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What was Tommy Pham thinking when he signed my son’s baseball?

A brief encounter at a moment he could have gone on to greatness or oblivion.

Living in a Triple-A city, I watch a lot of minor league baseball. I’m always fascinated by the diversity of the guys on the field, in terms of where they’ve been and where they’re going.

You’ve got top picks in their early 20s, a million dollars in the bank (or in their car), knowing their phone is going to ring any day. You’ve got guys pushing 30, still filling out a roster but coming to terms with the fact that it’s probably not going to happen to them. You’ve got the ex-big-leaguers you swore retired years before. I watched a 42-year-old Manny Ramirez hit a home run in 2014.

I always wonder what is going on inside the mind of these players, and I’ve never wondered more than with Tommy Pham.

We saw a lot of Tommy here in the Pacific Coast League. He spent time in each of the last six seasons in AAA. For most of that time, he was the toolsy, oft-injured talent who just kept getting older and older for his level. Frankly, he was never one of the Redbirds I was most excited to see. I wanted to see the guys at the very top of the prospect rankings: Kolten Wong, Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk.

The first time I really found myself fascinated with Tommy was in 2016.

While Pham got a sniff of the majors in 2014, in 2015 he got 173 PAs. He posted an .824 OPS. He hit a home run in the postseason. And then in 2016, he was back in the PCL. Sure, he made the opening day roster and strained his oblique in his first at-bat. But even after he healed... he just kind of stayed in the minors.

So there he was, in the first week of June, doing his stretches and getting in his pregame work in the outfield of Principal Park in Des Moines. For one of the first times I can remember, I watched a guy without any real idea what he was. Was this a prospect on his way up? He already was 28-years-old. Was this a guy who had already missed his shot? The tools were still eye-popping.

My son was nine at the time, and just beginning his career as a real autograph hawk. He knew to lean over the low wall down the first base line and try to catch the players as they walked from the outfield into the visitor’s dugout. And so there he stood, among the throng of wide-eyed kids and unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, quite a few pushy, adult weirdos.

Watching my son navigate this little dance with the players has become one of my favorite things at the ballpark, as I do from well back in the seats. It’s also the most clear window into the various psychologies of the players on the field.

The older players - the ones who don’t appear on any prospect lists - come over first. Their demeanor is gentle and unassuming. They know that the adult collectors, the eBay speculators, have no interest in them. But they know that they can still brighten the faces of the kids, because a professional baseball player just signed their ball.

But everybody, even the kids, are really holding out for the one or two guys who appear on the MLB Pipeline rankings. Like a headliner waiting for the opening acts to finish, these guys invariably come over last. The mob crushes in along the little section of fence where they stand, two-dozen arms outstretched at once.

On that June day in 2016, even if we weren’t sure if he was a prospect or a has-been, Tommy Pham was the autograph everybody wanted to get.

He made his way to the wall and started working his way down the line. He signed for a kid, then another kid. Then he skipped an adult and signed for another kid. Then he skipped another adult.

“Hey Tommy, what the hell?” One of the adults yelled.

“Just for the kids,” Tommy replied.

That started a ruckus among the eBay crowd. Who did this guy think he was? He was called a jerk and a few other things. But Tommy kept working his way down the line, signing for as many kids as he had time for. He signed an official Little League baseball my son had grabbed out of the garage on the way to the ballpark.

That moment always stuck with me. Here as a guy who was simultaneously an aloof major league big shot and also maybe just a career minor leaguer with a couple hundred at-bats in the show, depending on who you asked. How did he see himself, I wondered?

We usually never know how the players see themselves. But the Sports Illustrated profile posted yesterday gave us a look into the open book that is Tommy Pham, and so now I know for certain that very moment was a critical one in his career. He wondered what he was just like we did. He was cusp of either pushing forward or hanging it up for good. Neither would have been surprising.

What has been surprising - historic, even - is the success that Tommy Pham has pushed himself to at such a late age. We should be grateful that he kept grinding it out, that he kept pushing himself to get even better, and we should enjoy it for as long as it lasts.