There are worse places to pass your 20s than baseball’s minor leagues. You work outdoors; you see America; you don’t have to wear a tie. But the pay is wretched and player autonomy near-nonexistent. And once most of your 20s have indeed passed, you must develop a self-image that contradicts your humble place in the sport: You have to convince yourself you belong in the majors, even though you know you aren’t there. The dissonance will wear anyone down. Last April, as a 29-year-old center-fielder for the Triple A Memphis Redbirds, Tommy Pham—with 136 big league games and 14 homers to his name and a baseball sporting the words believe in yourself tattooed on his left biceps—called a buddy back home in Las Vegas and said he was done. Baseball was all Pham had ever wanted to do, and he had played on despite a degenerative eye condition and three season-ending injuries in his prime. And he had no backup plan. While he had been an A student in high school, he hadn’t gone to college; his other work experience consisted of a summer as an electrician’s apprentice. No matter. He had had enough.
Pham had chafed at being stuck in Memphis before. Early in 2014, after being leapfrogged by better-regarded prospects such as Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Oscar Taveras, Pham says he called Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ farm director, and demanded his release. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m the best mother------ on this team, and you guys don’t even know it,’” he recalls. “I said those exact words. They told me things happen, I’ll get some at bats. I just had to wear it.” (Indeed, true to his read, Pham, a 16th-round pick in 2006, had the best numbers on the team by season’s end.)
While he made the Opening Day roster in 2016, he strained an oblique in his first at bat. Once Pham healed, the Cardinals sent him down to the Redbirds. In response, Pham says, he “threw numbers” at St. Louis manager Mike Matheny. “Looking back on it, that’s not something you want to do.” He took the relative high road when demoted again in spring training of 2017, telling Matheny, “I’m gonna go get better, but just know this: There’s not one player in the minor leagues with my Triple A résumé and my big league résumé, because they’re all up here starting.”
More from SI
Still, Pham hadn’t thought to quit. Then the season started. “We’re two weeks in, and I’m raking,” he says. “I’m hitting like .400. The big league team was 3–9, and all three outfielders were hitting .200. They tried [Matt] Adams out there, and he’s a great hitter, but he just couldn’t play the outfield. So I’m like, They’re getting the reports every day, they know I’m raking. What the f---? When are they gonna call me up? And then we’re three weeks in. The guys are still struggling, Grichuk, Dex [Dexter Fowler], Piscotty. And I’m still balling! So finally I said, They’re not gonna f-----’ call me up, f--- it, and I zoned out in Triple A. Every day I was just like, F--- this. I’ve made it to the big leagues, f--- it.”
He stopped showing up for early work, daring his manager to bench him, daring St. Louis to cut him loose. Pham’s agents had learned that other MLB teams as well as Japanese clubs were interested. “I’m thinking, [the Cardinals] are not gonna trade me,” Pham says. “They won’t sell me to Japan. What the f---? They clearly don’t believe in me. Let a mother------ leave! And they wouldn’t even do that.”
Pham’s best friend since Little League, Alvino Ramirez, told him to stick it out for a week or two. Edwin Jackson, the veteran pitcher who himself spent much of 2017 in Triple A and is one of Pham’s mentors, said the same thing. Tentatively, Pham checked back in.
On May 4, Piscotty strained his hamstring, and Pham got called up. He homered in his first game, then hit two more in his third. He was on his way. His average never dropped below .277 or his OBP below .359. He hit better after the All-Star break than he did before it. At Pham’s urging, the Cardinals’ coaches put him through extra drills to improve his pitch selection, helping him cut down on his whiffs and increase his walks. Among qualified players in 2017, only Joey Votto and Matt Carpenter swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than Pham.
In 128 games he hit 23 homers, stole 25 bases and put up a .306/.411/.520 line while playing first-rate defense. Only 13 other players have been in the 20‑20, .300/.400/.500 club since 2000; Pham’s peers last year were Mike Trout and José Altuve. Despite missing 34 games, Pham ranked seventh in the NL in WAR (6.2) and finished 11th in the MVP voting, the top attraction on the worst Cardinals team (83–79) since ’07.
After the season ended, Pham predicted only bigger things, aiming for a 30-30 season. And the Cardinals bought in, naming him their number 2 hitter and starting centerfielder, trading away Grichuk and Piscotty. Tommy Pham has made it.
But one consequence of making it after being so close to quitting is that his hurt is still fresh. “I should have been doing this s--- sooner,” he says, sitting at a Chipotle in Miami in early February, before the start of camp.
He smarts at how long it took Cardinals management to believe in him, apportioning some blame to his injuries (a torn wrist ligament in 2011, and labrums torn in each shoulder, in ’12 and ’13) and some to the December 2011 departure of scouting director Jeff Luhnow, a champion of Pham’s who left to become the Astros’ general manager. “The front office, I can’t entirely say they were on my side,” Pham says. “I wasn’t drafted by these people.” (He cites John Vuch, the team’s director of baseball administration, as his only remaining ally from the old regime.)
When leftfielder Matt Holliday got hurt in 2015, Grichuk got that job, and when Peter Bourjos was benched, sliding Grichuk to center, Piscotty took over in left. Pham had to settle for 35 cobbled-together starts. “You can’t bitch about it, because if you bitch about it, you f--- up the team,” Pham says. “But I put up an .824 OPS and a 1.4 WAR in 150 at bats. Times that by four—if anybody did that their rookie year, baseball goes crazy over them. But when I did it, they say, Oh, he’s just the backup. In 2016, I had an .870 OPS before I stopped playing every day. An .870 OPS in the big leagues? That plays. But I never got the recognition. I put up better numbers than these other guys in the minor leagues and the major leagues. And I was a better athlete than these mother-------. I run faster than ’em, I’m stronger than ’em. But when a team puts some money in a player, they’re gonna talk ’em up.”
If Pham really is this good, he may have lost tens of millions in career earnings by spending his peak years in Memphis. He will be playing for nearly the minimum salary again in 2018 after turning down a two-year extension, and if his season is anything like the one before it, he will be providing the Cardinals a tremendous bargain. “They say one win is worth $8 million. Eight times six, that’s $48 million. I did all that for 500 grand.” Pham was heartened by the five-year, $80 million contract 31-year-old centerfielder Lorenzo Cain signed with Milwaukee in January. Pham plays a power-speed-defense game similar to Cain’s, but he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, at which point he will be 33 going on 34. “It sucks a little bit,” he says. “I’ll just have to get my money later.”
But the sting from his waylaying has less to do with finances than feeling disrespected. “They said, ‘We believed you could do it all along.’ That’s the thing that’s so mind-boggling. I said, If that’s the f-----’ case, then why was I f-----’ demoted to Triple A? If that’s the case, why the f--- was I batting in the eight hole this year, behind the guy who got f-----’ called up from high A? That s---, that’s that fake s---, man. I’m from a background where my mom kept it so real. My mom would be like, ‘Man, look, I don’t have no money to get you nothing for Christmas, I don’t have no money to get you nothing for your birthday. I’m sorry. I gotta pay the bills.’ I respected her because, s---, she told us from the get-go. All that fake s---, man, I was never raised like that.”
Las Vegas in recent years has become a reliable supplier of young stars such as Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo. The city and its Sun Belt sprawl make a fitting modern baseball cradle: It’s the sort of place where former minor leaguers can set up businesses and coach their sons, as Bryant’s and Gallo’s fathers did.
But that was not Tommy Pham’s Vegas. Thomas James Pham was born on March 8, 1988. His twin sister, Brittney, came two minutes later. Their mother, Tawana, was 17, and their father, Anhtuan, 19, was incarcerated, as he would be for most of his twins’ lives. (He will spend his 50th birthday in federal prison this June; his expected release is in October.)
Tommy has no relationship with his father. They’ve met three times, twice when Anhtuan was locked up and once outside of prison. “He used to write me letters. I told him years ago that I was done, and I wouldn’t visit him again,” Tommy says.
Anhtuan, who was born in Vietnam during the war to a black American father and a Vietnamese mother, had moved to the U.S. as a youngster with his mother, brother and sister. He was a gifted football player, but he became enmeshed in drugs and street crime: Corrections records show a rap sheet spanning three decades.
The pregnancy, Tawana says, crushed her parents at first: She had wound up a single mother of two, and she hadn’t even finished high school. But they offered to raise the twins with her as long as she worked. So she landed in food service, as a buser at first, working her way up to server. She got a second job in a bakery.
Tawana needed the money and the help. Tommy wore leg braces from two to 3.5-years-old; the pediatrician worried he had rickets. She was working so much, she could hardly spend time at home. When the twins were five, she married Fred Polk, an electrician, and soon after they had a daughter, Mercedes. The blended family had many of the trappings of middle-class life, but Tawana was still holding down two jobs, which left Tommy and Brittney to look after themselves. Tawana set rules—no bad grades, no unstructured time—and Tommy went about enforcing them rather than stressing her out or risking her wrath. (Brittney still thinks of Tommy as her dad; he’ll weigh in on her dating life and tsk-tsk her about drinking when they go to nightclubs.) For the Pham kids, organized sports presented their only shot at fun. (Brittney’s sport was basketball.) During baseball season, Tommy’s coaches ferried him to practices and games. Once he started travel ball, at 10, with tournaments every weekend all over the country, coaches Todd Gamboa and Al Ramirez became surrogate fathers to Tommy. But for Tommy that wasn’t especially close to the real thing: Parents would console their kids when they made errors. The coaches didn’t do that, not even for their star shortstop.
And when he was trying to improve after practice, after his coaches had already dropped him back home, Pham had no one to play catch with. He practiced his defense by throwing a baseball against the brick wall behind his house and fielding the rebound; he worked on his hitting by tossing a Wiffle ball high into the air, then waiting for it to come down.
One year Pham’s team celebrated its season by renting out a sports park, and while his teammates raced go-karts and went on rides, he spent the entire evening in the batting cage. Says Pham’s friend (and his coach’s son), Alvino Ramirez, “He was a hard-nosed kid back then, and he’s a hard-nosed adult right now. His demeanor hasn’t changed.” Where his twin sister is bubbly and social—she’s a bartender—Tommy can be steely and distant. He berates himself for mistakes and broods after bad games. Since tasting success he’s only gotten harder on himself.
Tawana used to be ashamed of the twins’ severe childhoods, she says. After talking it over with Tommy a few years ago, though, she made peace with it. When he was young, she would tell him how easily he could become a statistic—a mixed-race boy born to an incarcerated father and a single, teenage mother. “Some parents care too little; I cared too much,” Tawana says. “I saved Tommy.”
In May 2016, Brittney got a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was a police sergeant informing her that her father was in intensive care. He had been shot nine times by an off-duty cop while allegedly trying to shoplift two bags of crab legs from a Washington, D.C., grocery store. He had supposedly pulled a replica handgun on the officer. Brittney went with her six-year-old son, Clayton, to see him in the hospital; her mother and grandmother, whom she had asked to join her, declined to go, saying they’d had enough.
Seeing him shackled to the hospital bed, she pitied him. It hit Brittney that she was indeed all he had: “He has messed up, and he keeps messing up. But I think I have to forgive him and treat him with respect because he still did bring me into this world.” In recent letters from prison, her father has struck a new contrite tone and expressed his continued desire to have a relationship with Tommy. She has told him not to expect that. “I do think Tommy would feel better if he forgave him,” she says. “He’s got a lot of anger.”
Tommy says, “I don’t talk to him, no. That’s only because he’s a person I don’t know. But am I mad? No. Because it only made me better. And it’s funny, you know, a lot of the lessons I learned in life, as far as being a grown man, I learned in baseball.” Curtis Granderson, the All-Star outfielder, took Pham to buy his first suit a few spring trainings ago.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself, I really don’t,” Pham says. “I made the most out of my situation—but these things weren’t hardships to me. It was just life.”
Pham spent this past offseason, like the one before it, training in Miami. He’d like to be back in Vegas, but the city lacks a sports performance facility that meets his specialized requirements. So he rented an apartment in a downtown high-rise with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the city and Miami Beach. He keeps the place clean; his whole family is fastidious. On his coffee table sits a book of Spanish grammar. Pham has a brilliant smile, one he uses sparingly, saving it for moments like this. “I ain’t gonna lie to you and be like, ‘I wanna be able to communicate with my Latin teammates.’ I’m learning ’cause I like Spanish women,” he says. Whatever the context, he always puts in extra effort to improve.
Over the years Pham has retained no fewer than five hitting coaches. (“They all cost money. Some of ’em way too f-----’ much.”) He spent thousands in 2016 on special contact lenses to improve his degenerative eye condition, keratoconus. They didn’t help, so he ditched them. When the Redbirds’ pitching machine broke, he ordered a new one, the $3,300 Hack Attack, which simulates a pitcher’s actual elevated release point. He reads everything he can on mechanics, nutrition and sabermetrics.
“A lot of guys in this game are complacent,” he says. “They’ll say, I wanna run faster, lemme go run some sprints. I say, I wanna run faster. I’ll look at my mechanics and see I have a bad knee drive. What causes a bad knee drive? I lack ankle mobility. O.K., so if I fix my ankle mobility, I can achieve a dorsiflex position which could drive my knee up. O.K., I need to improve my stride frequency. Let me go run 30-degree incline sprints at 18 miles per hour so I can improve my stride frequency. And let me do some overspeed training so I can train my neuromuscular system to run faster than I’m biologically capable of. You know what I mean. Guys don’t do that s---. They don’t break it down like that.”
Pham wasn’t always so open to learning; he says no coach could break through his hardheadedness until Jeff Albert, now the Astros’ assistant hitting coach, got to him in his fourth year of pro ball. It was late July and Pham’s average was hovering around .200. His high-A team’s game in Lakeland, Fla., was rained out. Pham says, “I was struggling so bad, I said, f--- it, I’m tired of struggling. What do I need to do?” Albert showed him video of his swing compared with proper form. From there, Pham says, he was all but set.
Last season Pham followed the same routine every game day. He would hit off a tee, then have a coach flip him balls and strikes. Then came batting practice. When the first group hit, he’d shag flies in the outfield. When the second group came up, he’d work on his batted-ball reads and baserunning. He’d hit in the third group. Then he’d come in, eat, hit off the tee again, hit off the pitching machine, shower and play the game. He says after all that preparation, playing becomes the easiest part of his day. Once the game’s over and he’s home, he might call his sisters back in Vegas to see what his niece and nephew are up to. He’ll put on the TV—some nights MLB Network, some nights HGTV—and stand, bat in hand, by the set and a nearby mirror, practicing his swing mechanics until he’s ready to sleep.
He figures his drive gives him his biggest edge. I asked him where it came from; he cited his lean upbringing. He owes everything to it, he says. I pressed, surprised that a man so affronted by his delayed promotion in pro baseball carried so little bitterness about more foundational deprivations—no father, little money.
A few days after our interview, Pham sent a text message: “The question was if I wish I had it easier or came up rich, would I have wanted that? The more I thought about it my answer is no. I played with a lot of guys coming up who came from a wealthy upbringing and what I remembered most about them is how soft they were. When things got harder for them, they always crumbled. I think where I came from helped me persevere through all my injuries in everything bcuz I seen a lot of guys fold, the most successful ppl in the world came from the smallest beginnings which makes me think it’s not about where you’re from or how you come up but where are you going!”
So just where is Tommy Pham going? Few players have more at stake in 2018. A repeat of his 2017 performance would put him among the best handful of players in the game; a letdown would suggest that last year had been little more than luck. He has staked his baseball credibility—which may very well be his signature asset—on another monster season. And while free agency is years away, he should become arbitration-eligible this winter, meaning his pay will be directly tied to his play. No pressure.
He is reminded of something he read a few days ago, a story about a former No. 1 draft pick, born to privilege, who had retired without making the majors. “He said something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, baseball’s not my identity,’ ” Pham says. “A guy who was the No. 1 pick? I dunno if he was all in. For me, baseball’s all I ever wanted to do. I’m all in.”