The Metamorphosis of Eric Thompson

Basketball was Eric Thompson's game. Oh, sure, he pitched well enough for his high school baseball team that he was drafted by the Dodgers. But it was hoops that he excelled in. A dominant player for Roseburg, Ore. High, the 6-6 Thompson accepted a scholarship in the sport to Southern Oregon and that was the direction for him.

Dodger scout Hank Jones talked to him, saying, "I know you're focused on basketball but we like you so keep that in mind." And, after he graduated last summer when he was pitching for an American Legion team, Jones wangled an invitation for him to play in the Tommy Lasorda Classic.

That's an annual contest played in Dodger Stadium toward the end of summer where a lot of hotshot players test their skills against each other. It was there that Thompson met Dodger brass, pitched well- and changed his mind.

He signed with the Dodgers in late August and was sent to the Instructional League in the fall where he began to learn what pitching was really about. "We didn't have a pitching coach in high school," he relates. "Oh, there were people who gave me tips but mostly I just went out there and just threw the ball."

For one thing, the Dodgers decided he threw from the wrong angle. He had a three-quarters delivery and they felt that coming over the top would better maximize his pitches. So all fall and when he reported next spring, Thompson concentrated on his arm slot.

It didn't come all that quickly but it came slowly, first in relief appearances, then as a starter in extended camp games. Along the way, he came under the tutelage of Casey Deskins.

Deskins is a former pitcher who for the past seven years had been the Dodger video coordinator, responsible for the footage that players and coaches use to dissect their game. Now, he had been assigned as pitching coach for the Gulf Coast Dodgers where Eric, among others, became his charge.

"I owe everything to Casey," Thompson says. "He's taught me so much about pitching."

In truth he treats almost everything that happens on the field as a learning experience. "You can learn a lot just from watching the other players- how they approach their game."

He's been profiting from all that study. In his first appearance of the spring, he went in for the final three innings to hold the lead against the Marlins, holding them to one hit to earn a save.

After that he was a starter, pitching four innings each in three games in which the opposition got one hit, one hit and finally three hits and a run. He's been awarded a win in the last one, a seven-inning part of a doubleheader only to have them discover the official scorer was in error.

"They pulled me after four when I had the lead because the official scorer thought that's all you had to go to get credit. But they found out you have to go five in those games just like in a nine-inning game so they had to change it."

There often is no justice in the scoring rules about who gets the win and this was one. So, to be sure, Eric went five in his next one, allowing four hits and three runs but walking off with the victory.

Because of his basketball commitment, he'd only been drafted down in the 23rd round. There are players around who were chosen much higher (and with the bonuses to match) but none doing any better.

Eric throws a fast ball that sits comfortably in the 89-90 range and which should reach higher as he gets into his game. His breaking pitch comes in a traditional 12-6 delivery but he thinks, "Is more of a slurve than a curve." He's working his change in more, too.

Now he no longer thinks arm slot as he works. That's automatic. No, he concentrates on the type of pitch and where to locate it. He's not particularly a strikeout pitcher but, rather, one who gets them to hit his pitch. It's working- they're only hitting .157 against him.

And he feels he made the right decision last summer. "I miss basketball a lot at times but I believe I can go a lot further in this game."

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