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ALLENTOWN - The Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Rich Thompson both had difficult starts to the 2008 baseball season.
Together, Thompson and the IronPigs are gradually salvaging what could have been a lost season.
Thompson was looking for a job and the IronPigs were clearly looking for help. The Montrose graduate has provided speed at the top of the batting order for a team that has no chance of contending but has managed to snap out of a spiral that left the first-year franchise with the worst record in all of minor-league baseball early in the season.
"I knew they were off to a bad start," Thompson said. "Every team has a bad stretch. This one was particularly bad."
In their first year as the new top affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, the IronPigs opened the season with 11 straight losses, never scoring more than three runs in a game. On May 5, one week after Thompson joined the team, they bottomed out at 4-28.
"If it happened in the middle of the season, it would have been bad enough to knock us down in the standings, but we wouldn't have wound up making USA Today the way we did," Thompson said.
Playing for a team that achieved national distinction for its failures was less than ideal, but Thompson saw reason for hope.
"I saw the roster," he said. "It was not like they had a bunch of young guys. They were all guys I've played against for years.
"Hitting's contagious, but after a while I guess not hitting is, too."
Regardless of the potential in the IronPigs, Thompson simply was not in position to be picky.
After being released by the World Champion Boston Red Sox despite a strong spring in their minor-league camp, Thompson was out of baseball for more than three weeks and forced to contemplate that his career might be over.
"I went home and started thinking about life after baseball," Thompson said. "It's something I have to do anyway. I have a wife and two kids."
Thompson, who has a degree from James Madison where he played baseball in college, registered for accounting classes at the University of South Florida to attempt to make further progress toward becoming a Certified Public Accountant.
He never got to start those classes.
Two days after his 29th birthday, Thompson signed a minor-league contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Thompson's agent convinced the Phillies organization, which had moved its Class AAA team from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons in 2006 to the Ottawa Lynx in 2007 to the IronPigs in Allentown's new Coca-Cola Park, to give him a shot.
Thompson, who opened the 2004 season in the Major Leagues with the Kansas City Royals, would have to go back to Class AA first. He made a brief stop with the Reading Phillies, in the city where he was born, for four days in late April.
"The plan was to get me here as soon as possible," Thompson said.
Thompson helped hurry the process by going 3-for-10 (.300) and scoring three runs in three games.
"For having three weeks off, I had a real good first game at Reading," Thompson said.
Although he was preparing for life after baseball through much of April, Thompson had also stayed ready for another shot.
"I had been running and hitting off a tee," he said. "And, I had a buddy throw batting practice to me a few times."
Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson, who joined director of player development Mike Hazen in delivering the bad news to Thompson in a meeting at the end of spring training, was confident that Thompson would get another chance. He said he can still see Thompson returning to the Major Leagues to extend what to now is a six-game career.
"Everybody needs a guy like that," Johnson said. "He's a left-handed guy who can play all three outfield positions and he can fly."
Thompson is getting a chance to fly again with the IronPigs. After averaging more than 47 stolen bases per year for his first five full seasons in professional baseball (2001-05), Thompson had just 17 steals in 2006 and 15 in 2007. A tear of eight stolen bases in 11 games through June 15 moved him to the Lehigh Valley team lead with 11 on the season.
"I was hitting eighth a lot, playing for a National League team," Thompson said of his lower stolen base numbers the previous two seasons. "With the pitcher behind me most of the time I was on first base, I was being bunted over.
"You can't afford to be thrown out with the pitcher behind you."
Thompson frequently bats second in an improving Lehigh Valley lineup.
"Now that we're playing a lot better, the way games are going, I'm getting a lot more opportunities," Thompson said. "You can steal a lot more when you're up two than when you're down two."
Since sinking to 4-28 by giving up 11 runs in a May 5 loss in Toledo, the IronPigs have been a winning team (27-23). Thompson is hitting .269 with 21 runs in 46 games while going 11-for-12 stealing bases.
As a spark at the top of the lineup, Thompson is actually continuing what can now be viewed as a strong start of the season.
Both Johnson and Thompson said Thompson had a "great" spring training.
As a minor-league free agent, he still needed some help to make the team. When Coco Crisp was not traded by Boston, that helped push Bobby Kielty to Class AAA, taking away an outfield spot that Thompson could have landed in Pawtucket.
"He just got caught up in the numbers game," said Johnson, who visited with Thompson prior to a June game between the teams at Coca-Cola Park. "He played well enough to make the team.
"When we found out Bobby Kielty was coming to Triple-A, he was the odd man out."
There was no bitterness to the move. Boston had a bigger investment in Kielty and others. Thompson even stayed with the team for a few days when camp broke to make sure Kielty reported and to be available in case another other late change opened up a roster spot.
"They were straight up with me from the get-go as far as my opportunity," Thompson said. "I tried to make the decision as tough as possible on them, but it was not much of a decision.
"They had two Major League guys they had to find a place for."
A demotion of a Major Leaguer may have temporarily taken a job away from Thompson, but he is back at work chasing the dream of returning to the top himself. He was batting .303 in 19 June games going into the weekend.
"There's always a job out there for a guy like Rich," Johnson said. "He can play in the Majors."
Helping what was the worst team in Class AAA recover is just one way for Thompson to try to prove that point.
TOM ROBINSON writes a weekly local sports column for the Susquehanna County Transcript. He can be reached online at RobbyTR@aol.com.
The Racing Reporter
Rain Allows Kurt Busch To Win, Loudon, NH – “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than fast,” said Kurt Busch, winner of Sunday’s rain-shortened Lenox Tools 301 Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire Speedway.
Kurt Busch, winner of Sunday's Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire.
Busch, who hadn’t won a race this season, knew he didn’t have a snowball’s chance of beating Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and the other race leaders before the last caution flag.
On lap 279 of the 301-lap race, Jamie McMurray plowed into the rear of Dale Earnhardt’s No. 88, as Earnhardt was pulling down on the apron of the track and getting ready to pit for fuel. McMurray didn’t see Earnhardt slowing, and after making contact with the 88-car, he bounced into David Ragan’s No. 6.
This brought out a caution, and all the leaders pitted for fuel and/or fresh tires.
Busch had been running near the middle of the pack, and with a mediocre car, he was only hoping for a decent finish.
However, he had pitted later than most of the leaders and his team thought he had enough fuel to make it all the way, so he stayed on the track.
Busch was the new leader when racing resumed, but after only two more green flag laps, rain started falling. NASCAR put out the red flag and brought all the cars into the pit area. A few minutes later, it was called an official race after 284 laps.
“We’ve been working on fuel mileage as well as power in trying to get our Penske cars where they need to be,” said Busch. “We might not be the fastest car, and maybe we didn’t deserve to win, but the record books will show that we won the Lenox Tools 301.”
Saturday’s Nationwide Series winner Tony Stewart led the most laps, and was leading Sunday’s race when the last caution came out. His team brought him in for a splash of fuel and two right side tires. When the racing went back green, he was 24th, with no hope of winning.
“We’re racers and next week we’ll be back,” said Stewart. “That’s what you do every week. There’s 43 that start the race and only one guy can win. It’s disappointing for all of us.
“The team gave me the best car I’ve had since Charlotte, but what can I say? It’s frustrating. There isn’t anybody that’s going to tell you any different.”
Jamie McMurray pointed to his spotter as the blame for him running into the rear of Earnhardt.
“Typically when a guy ahead of you gets ready to pit, the spotter tells you,” said McMurray. “I just never saw the 88. I was looking a lot farther down the track.”
There was also a bumping incident between Juan Montoya and Kyle Busch. Both drivers had been racing each other hard and close. During the caution after McMurray had gotten into Earnhardt, Montoya swerved left, intentionally hitting the rear of Kyle Busch’s No. 18, causing him to spin. Busch then swerved into Montoya’s No. 42.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 23rd, and Polesitter, Patrick Carpentier wound up two laps down in the 33rd spot.
Top 10 finishers: 1. Kurt Busch, 2. Michael Waltrip, 3. J.J. Yeley, 4. Martin Truex, 5. Elliott Sadler, 6. Reed Sorenson, 7. Casey Mears, 8. Denny Hamlin, 9. Jimmie Johnson, 10. Bobby Labonte.
Top 10 Chase contenders after 17 of 36: 1. Kyle Busch-2499, 2. Burton-2432, 3. Earnhardt-2355, 4. Edwards-2262, 5. Johnson-2220, 6. J. Gordon-2171, 7. Hamlin-2150, 8. Biffle-2119, 9. Stewart-2042, 10. Kahne-2028.
Top 10 Nationwide Series leaders after 18 of 35: 1. Bowyer-2649, 2. Reutimann-2467, 3. Edwards-2461, 4. Keselowski-2452, 5. Ragan-2351, 6. Bliss-2334, 7. Kyle Busch-2263, 8. M. Wallace-2171, 9. Stremme-2089, 10. Keller-2048.
Top 10 Craftsman Truck leaders after 12 of 25: 1. Hornaday-1742, 2. Crafton-1715, 3. Bodine-1688, 4. Benson-1686, 5. Crawford-1668, 6. Skinner-1629, 7. Darnell-1605, 8. Sprague-1578, 9. Cook-1553, 10. McCumbee-1514.
What Is NASCAR’S New Car Really Like? Several weeks ago we wrote about NASCAR asking drivers not to give negative statements about the new car to the news media. Benita L. of Susquehanna, PA had this to say:
“I feel they need to be able to voice their opinions. Since they are the ones that are driving, they should have the right to say what they really believe. They should be treated as humans.”
The new car was presented as safer than the old one, and it would create better racing.
It isn’t the safety improvements drivers have criticized, but the lack of drivability, which some have said prevents them from running side-by-side.
While the drivers may complain that it’s harder to pass with the new car, there is plenty of passing to be had. It may not be for the lead and the television cameras may not show the racing effectively, but there is passing going on.
Last year, NASCAR raced the old car on three of the last four tracks they have run on—Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway, and Michigan International Speedway. Results from the Coca-Cola 600 showed 2850 green flag passes during the race. This does include passes made during green flag pit stops and passes made by lapped cars, but last year’s data did, too, so that’s a non-issue. Carl Edwards alone passed 102 cars during the race. Both numbers were up over the 2007 Coca-Cola 600, when, driving the old car, drivers totaled 1986 total passes and Jimmie Johnson had the most with 96.
While some drivers have complained about not being able to pass with the new car, their complaints are unwarranted. There has been more, not less, passing. Perhaps the real complaint here lies with the television broadcasts for not showing more of the real race action.
The new car has shown higher temperatures of roughly ten degrees in the cockpit. This is an area which needs to be looked at and fixed, fast. On the other hand, some teams have been successful in keeping the cockpit cooler. Other teams have not – at least in part because they’re reluctant to add any extra weight, or shift the current weight.
Denny Hamlin complained of heat and carbon monoxide issues. That prompted the sanctioning body to begin monitoring both problems last week at Michigan International Speedway.
They're particularly sensitive to the issue after a number of incidents in their past. Cup driver Rick Mast retired from the sport in May, 2002 after he was diagnosed with chronic carbon monoxide poisoning. Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart experienced sickness from carbon monoxide exposure in a couple of races in 2002, which brought the problem to life.
While current NASCAR rules do allow Toyota engines to produce slightly more horsepower than the GM, Ford, and Dodge entries due to its construction, not every team has been able to capitalize on it. The aerodynamic numbers are virtually the same due to the nearly identical bodies on all four makes.
The COT is still a work in progress and more issues will arise, but as long as NASCAR and the teams communicate, they will eventually build a race car that drivers will accept.
Next Week: A Quick Look at NASCAR’s Pulse.
The Cup and Nationwide cars are at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. The Craftsman Trucks do not race again until July 19.
Friday, July 4: Nationwide Series Winn Dixie 250, 7:30 p.m. TV: ESPN2.
Saturday, July 5: Nextel Cup Coke Zero 400, 6:30 p.m. TV: TNT.
Racing Trivia Question: Who drives the No. 22 Bill Davis Racing Toyota?
Last Week’s Question: What do Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have in common? They both race for Roush Fenway Racing.
You may contact the Racing Reporter at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kyle Collins scored a hole-in-one recently at Lake Lorain Golf Course.
Collins, a recent Susquehanna graduate, recorded his ace on the second hole on June 20.
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