33-Year-Old Kids: In Praise of Rich Thompson, Improbable Old-Rookie Speedster

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Generally, in these United States and this era, to be 33 is not to be old. Maybe you’re getting married, maybe you’ve been married for a while, maybe you’re single and happy about it or single and sad about it, or maybe you're still wearing a fedora because you think a fedora is something that actually looks good on a grown man, or whatever. (There may be a relationship between the latter two outcomes.) You’ve done some things and have some idea about how things are, except you’re 33, which means that there’s also a lot of life left, a goodly portion of it to be lived as a not-really-old person. In sports, though, where careers die somewhere around the time that non-athletes finally start behaving like grown-ups, age is multiplied in a less-extreme-than-dog-years way. For athletes, much more so than anyone else, 33 both seems and is much closer to the end than the beginning.

Rich Thompson is a 33-year-old professional athlete. In his MLB.com photo, his hat’s one-and-some-eights sizes too big, and a little off kilter. He looks really happy, in the way that a 10-year-old who just got his first fitted baseball hat would look really happy. There's another reason why he would and should look happy, and that is that Thompson is, at his comparatively-but-not-really-but-also-legitimately-in-its-way advanced age, a rookie outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays.

As Dennis Quaid launching baseballs at a partly-functional, roadside, speed-limit radar taught us, there are old rookies in baseball sometimes. Relatively old men playing their first games in the majors as relatively old men is something that happens occasionally, but which seldom passes without note because of its comparative rarity. This doesn't happen in the NBA or NFL, it's worth noting, which reflects less on baseball's relative easiness than it does the fact that the game calls for certain specialized skills—throwing a ball really hard/really weirdly or accurately swinging a piece of lumber at those weird/fast balls—that don’t necessarily wear down as quickly as a 40 time or a vertical. That the majority of a baseball game involves no one doing much of anything also makes it more conducive to breakthroughs from old-ish lifers than, say, football or hockey or basketball or soccer or anything that isn’t snooker or curling. None of which does much to diminish the warm, happy, and happily familiar feeling that comes with seeing Rich Thompson—or a Rich Thompson—in the bigs.

In 2004, a 25-year-old Thompson made his major-league debut over six games with the Royals, stealing one base and registering one at-bat, in which he hit into a double play against Tim Laker, a catcher who was pitching at the time. After a prompt demotion back to the minors, he stayed for a long time—like a modern-day, not-quite Moonlight Graham, as everyone who’s compelled to write about Rich Thompson has said—but making a decent salary and basically being the greatest Lehigh Valley Iron Pig there ever was. Then the Rays traded for him and gave him his second MLB debut last week. That’s all impressive and inspiring and remarkable and weird, but it’s still not the strangest thing about Rich Thompson.

Thompson stole two bases in his second game for the Rays. Being a 33-year-old rookie (he’s also the oldest American Leaguer to get his first major-league hit since 1970) is something, but doing it as a person whose predominant skill is running really fast between two bases is something that doesn’t happen. Throwing a knuckleball or having a knack for hitting submarining lefty relievers might be skills that persist until later in life, but running 90 feet and sliding headfirst into a bag doesn't seem like something that should. Rich Thompson has stolen over 440 bases in his baseball career, which is a pretty accomplished life of crime, but also something of an inversion of the usual beefed-out quad-A slugger type.

That speed is what made him into someone who could play near-major-league baseball for living, and it’s probably what he’ll need to keep doing if he’s to stay in the majors for any longer. The clock should move faster for an old (again, relatively) base-running specialist, but who knows. Speed is different, and there haven't been many old rookies like Rich Thompson. And, as his very improbable presence in the league shows, his is a special case. There’s no sure way to project a prospect’s future, especially when it’s already in the past.

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I liked this story, but I got a little hung up on the technical definition of "rookie." Why is Thompson a rookie in 2012 if he played six games for KC in 2004? It would seem like a player can have only one rookie season. Must the player begin the season on an MLB roster for it to count as his rookie year? (Is that even what happened here?) Does that mean that if a player got called up to play the second game of a season and played in 161 games that year, it still wouldn't count as his rookie year? (And what of a player who starts the season-opener in the bigs but gets sent down for the rest of the year? Or what if injury is the reason, rather than just being not good enough?) If it's none of these, and if 2004 still wasn't his rookie year, how can we be sure 2012 will be?