Appearance on the biggest stage in baseball ends a year of remarkable highs and lows for former Camel star pitcher
Ryan Thompson was Campbell University’s first All-American baseball player and the Big South Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2013. He’s a lock to make the roster as a reliever for the defending American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays in 2021.
The eight-year span makes for a great “How it Started” meme, but Thompson’s path to “How it’s Going” has been anything but easy — four years in the minors with few chances at landing on a Major League roster … Tommy John surgery … a career reboot with the Rays’ Single-A squad … a spring training invite in 2020 to throw batting practice … a season-threatening global pandemic.
But when the dust settled on an anything-but-usual 2020 season, Thompson had not only earned and cemented his spot in a Major League rotation, but he became a vital cog on a team that defied expectations to reach the World Series.
“This past year has been like nothing else. The craziest of highs, and the most crippling of lows,” says Thompson. “It was a year that essentially fulfilled my life’s quest, yet at the same time, dealt me some of the hardest battles I’ve ever endured.”
To fully appreciate how unexpected and appreciated his 2020 performance was, go back to 12 months prior to his World Series experience and you’ll find Thompson recovering from major arm surgery in his hometown of Turner, Oregon — substitute teaching and helping his mother teach a dance class to earn a little cash. By that time, Thompson — who was the first pick of the 23rd round for the Houston Astros right out of college — had spent four years in the minors with his hopes of “getting the call” dwindling. In 2017, he was losing speed on his fastball, and he had a six-game stretch where his ERA skyrocketed to 15.26.
The decline was attributed to ligament damage in his throwing arm, so Thompson elected the increasingly common Tommy John surgery, which takes at least a year to recover from.
His career at a crossroads, Thompson landed in the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system via the Rule 5 draft and received an invitation to spring training in 2020 — no expectations from the team, just another arm to throw batting practice against Tampa’s young up-and-coming lineup. The plan was for Thompson to start the year on Tampa’s Triple-A squad, the Durham Bulls … which would have been a nice return to North Carolina.
Nothing wrong with that, Thompson says. But he wanted more.
“I showed up to spring training ready to go,” he says. “I’d dreamt of being in the majors since I was a kid, and I put in the work. So I showed up, and I showed out. Simple as that. Suddenly, I have coaches telling me I have a chance to be a big part of this team at some point in the year.”
Just as Thompson was starting to turn heads and get noticed, the pandemic hit. COVID-19 shut down the entire sports world in mid March. Spring training came to a screeching halt, and months went by before a decision was made on when baseball would return.
“That was really hard for me,” Thompson recalls. “Even after all I’d been through, this had me dealing with some crazy anxiety for the first time in my life. I started having shortness of breath. My appetite was gone. I thought at first I’d come down with COVID, and it took me weeks to identify what was wrong with me. When baseball shut down, I was this close. When you’re so focused on something for so long, and it’s taken away from you, you almost lose your identity.”
But he kept at it. He found places like a medical training facility and the gymnasium at his old high school where he could work out during quarantine. He found like-minded minor leaguers to train with and get feedback from. As summer approached and teams began planning for a return, for the first time in a long time Thompson felt like he was a step ahead. When pre-season play resumed, Thompson’s fastball was up. His placement was on point.
And when the shortened season began in July, Thompson was a Tampa Bay Ray. He made his debut on July 24 against the Toronto Blue Jays, allowing just a hit and a walk and no runs in two innings. He earned his first win against the Yankees on Aug. 9. He finished the regular season with a 1-2 record and a save in 25 games. His team would finish first in the American League with a 40-20 record and go on to beat the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros in the playoffs before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series in six games.
As solid as Thompson was during the regular season, he was next-level great in the postseason with 10 strikeouts and a 1.93 ERA in nine-plus innings.
His World Series experience might not have been exactly what he imagined — limited fans in the stands, a neutral site stadium in Arlington, Texas, and strict COVID guidelines to adhere to — but Thompson says the experience was everything he had hoped it would be and more.
“As a kid, you watch the World Series on TV and you see these athletes who are the top 1% in the world at what they do,” he says. “You think they have something that nobody else has. That they’re privileged. Born with something different. There’s this separation from reality, and you grow up idolizing these people.
“But once you get there, you realize a lot of these guys are just like you. They put in the same work. Faced the same obstacles. And once you’re there, and you’re playing with and against these guys … there’s just this relief. I always thought when I got the call to the big leagues, I’d break down into tears. But when I got the call, it was just relief. I’d given up the past 10 years of my life for this. I was living in my mom’s basement at 28 for this. And now I made it, and I wasn’t going to lose it.”
A PROUD CAMEL
Ryan Thompson says he was “nobody” in the baseball world coming out of high school. He had to travel 2,924 miles to become a somebody.
“I thought I was pretty good in high school, but I went to a small school, and the competition wasn’t the best,” he says. “I had all these ideas that I’d be drafted right out of school, but I didn’t get any calls.”
He played a year of community college ball in Oregon, played some in Alaska and took part in some summer leagues. He caught the eyes of former Campbell assistant coach (and current Abilene Christian head coach) Rick McCarty and current Campbell head coach Justin Haire at a sophomore showcase — though he was shocked any scouts came away that day with the idea to pursue him.
“At these things, you go in and face four batters, then your day is over,” Thompson says. “I faced four batters and gave up four hits. I was like, ‘Wow. I’m never playing Division I ball.”
Three schools saw something in the right-hander. Campbell, Winthrop and Liberty — all schools in the Big South — started talking to Thompson. He was hours away from signing with Liberty when Thompson decided to email McCarty one last time to see if Campbell had anything more to say. The coach called him 45 seconds after he hit “send” and apologized profusely, saying he hadn’t reached out because his wife was in labor. He asked Thompson to give him a few hours, and he’d come back with an offer the young man couldn’t refuse.
Thompson decided to become a Camel without having ever visited the state of North Carolina, much less Buies Creek.
“I felt like Campbell cared about who I was as a ballplayer and a human being,” he says. “I knew they’d send me off better than they found me. It was going to be my first time away from home, so I was really drawn to that. Five years later, I became a Christian — I believe today that God was leading me down that road. Campbell was a huge step for me as a person.”
In two seasons at Campbell, Thompson went 16-3 with 27 saves and a mind-blowing 1.12 ERA in 70 appearances. Opponents batted .211 with just 2 home runs against him. In his junior year, Campbell won a school record 49 games, and as a senior, Thompson led the Camels to an NCAA Tournament berth and the program’s first NCAA win over Old Dominion.
Those who see Thompson pitch immediately notice his unusual delivery. He was a big fan of the Arizona Diamondbacks growing up, and he loved to watch closer Byung-Hyun Kim, a “submarine” thrower with a side-arm/under-arm delivery who won a World Series in 2001.
When Thompson would play wiffle ball in the yard with friends, he’d mimic Kim’s mechanics to get more movement on the ball.
“It was a joke at first, but by high school — by the time coaches were watching and criticizing my mechanics — they noticed I was more comfortable throwing lower. I wasn’t comfortable throwing over the top. It didn’t look natural to them. So I started throwing sidearm and was able to throw a 65 MPH slider that could break three feet. By my junior year of high school, I was one of the most dominant pitchers in the state.”
He says a lot of college coaches didn’t know what to do with a pitcher like him, but McCarty got the best out of him.
When he was drafted by the Astros in 2014, Thompson joined a long line of former Camels who have gone on to play at the Big League level. He became just the fifth Campbell alumnus to play in the World Series — the first in 51 years — joining Rube Melton (1947 Brooklyn Dodgers), Gaylord Perry (1962 San Francisco Giants), Jim Perry (1965 Minnesota Twins) and Cal Koonce (1969 New York Mets).
“I have Coach McCarty, Coach [Greg] Goff and Coach Haire to thank for my life,” Thompson told the North State Journal last October. “Those guys were instrumental to my life and my baseball career. I learned how to compete at my best level there. I learned to be a follower of Christ there. I cannot describe how instrumental Campbell was to my career. I go back there every year and I can’t wait to go back. That place is like a magnet to me. I absolutely love that place.”