Ten years ago and some change, Marcus Thames was selected by the New York Yankees in the annual entry draft. In the 30th round. That means that some 800+ players were snapped off the board before Thames. Six years later, he finally made it to the Yankees. He got into seven games, had 13 AB. He hit a homerun.
Then in early June 2003, Thames was traded by the Yanks to the Texas Rangers, for Ruben Sierra. Seven years previous, the Yankees had traded Sierra to the Tigers for Cecil Fielder. Now they would welcome him back, for the 26 year-old whose future in New York was clearly cloudy.
With the Rangers, Thames made it into 30 games in 2003. He had 73 AB. He hit one more homerun, giving him two in 86 big league AB. At the end of the season, Thames was granted free agency. The Rangers didn't have any use for him, either.
In December 2003, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski decided to take a flyer on Thames. What else can you call it when you sign a 26 year-old who's been scuffling along in the minors for seven years, and who owns a major league BA of just over .200?
Fast forward to 2006.
"Mr. Ilitch says I haven't made any requests," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said last night after another thrilling, come-from-behind Tigers victory. "But I'm making one now. Put my brother Larry on the payroll. He's the one who told the team about Thames."
Larry Leyland lives in the Toledo area, and functioning as a de facto scout, he brought news of grandeur about a hard-hitting outfielder named Marcus Thames, who was playing for the Mud Hens. The news was flashy enough to prompt the Tigers to bring Thames to the big club in midseason 2004.
In 165 AB, Thames hit 10 homers. Then in spring training, 2005, he tore the cover off the ball. He was the hottest, most dangerous hitter wearing the Detroit colors in Florida. Then something happened that both greased then-manager Alan Trammell's skids and steeled Thames' resolve.
Thames, in a terribly unfair decision, was left off the Tigers' 25-man Opening Day roster. He was shuttled back to Toledo to make room for aging Bobby Higginson, who had once again muddled through a horrible spring.
Players were outraged. Fans were bamboozled. Dmitri Young said publicly that Marcus Thames had been "screwed." Some say that decision severely impaired Trammell's ability to secure the respect of his players.Thames watches another rocket being launched by his bat
But baseball is a funny game. Not long after Opening Day, outfielder and free agent signee Magglio Ordonez had a hernia go "pop." He would be lost for months. Thames was welcomed back to Detroit courtesy the Toledo Shuttle.
But even though he hit seven homers in 107 AB, Thames was eventually re-shuttled back to the Mud Hens. He had lost his edge, a certain je ne sais quoi, folks in the organization had said. Of course, they'll tell you anything when they send you back to the minors. That steeled him some more.
Today, Marcus Thames takes a regular turn in the Tigers lineup. He's playing so wonderfully, hitting the ball with such violence, that it's hard to keep him AND another prized young outfielder, Craig Monroe, in the lineup together. Maybe if the rules allowed for four outfielders, it would work. Because there's the healthy Ordonez -- returning to his past glories -- and the jitterbug centerfielder Curtis Granderson. Thank God for the DH in this instance, huh?
The Tigers won last night because Thames, batting third, smacked an 0-2 pitch off the Cardinals' closer Jason Isringhausen and deposited it far into the left centerfield seats -- a two-run homer that tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. It set up Placido Polanco's game-winning double in the tenth.
This morning, in 165 AB, Thames has 15 homers. A Ruthian-like ratio of one homer every 11 AB. He's hitting .309. His 15 homers have only produced 28 RBI, but that's sorta nitpicking. Thames is becoming indispensable -- a player that might even be considered "untouchable" when the trading deadline arrives late next month.
Not bad for a 29 year-old who didn't even become a regular big leaguer until, oh, eight or nine weeks ago.
Marcus Thames, for my money, is the most powerful righthanded hitter to play in Detroit since Cecil Fielder, who was the most powerful since Willie Horton before him. Thames doesn't just hit homerun balls, he destroys them. Surely they're unusable once his bat is done with them.
Jim Leyland is right, Mr. Ilitch. Pony up some dough for Larry. But save some for Marcus -- when his contract comes up for renewal. You're going to need it.