday night, he lined a double to right field on the second pitch he saw off Cubs starter John Lackey. In the next at-bat, Lackey throws him every pitch in his arsenal. Thames fouled off four consecutive pitches – an 85-mph cutter, a 92-mph fastball, a 79-mph curveball, an 82-mph changeup –  and on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, homers into a stiff wind to the opposite field, bouncing over the left-field basket on an 82-mph cutter.

“You just don’t see that,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon marveled. “That’s really powerful stuff.’’

And for an encore, Maddon brings in lefty Mike Montgomery, but even after falling behind 0-and-2, Thames works the count to 3-and-2 and lines a single to right field in an 88-mph cutter. He now has three in six at-bats with two homers off lefties this year, dismissing any notion that Thames should platoon at first base.

“Right now, he’s definitely scary every time he swings the bat,’’ says Maddon, whose team faced him while he managed the Tampa Bay Rays. “Give it to him, man. He really has made himself into a more dangerous-looking hitter. He’s going to have a really good season.

“That swing is very lethal.’’

It’s a hack motivated by survival in Korea, Thames says. He was a free swinger when he left the USA, hacking at 33% of breaking pitches outside the strike zone, according to Inside Edge. If it was within 3 feet of the batter’s box, Thames joked, he was swinging.

In Korea, he learned discipline. The Korean pitchers routinely throw no harder than 88 to 91 mph, but will make your head spin with an array of split-fingered pitches and breaking balls. If you don’t adjust, your next job may be selling cheeseburgers.

“I had to really bear down in the strike zone and learn how to have plate discipline,’’ Thames says. “I would have to carry that here because they throw harder, and the strike zone is bigger.’’

Could he possibly have learned that discipline by maturing and staying in the United States?

“You know how life is under certain circumstances,’’ Thames says, “kind of like the butterfly effect. I feel like if I stayed here, I probably would have gone on the same path that I was on. I was the kind of player that I put too much pressure on myself, tried to do too much. I was too much into my own head.

“When I went over there, I started to read a lot more, study inner-peace, meditate, really embrace the mental toughness training. I could focus on the process, and don’t worry about the results.’’

The Way of Baseball, a book written by Shawn Green, the former Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers slugger, provided perspective too, Thames says. He learned to find peace no matter the results.

The change certainly caught the attention of the Brewers and general manager David Stearns. Stearns was the Astros’ assistant GM when they claimed Thames off waivers in 2013, only to grant his release two months later.

The Brewers never sent a scout to watch Thames in Korea, but constantly kept close tabs watching video, even trying to sign him after the 2015 season before discovering he had another year left on his contract with the Dinos.

“We always kept him on our radar,’’ Stearns says. “We had a good feel with his approach, his swing adjustments, his consistent strike zone discipline, and combined with his performance, he made us comfortable to make the acquisition.

“One of the benefits of going to Korea was that he saw a ton off off-speed breaking stuff, a ton of junk, and he was able to lay off a lot of those off-speed pitches that break out of the zone.

“He really transformed as a hitter.’’

Yet, as much as the Brewers believed in him and took the calculated risk of a three-year deal while the Oakland A’s and Rays were also in pursuit, no one in their right mind thought Thames would be doing this. Those feelings were only bolstered in spring training after Thames hit .263 with just one homer and five extra-base hits.

“I don’t think anyone in baseball is that good,’’ Stearns says, “to be able to see that type of production he put up in Korea, and think he would show the type of power he’s displayed the first couple of weeks here.’’

Thames quickly dispelled the theory that pitchers can throw fastballs past him after going three years without anyone lighting up the radar gun in Korea. Three of his seven homers have come off pitches registering at least 95-mph, including a 96-mph heater last weekend by Cincinnati Reds lefty Wandy Peralta.

“Velocity is just seeing it,’’ he says. “The body adapts. It’s funny, even seeing 88 to 91 [mph] in Korea, with split fingers, they throw so much off-speed that 91 looks like 101.

“I’m not saying it’s easy to hit 95-plus, but it gets easier.’’

Who knew Thames’ adjustment period on his return to the States would last just two months?

“I know there was so much uncertainty when he signed,’’ Braun says, “but when you look at the numbers he put up in Korea, those are challenging for any major leaguer to put up at the high school level, let alone any professional level. So you figured he made some spectacular adjustments.’’

Really, it was no different than the adjustment of living life in Korea, Thames says, where he leaned on Rosetta Stone to learn the language, then abandoned it in favor of merely reading, studying vocabulary, listening.

“Everybody joked with me like I spoke like a baby,’’ Thames said. “I couldn’t conjugate. I was like, “Eric’s tired. Eric hungry. Eric wants meat.’ But I got through it. I survived.’’

Now look at him, all grown up, and showing another part of the world he can play this game.

“I think a lot of people thought I’d struggle when I came back over here,’’ says Thames, who has hit safely in each of his 11 starts, tying a franchise record. “I think everyone’s kind of shocked right now. But I kind of feel just like I did in Korea.

“My confidence feels different. My swing feels different. My mind feels different. It’s nothing like I felt the first time I was in the big leagues.

“It’s crazy how life works out, isn’t it?

“Full circle.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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