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STEVE KORNACKI

Slow and steady wins the race for Jays' Eric Thames Add to ...

Tortoise and the hare comparisons applied to the race to win the starting left field job with the Toronto Blue Jays.

In lane one, there was Travis Snider, the hare. He was Toronto’s first-round pick out of high school in 2006 and the opening-day starter last season before a dreadful slump got him sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas.

In lane two, there was Eric Thames, the tortoise. He was a third-string shortstop on his high school’s freshman team, was not drafted out of high school, and finally selected in the seventh round after bouncing from two small colleges all the way to Pepperdine and getting injured.

Though, it should be pointed out that Snider is not the braggart the hare was in Aesop’s fable. He was hardly egging on Thames. In fact, they are good friends. And Thames is not a plodding tortoise.

It’s just that, once upon a time, Snider, 24, looked like the runaway favourite and Thames appeared to be more of an insurance policy.

But on Sunday, Snider was sent to the minors and Thames found out he will be in the opening-day starting lineup.

Thames came on strong when called up to the majors last year, batting .262 with 12 homers and 37 runs batted in. Snider got hot in Las Vegas, came back to the Jays and finished at .225 with three homers and 30 RBI after getting half the at-bats Thames ended up with.

That gave Thames the edge coming into spring training. Neither Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos nor manager John Farrell has declared a winner, but it could well be Thames going north with the club.

Both of the young, left-handed hitters have had productive springs. Snider has four home runs and 15 RBI, and Thames has a .349 batting average. Though, the bottom line was that Thames, who has improved defensively, popped out as the one to keep.

An American League scout was asked which he would pick.

“If it’s me, it’s Thames,” said the scout, who requested anonymity. “This kid plays with a lot of heart – not to say Snider doesn’t. They’re both left-handed; they both have [minor-league]options left.

“But it’s just that when you see Thames, he leaves an impression. Some guys are low-key and some are high-strung. But there’s no doubt that guys like Thames have a contagious attitude winning teams need.”

Thames, 25, is pretty much impossible to keep down. The coaches at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Calif., certainly found that to be true.

“During my freshman year, the coach told me I did not have the talent to play,” Thames said. “I was the third-string shortstop and he was just keeping me to pinch-run. I’m not going to tell you his name because I do not want to throw him under the bus.”

But he will tell you about Joe Bettencourt, his hitting instructor. Thames hit every night after practice and out of season at Bettencourt’s house.

“We started with a batting tee and a soft-toss net out front,” Thames said. “Then he built a batting cage my sophomore year. I still go back there in the winter every day and say, ‘Let’s work.’ He’s my guy. We still talk every day.”

Thames improved, becoming the starting shortstop on the junior varsity team as a sophomore. He started at shortstop for the varsity as a junior and moved to left as a senior. Cabrillo College and West Valley College in California were his next two stops before Pepperdine, a school with a rich baseball tradition located in Malibu. The ballpark offers views of the Pacific Ocean and actress Pamela Anderson, a baseball team booster who got hooked on the Waves with her sons.

“I got my confidence in college,” said Thames, who batted .529 with a .956 slugging percentage as a junior at Pepperdine. “I started wearing a T-shirt that said BLOB. It stood for Big Leagues Or Bust.”

But he tore a quad muscle off the bone of his right leg two weeks before the draft in 2008 and dropped from a possible first-rounder all the way to the seventh.

“Eric has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity,” Bettencourt, his long-time hitting coach, said in a phone interview. “They said he didn’t have talent. Nobody offered him a scholarship after high school. He had a horrible injury to overcome.

“He used to hit [at Bobby Mattick Training Center]in Dunedin at 11 p.m. to make sure he got in his 400 cuts a day. They locked it up so he couldn’t be out there that late. Eric went to Walmart; bought a tee and a net; and hit in the hotel parking lot. That tells you all you need to know about Eric.”

He noted that Thames has taken 15,000 batting practice cuts each year since the age of 12.

“I remember a kid coming to me, tears in his eyes,” Bettencourt said, recalling hearing Thames relay what the freshman coach told him about a lack of talent. “I remember him saying that day, ‘I want to play in the big leagues.’ And when Eric made it, it was like having my son born. The emotion we felt was something else.

“I tell you what: Don’t ever tell Eric he can’t do something. He’ll prove you wrong.”

Thames’s eyes light up when recalling his long road to the majors.

“People never really believed in me,” he said. “I was not supposed to be here, but I’ve been blessed.

“All it takes is grit. … Now my goal is to make the all-star team. It could be this year. And my main goal is to help this team win and get back to a championship.”

He paused and looked down while seated on his clubhouse stool. Then he looked up and added, “I believe.”

 
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