Baseball humbled Shaq Thompson this summer, but it didn't dampen his spirit.
Thirty-nine times the former Grant High School football star dug in at the plate in the rookie Gulf Coast League as a Boston Red Sox draftee, and 37 times he struck out. Is there any sporting activity that rattles a proud psyche more than multiple swing-and-misses?
Thompson sighed in reflection. Still, in his only public comments on the subject, Thompson spoke enthusiastically about a return to baseball and conquering that learning curve. He has a four-year contract with Boston that stipulates 10 weeks of baseball each year as he also navigates his scholarship football tour with the Washington Huskies. There will be more chances to tackle baseball, to see if he can improve.
And what do the Red Sox get out of all of this? As an 18th round pick, Thompson is deemed a low-risk, high-reward prospect. One baseball scout told me this week that Thompson is "a four-star talent, and if he can ever learn to hit, watch out. If he can't, what's the shame in trying?" Thompson said he didn't want just instructional work this summer as a crash course to hitting. He wanted to face live pitching.
"I'm glad I gave it a try no regrets," Thompson said. "This gave me a chance to try another sport. I can learn and grow from it, even though it's hard. When my contract expires in baseball, I'll make a decision football or baseball. I'm going to give both a try."
This weekend, Thompson morphs into football player. He is off to Seattle, where he will move into a college dorm, meet new teammates and start drills Sunday as the program's top recruit. The top-rated safety in the country at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Thompson has the closing speed of a truck bearing down on a bug. This, by any measure, is his best talent.
Thompson played baseball for Grant this spring after three years away to maximize his senior-season experience. He initially had no idea that scouts were intrigued by his physical gifts and demeanor. He didn't expect to get drafted.
"First thing I thought was, why draft me? I can't hit," Thompson said. "I appreciated the Red Sox drafting me, giving me a shot. They had faith in me."
Thompson also found that celebrity comes with a price. He was savaged this summer for his hitting struggles by columnists and fans through social media.
"The criticism, people can write what they want, but I'm the one who tried to play, the one who was doing it," Thompson said. "I didn't see them trying."
Thompson said he attempted every ploy to get a hit. He swung at first-pitch fastballs. He worked the count. He spent hours in the batting cages. He worked with coaches. Thompson said he wondered, can a man suddenly learn to hit, or is it a gift, an instinct? His coaches told him baseball will never be easy for him like football.
"There were times I wanted to throw my helmet it was that frustrating," Thompson said. "I kept my composure. The best thing was my teammates. They were great. They talked about how they play baseball year-round. I'm really behind with at-bats and reps."
Thompson's family agonized during every at-bat, too. They knew better to call and ask if he had any hits.
"I'm impressed with how Shaq handled it," said Thompson's uncle, B.T. "To be dominant in one sport, and then struggle so bad in another, that's hard, but I know Shaq. He'll really benefit from this because he's not afraid to work and fail. It's part of sports, and it's part of life."