Eric Thames, the former Korean baseball star so big and so beloved there he could scarcely leave his house, is now performing similar feats in leading the Brewers to their big start.
“People just wanted to touch his beard, touch his arm,” recalls his long-time agent Adam Karon who visited him in Seoul.
While it hasn’t gotten like that in Milwaukee yet, just like in Korea Thames for two weeks, at least, has been easily the best hitter in his league. His streak of five games with home runs was finally broken up when he settled for a three-hit game at Wrigley Field.
So Thames looks like he’s hit MLB stardom at age 30 – he’s leading MLB in runs, extra-base hits, slugging percentage, totals bases, OPS and home runs — after what Karon describes as a “circuitous” route. That’s certainly fair to say, as he was a part-time player with the Mariners and the Blue Jays before going off to Korea, where he simply went off, finishing his three-year stint with a .348 batting average, 124 home runs and 379 RBI.
He performed so spectacularly there that Milwaukee gave him a $16-million, three-year deal even though he’d been away three years and was anything but a star in Toronto and Tampa. He was so good in South Korea, in fact, that the A’s, Padres, White Sox, Astros and the Rays are among teams also believed to have showed interest (Karon declined to discuss the other teams, though they all look smart now for showing interest in the player called “God” in Korea).
The Brewers, though, were the clear aggressor, and they are being rewarded for their diligence, hard work and boldness.
They went back and researched Thames from his school years, way back at Pepperdine, and unusually, employed video to determine that he had transformed himself while in Asia into the type of player who could take his game to MLB and succeed – though no one could have predicted this sort of start.
Many teams scouted Thames in person, but by their own admission, the Brewers relied on video off TV (plus extensive reports going back a decade or so; the Harvard-educated GM David Stearns isn’t one to shirk studying).
“We saw a player who made the necessary adjustments to his offensive game and became a much more disciplined hitter,” Stearns said by phone. “He has very sound strike zone recognition. That was really the first thing that jumped out at us.”
People who knew him from his days at Bellarmine High in San Jose are absolutely thrilled to see such a “nice” and “dedicated” person finally becoming the MLB star some envisioned early. Thames was so determined to become a big-time player that while a Blue Jays minor leaguer, he had to be locked out of the hitting cages to prevent him from staying all night, in Dunedin, Fla.
The reason he didn’t become a big MLB name earlier, people who know him suspect, is because he’s a “feel” guy who could never quite got the hang of occasional at-bats as a backup. There may be merit to that; as soon as he got everyday time in Korea, he became an instant superstar.
While his exploits went unnoticed by almost all MLB fans, and his signing was a surprise on the free-agent market, the reality was he had offers and opportunities in Japan in addition to Korea and MLB, where several teams offered multiyear deals even though the free-agent market was absolutely stacked with first basemen and DHs.
The Brewers went the extra mile, and they look like geniuses now; they even have a fourth-year option. As a group they decided they preferred a longer deal, so impressed were they by what they saw on the tape.
“Ultimately, we decided that if we made the investment in someone like Eric, we wanted the chance to have a multiyear opportunity,” Stearns said.
The way things are going, that looks like the most prescient decision anyone made this winter