When Darrell Thompson went unsigned after the 2016 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft came and went, the former Sherando High School and Shenandoah University pitcher turned his attention to another career path.
He began graduate school that summer with the intent on becoming an athletic trainer, he recalled last week, but Thompson was back in school only a short while when he got the phone call that put him back on the path to a professional baseball career.
The call came not eight hours after Thompson learned his grandfather had passed away, he said, and it ended up being an offer to pitch for the Roswell Invaders, a New Mexico-based pro team that competes in the Pecos League on one of the lowest levels of independent baseball. Former SU teammate and fellow left-hander Mike Scimanico would be joining Thompson, he learned, and the two jumped at the opportunity.
Thompson and Scimanico finished out the 2016 season in Roswell and re-signed with the team for 2017 and played a full season with the Invaders that summer.
“I’ll just give you a little background on the Pecos League real quick. We’re playing at like high school fields. We get paid $50 a week. We had to drive to our own games, so we’re driving through the night from New Mexico to Kansas and the next day turning around and playing games there,” said Thompson, who was the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore at Shenandoah in 2014. “It was definitely an experience and … it was a lot of self-thought of ‘how much do I really love this game, and do I really wanna go through with this for another year?’”
At one point during the 2017 season, Thompson recalled he and Scimanico looking at each other and deciding, “Dude, we can’t do this anymore.” Thompson didn’t have the funds to do another year in the Pecos League, he said, and he and Scimanico competed in 2017 with the intent of performing as well as they could.
Thompson made 12 starts for Roswell that summer, posting a 7-1 record with a 5.86 ERA, 73 strikeouts and 41 walks in 63 innings. It was enough to open a door for Thompson with the Gary SouthShore RailCats in the American Association, which another former Shenandoah player, outfielder Abel Arocho, recently referred to as the “big leagues” of independent baseball.
At the end of Roswell’s season, Thompson moved on to Gary, which he said was in need of a left-handed reliever. A starter his entire baseball career since his days at Sherando, Thompson made two relief appearances with the RailCats at the end of the 2017 season and returned to Gary for spring training in 2018.
But a chance to serve as a starting pitcher with the RailCats wasn’t in the cards. Gary used a four-man starting rotation, Thompson said, and the team already had lefties entrenched in three of those spots. Thompson recalled being told that if he wanted to continue his career as a starter, there was a spot available on Gary’s sister team in the Frontier League, the Schaumburg Boomers.
Thompson was on the move again. However, he’d make just one start with Schaumburg, located in Illinois, before being told that he didn’t pace himself well enough to be a starting pitcher, but that with his arm slot and delivery, he could be a valuable asset out of the bullpen for the Boomers.
Thompson turned into a full-time reliever in 2018, and he’d finish the season with a 3.79 ERA, 45 strikeouts and 24 walks in 35 ⅔ innings over 29 total appearances. Fully acclimated to life as a reliever, Thompson returned to Schaumburg in 2019 and thrived in a late-inning role, posting a 2.98 ERA, 62 strikeouts and 20 walks in 45 ⅓ innings. He averaged 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
At one point during the 2019 season, Thompson said a scout from the New York Mets saw him throw and then was invited to a private workout for the MLB organization in February, before the COVID-19 outbreak forced Major League Baseball to shut down spring training last month and put the 2020 season on hold. Thompson said the workout, which took place in St. Lucie, Florida, was essentially a live scrimmage featuring the 20 pitchers and position players who were invited.
“I faced five hitters, I gave up one hit, which was a little change-up up the middle, right by second base. Other than that I had two strikeouts and then the guy that got a base hit, I picked him off,” Thompson said. “I threw pretty well. They said they didn’t have any spots for me right now because spring training had just started, and then spring training still hasn’t started so they haven’t made cuts yet. They did say they’re gonna keep eyes on me, so I’m on their radar. They said if I pretty much put up good numbers again like I did last year and a reliever spot opens up then I’ll be a guy that they consider. Luckily that went well.”
When Thompson returned from the Mets tryout in mid-February, he was stuck in a state of limbo as the new coronavirus pandemic gained steam and prompted professional sports leagues of all levels to take action in response to slowing the spread.
Thompson was told the Mets at that time couldn’t sign players, he said, so he went on vacation to Telluride, Colorado, where he took a major step in his personal life and got engaged. When he returned home to Middletown, Thompson needed to make more concrete plans for the 2020 season, so he reached out to Schaumburg manager Jamie Bennett, who informed him that the Boomers had a place for him this summer.
Thompson recently re-signed with Schaumburg, he said, though the status of the 2020 season is uncertain across the entire landscape of pro baseball.
“Fortunately for us, we start a little later. Our original report date for spring training is April 29, so as of now I haven’t heard anything about pushing that date back or anything like that,” Thompson said March 31, adding that he doesn’t anticipate the Frontier League season to start on time. Schaumburg’s first game is scheduled for May 14.
As with many other athletes, Thompson has found it difficult to stay baseball ready in a time when self-quarantine and state-wide lockdowns are becoming the norm.
In a typical offseason, Thompson, who works as a throwing instructor at Frisby’s Agility, Speed & Strength Training (FASST) in Winchester, follows workout programs designed by co-worker Brandon Holder during free time before his evening lessons with his students.
Gov. Ralph Northam recently closed all non-essential businesses in the state, leaving Thompson, who said he’d been ramping up his workouts and making tweaks to his slider and change-up in anticipation of beginning the season in May, seeking other ways to stay in shape.
Thompson said he’s recently resorted to visiting the local baseball field – which he said measures 350 feet to center field – in Middletown, where he throws long toss from home plate and tries to place the ball between a pair of flag poles that lie beyond the fence in right-center.
For someone still trying to make his way into affiliated ball as a pro baseball player, Thompson said the current state of affairs has produced some “mind games.”
“I try to keep a positive mindset on everything that we’re gonna play this season, but I turn 26 in April and if this season gets canceled due to this, it’s like am I gonna come back (next season)?” Thompson said. “The thing that’s been keeping me in it is I told myself I’m gonna climb this ladder as long as I can, and as long as I keep getting better every year, I’ll continue to play. Fortunately for me, that’s been the case so far. Every year I get better, my numbers get better, my understanding of pitching and what pitches to throw, just everything, the whole experience that comes in behind it, it gets better.”
Thompson added an entire cancellation of the 2020 season would “throw a wrench in the whole plan.”
“I’ll have to do a lot of thinking because I’m engaged, I’m trying to start my own life and that’s hard to do off a minor league budget,” he said. “I’m really hoping that we play. That’s the big thing. I want to play this year. I feel very strong in how well I’ve been training this offseason. I want to put up those big numbers as soon as possible, as soon as we get there and just dominate for the whole beginning part of the season where I don’t give anyone a reason not to sign me.”