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Nightengale: For Pham, Void Left by Imprisoned Father One Hurdle in Career Full of Them

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St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham. Photo: Chris Lee, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It’s Father’s Day this weekend, a time when hundreds of Major League Baseball players will be calling their fathers, expressing their gratitude and telling them how much they love them.

It will be nothing more than another day on the calendar for St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham. The only significance on this day is that the Cardinals will be playing an interleague game at Camden Yards against the Baltimore Orioles.

“It’s really of no importance for me,” Pham says. “Maybe one day if I become a father, it will. But not now. Truthfully, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Pham has a biological father. He just doesn’t know him.

They met twice.

Each time he was behind bars.

“He was dealing drugs, that’s all I know,” Pham tells USA TODAY Sports. “He’s in jail to this day.”

Pham visited his father for the first time when he was 4 years old and the second time when he was 12. His grandmother drove him and his twin sister each time. That was the extent of their communication.

“He had a long sentence, but he got out once and then went right back in for selling drugs again,” Pham says. “He tried to keep in touch after that, but I didn’t want anything to do with him. When he messed up the second time, I was just like, ‘You know, there’s no need for a relationship.’ ”

Pham was told his father, African American and Vietnamese, was an exceptional athlete in high school in Las Vegas. He was supposed to play college football. Drugs ruined those dreams and tore apart a family in its infancy. Pham and his twin sister Brittney were born, he says, when his father was in prison.

“There’s no need for anyone to feel sorry for me or anything like that,” Pham says. “If anything, I felt like this kind of helped me. It made me stronger, made me tougher.”

Pham can count on one hand how many times his mother, who worked several jobs as a casino waitress and in a bakery to make ends meet, attended any of his games throughout his life. He was usually the best athlete among his friends, playing football, basketball and baseball, but while the other kids had at least one parent cheering them, his support came from the parents of neighbors and teammates.

“There were guys whose dads would take them to all of the practices and games, and their dads would be there to give them a pat on the back and say, ‘It’s going be OK.’ I didn’t have any of that,” Pham said.

“I didn’t have anyone sugarcoating anything or babying me. All I had was myself, and that was fine by me. I had all of the motivation I needed.”

Pham, 29, says he’ll forever be indebted to Al Ramirez and his son Alvino for taking care of him as if he were family since Alvino and Pham became friends when they were 9. Ramirez drove him to games and tournaments, and Pham even lived with them for three years in the offseason while he was in the minors.

“I just tried to be that father figure for him,” Al Ramirez said. “We just tried to make the best of things, the situation he was in. He didn’t really talk about his dad too much. He let baseball be his oasis.”

Pham became a star, hitting .581 with 10 homers, 56 RBI and 28 stolen bases with a 4.5 grade-point average at Durango High School in Las Vegas. He planned to go to college and had a baseball/academic scholarship to Cal State Fullerton, but his family needed money. He signed a $325,000 contract with the Cardinals as a 16th-round pick in 2006, ending his summers working at a car wash and a construction company.

He has spent the last 11 years of his professional baseball life living by the motto inked on his left biceps: “Believe in Yourself.”

Pham has overcome a litany of injuries and a degenerative eye condition (keratoconus) that has made him legally blind in his left eye.

“I’ve gone through so much adversity,” Pham says, “but even after everything I went through, I never thought about quitting. Until this year. Hardly anyone knows this, but truthfully, I almost did. I had enough being back in the minors. I told two of my closest friends that I was done. I was ready to walk away from the game.”

Pham, who had spent parts of the last four seasons at Class AAA Memphis and asked for his release in 2014 to join another team when he was a fifth outfielder, simply had had enough. He thought he should have made the Cardinals’ opening-day roster, and when he still was in the minors the first month of the season, his frustration grew.

“There’s really not much you can do as a player,” Pham says. “You can’t really ask for a trade because you don’t want to piss them off. They had all of the leverage. I just felt I had done enough at the major league level to have a big-league job.

“My biggest fear was being down in the minors and, even if I was dominating, knowing there was nothing for me to gain.”

Pham, who signed a split contract paying him $231,107 in the minors and $547,900 in the big leagues, didn’t know what was next in life. Yet after spending most of the last two seasons in the big leagues with the Cardinals, he couldn’t stand the thought of being stuck in the minors for much longer.

“He called me one night,” says Alvino Ramirez, Pham’s childhood friend from Las Vegas. “Tommy told me, ‘I don’t think I want to play anymore.’

“I told him, ‘I’m not going to let you quit. You worked too hard for this. You overcame all of the injuries, and struggles and setbacks. You’ve got to find a way, keep fighting, you’ll get through this.’ ”

Well, 10 days later, Cardinals outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Dexter Fowler were injured in back-to-back innings. Pham was called up May 5, and in his first series against the Atlanta Braves, he had six hits and three homers. In May, he led the Cardinals with a .320 batting average and had five homers and 14 RBI.

It’s up to Pham to make the most of his opportunity until Randal Grichuk returns from a stint remaking his swing in the minor leagues. Pham is batting .287 with a .391 on-base percentage and a .461 slugging percentage. He has a team-high six stolen bases but only 10 extra-base hits. He ordered new contact lenses this week, hoping that will make a difference in his production. He wants to hit 20 homers, steal 20 bases and produce a .900 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and he thinks it’s possible, as long as he’s given the chance.

“I believe in myself. I believe in my ability, just because I’m strong mentally,” Pham says. “I see a lot of guys in this game that mentally are weak. They crack. That’s not me.”

Pham, who regularly speaks to Boys & Girls Clubs and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs in the St. Louis and Memphis areas and puts on free baseball clinics for kids in Las Vegas, tries to teach them the same values that made him a baseball survivor.

“I have such high expectations that I do feel like I can achieve more than I’ve shown in this game,” Pham says. “But at the end of the day, the one thing I can say is that I truly earned everything I received in this game.

“Some guys are more privileged than other guys in this industry. And sometimes it comes at the expense of winning. No matter what happens to me, I know I left everything out there. I’m proud of that. And people don’t realize how refreshing it is to actually say that.”

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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