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WHAT WENT WRONG FOR JASON THOMPSON? : IN THE PITTS

Times Staff Writer

Jason Thompson once appeared destined to be the Detroit Tigers’ first baseman for a decade.

As a rookie in 1976, he batted just .218 in 123 games, but had 17 home runs and 54 runs batted in. Then in his sophomore season, Thompson had a .270 average with 31 homers and 105 RBIs for the Tigers.

And, in 1980, when the former Cal State Northridge pitcher-turned-first baseman was traded back home--just where Gene Autry wanted him--Thompson took the Angels’ most valuable player award despite being with the club less than half a season.

Thompson, 31, now with Pittsburgh, wonders whatever happened to those glory days.

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For Thompson, the gap between expectation and reality, between the Tigers and the Pirates, between winning and losing, has made his job difficult the last couple of years.

Sure, he’s disappointed that the Pirates are once again in the National League East’s cellar, with more than twice as many losses as wins. The dwindling attendance at Three Rivers Stadium, the defections, player shuffles, and negative press only add to the difficulty.

But they hardly define it.

“After a while, it becomes a psychological thing,” Thompson said. “For 1 1/2 years, we’ve been at the bottom of the league and you start to get that losing feeling. You just can’t go out there and play ball well with that losing feeling.”

Thompson has tried to lose that losing feeling, but it just won’t go away. What did go away was his ability to concentrate. His enthusiasm followed closely behind.

Last year, Thompson said, the pressure and frustration finally--and quite literally--got the best of him.

Between 1977 and 1979, Thompson averaged 25 homers and 93 RBIs a season for Detroit. He made the American League All-Star team in 1977 and 1978 and was widely regarded as one of the league’s best young prospects.

In the past two years with Pittsburgh, however, Thompson’s figures have slipped. He hit a combined .257 in 1983 and ’84, with 35 homers and 150 RBIs. As the Pirates began their downward spiral, so did Thompson.

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“Last year, when things were going bad and the fans were not supporting us, I let it affect me,” Thompson said. “I started to lose some confidence and worst of all, it split my concentration and I had a hard time playing.”

The same thing might be said of the Pirates, who finished last in the National League East last year with a 75-87 record. That dismal season and an all-too-familiar rerun this season, have sent swarms of yellow-and-black clad Pirates to other clubs. Defectors include Dave Parker, Mike Easler, John Candelaria, Al Holland and George Hendrick.

When Parker left the club for Cincinnati, he cited more than the Pirates’ losing record as the reason. Parker said he believed racial prejudice was behind his bad experience in Pittsburgh.

The racial issue has a history with the Pirates. In 1982, the Pirates’ chief scout, Howie Haak, said he thought the team would have to establish a white-player quota to reverse the falling attendance figures at Three Rivers Stadium. “You can’t play nine blacks,” Haak was quoted that year.

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Thompson said he does not believe the Pirates’ dismal attendance figures have as much to do with race as with not being in the pennant race.

The 1985 Pirates have lost two-thirds of their games. The franchise may suffer its worst season since the 1952 team was 42-112. Attendance is running well behind last year’s pace, which saw the Pirates draw only 773,500--a drop of nearly a half-million in a year.

“I don’t know what happened to Dave (Parker), or how he alienated himself from the fans, but I don’t think there’s racial prejudice responsible for the problems we have with attendance,” Thompson said. “I mean, we had more blacks and Latins in the early ‘70s and in ’83 than we do now, and we didn’t have such problems then.”

The Pirates’ problems now are not as easily defined and involve many factors, including a federal drug investigation, a dismal win-loss record and a high Pittsburgh unemployment rate.

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But many of the team’s problems can be reduced to dollars and business sense. Several of the team’s high-salaried, off-season acquisitions--such as Steve Kemp, Sixto Lezcano, George Hendrick--failed to hit the ball well. The financially troubled Pittsburgh organization has made no secret of the fact that it would like to trade some of its high-priced players, such as Jason Thompson, who earns more than $1 million a year, according to Sports Illustrated. So, when Thompson was told that Pittsburgh General Manager Joe Brown called him “one of the best first basemen in the major leagues,” he was understandably unenthused.

“Really?” Thompson said with perfect aplomb. “That’s interesting. This year, all they talk about and want to do is trade players. It’s real hard to get a feel for how they feel for you when all they’re talking about is getting rid of you.”

Thompson’s ears have been ringing for a while now, but his phone hasn’t. No matter how often he has endured the talk and trades, Thompson said he has never gotten used to it.

During his days with the Angels, Thompson was the subject of almost daily trade rumors. In his one season at Anaheim, Thompson hit .317 with 17 homers and 70 RBIs to win team MVP. Thompson was therefore also considered the MMP--Most Marketable Player--among the regulars, the most enticing trade bait the Angels could dangle.

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And dangle they did.

One day the rumor was the Mets, the next day, the White Sox, the next, the Reds. One day, he was going to be traded for a pitcher, the next day for a catcher, the next for a first baseman.

Rumors dragged for months.

“Spring training was when it all started,” Thompson said. “Every day the newspapers said I was going somewhere else. Every day. It was really very unsettling, at the least. I knew I would be traded. It was just a matter of where and when.”

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Where was Pittsburgh and when was April, 1981. Although Autry has made getting Thompson a top priority after seeing his impressive Detroit debut and watching Thompson as an All-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. and All-District 8 pitcher and first baseman at CSUN, the front office thought otherwise. Less than six months after he arrived, Thompson was traded for catcher Ed Ott and Mickey Mahler and shipped to Pittsburgh--a place that wanted him even less than he wanted to be there.

“I was supposed to be sent to the Yankees in a three-team trade, but the (major league baseball) commissioner ruled that there was too much cash involved and ruled against the deal,” Thompson said. “Pittsburgh didn’t want me there, but they had to take me. It took me a while to be accepted on the team. That whole year was really messed up.”

That year did end up being Thompson’s worst in the major leagues. He put together a .242 batting average with 15 homers and 42 RBIs. But in 1982, Thompson came back swinging with a .284 average, including 31 homers and 101 RBIs.

“Every time Jason looked up in ’82, he was a contender,” Manager Chuck Tanner said. “His strength is power hitting, home runs. He’s not an aggressive, outgoing player. He does his job by example. He’s not vocal, not demonstrative. Instead, he always does his best in a quiet way.”

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Thompson, accessible and polite, is a man of few words. (Thompson was once quoted as saying, “When I’m hitting well, they say I’m quiet, and when I’m hitting poorly, they say I’m moody.”) Family and friends describe him as a reserved family man whose love for baseball has forced him to be more outgoing than he really is.

“He’s solid , got his head square on his shoulders,” said Mike Thompson, Jason’s older brother. “He’s a good family man, a good brother. He hasn’t let the attention, the fame or the money go to his head. He’s maintained very traditional values.”

Aside from doting on his wife and two sons at home in Pittsburgh, one of those traditional values is a deep love and respect for the game of baseball. You can see it when he talks about the game, especially the early days in Detroit.

“Those were very special years,” Thompson said. “Your first club in the majors is always very special. I loved that city, too, and the fans were the best. They treated me very well there and when I return there to visit my in-laws, people on the street still recognize me and say hello. . . .

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“I was 21 when I was called up by the Tigers and I was in awe, just in awe. It took a while for me to learn where I was when I first got there. It was like a dream. I think I was playing in the clouds for those first few months.”

Those clouds have turned gray.

“Not many fans come out to watch you play and you get used to that,” Thompson told the Associated Press recently. “If I had known it would be this bad, I would have never signed a new contract (in 1982). It would be nice to play where the fans came out and it was fun to play baseball.”

Added Mike Thompson: “Jason likes Chuck Tanner and his teammates, but he’s having a difficult time. . . . At times, the crowds are hostile and I know this bothers Jason more than anything else. He likes coming to Dodger Stadium, where the fans are supportive and there’s a more traditional baseball flavor.

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“When he was a kid, he collected baseball caps and cards and baseball was all he ever thought about. He loves the game, and I think, despite his age and the problems in Pittsburgh, he still retains some of that feeling.”

He retains enough of that spirit to remain undaunted.

“It’s tough to go out there when you’ve dropped five straight games,” he said. “You go out there and ignore it. You just have to keep going out there and do your best, every day.

“My job is to hit, to bring in the runs. And I get up every morning and do it. No matter how I feel.”

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THOMPSON’S MAJOR LEAGUE MARKS

YEAR CLUB G AB R H HR RBI AVG. 1976 Detroit 123 412 45 90 17 54 .218 1977 Detroit 158 585 87 158 31 105 .270 1978 Detroit 153 589 79 169 26 96 .287 1979 Detroit 145 492 58 121 20 79 .246 1980 Det.-Cal. 138 438 69 126 21 90 .288 1981 Pittsburgh 86 223 36 54 15 42 .242 1982 Pittsburgh 156 550 87 156 31 101 .284 1983 Pittsburgh 152 517 70 134 18 76 .259 1984 Pittsburgh 154 543 61 138 17 74 .254 1985 Pittsburgh 91 298 29 74 10 48 .248 M.L. Totals 1356 4647 621 1220 206 765 .262


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