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How I Feel About Tommy Pham

It’s complicated, but in a good way

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Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

I’m not going to lie to you guys. I’m having a hard time digesting the Tommy Pham trade. It’s not the return- people here have done a great job covering that. I think the return’s a little light, but I’d be the first to say that I’m not an authority on it. That’s all I’ll write about the return. Pham’s trade, though, has gotten me thinking about what I’m really rooting for when I root for the Cardinals. There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ve been a Cardinal fan my whole life, as long as I can remember. My dad claims, without much credibility, that some of my first words were ‘Ozzie Smif.’ I couldn’t pronounce my th’s that well, you see, because I was a small child. In any case, I’ve been a fan since I could walk. Before I go any further, I want to be clear about that.

When I was a kid, I was not what you’d call a knowledgeable baseball fan. I don’t mean knowledgeable about stats or player value or anything like that- no one was that kind of fan then, with the exception of maybe ten sabermetricians. I mean that I was just a kid who rooted for laundry. Like I said, I loved Ozzie. He did backflips! That’s pretty much all I knew about Ozzie, though. He played for the Cardinals, so I loved him. I was born in ‘85, so I missed the peak amazing Cardinals years, and I was pretty young during the doldrums of the late 80s and early 90s, to the point where all I know about that era of the Cards I’ve learned from the internet. Even when McGwire followed LaRussa and Duncan over to form the Oakland East teams and the home run chase made baseball exciting again, I was just a generic Cardinals fan. When Royce Clayton was starting to replace Ozzie, I made the long trek from East Tennessee to St. Louis with my dad to see the Wizard play one last time. He missed the two games I went to with a nagging injury. I didn’t care- there was just so much Cardinals there. I was dazzled by the fans, the sea of red, the whole works.

By the time I hit college, it was possible to know more about baseball. I read Moneyball. I started playing fantasy baseball. I argued with my friends that Jim Edmonds was an all-time great centerfielder and that he wasn’t just hot-dogging when he’d dive for balls. Still, though, I was a fan of the laundry. Some of this, I think, has to do with the media landscape back then. I’ve never lived in St. Louis or even particularly near it. My uncle used to send me the Post-Dispatch season preview every year, and that was always an exciting day. I’m pretty sure VEB didn’t exist, and I didn’t really read much about baseball on the internet. I just liked the Cardinals, as simple as that, without knowing anything about the players you couldn’t find in a box score. When the Cardinals made the World Series in my first year of college, my dad and I rented a car and drove twelve hours from Charlottesville to go to game four. Whoops! I stuck with it, though, bought programs to give to some of my jerk Red Sox friends, and got that sweet feeling of vindication courtesy of the ‘06 Cardinals.

My point, in forcing you all to read this meandering trip through a random stranger’s past, is that my relationship to the team was defined by two red birds on a bat, not by any actual human being. As I started learning more about the stats of baseball, that feeling was only heightened. I love math, and getting to sneak math into baseball was a dream come true. That all changed when Tommy Pham hit the majors. Not the first time. Not the second time either, or even the third time. I have a decent memory of when he was the Opening Day leftfielder in 2016 (Matt Holliday at first, the discerning man’s Jose Martinez at first), but that’s not what I mean either. I’m talking about Pham’s call-up in 2017.

By this point, I was an avid VEB reader, and this website was all over Pham liking a tweet of a Fangraphs article about how silly it was to play Matt Adams in the outfield. I’d describe my reaction as somewhere between giddy and amazed. I had read that article. I wanted to free Tommy Pham too! I read the same things as a baseball player who I already had a good reason to root for. I already liked Tommy Pham for the obvious reason- he was a Cardinal, a guy I’d read prospect reports about for years. Seeing his personality led me to start looking for more, though.

2017 was a pretty great time to like Tommy Pham. Everything he touched turned to gold. I dove into interviews, followed his Twitter, searched for any nuggets teammates had mentioned about him. Every time an article was posted here, I’d hope it was more insights about Pham. Now, obviously, him being amazing on the field was a key part of this. If he was just an anonymous Quad A player who got a cup of coffee and was never heard from again, I wouldn’t be writing this now. I wouldn’t be writing anything now, in fact. The first article I ever wrote for VEB was a Fanpost about how sustainable Pham’s batting line was.

Did his statistical exploits inform my judgment of Pham? Absolutely. You know what else did, though? Tommy Pham’s character. The man is an absolute maniac, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. In interviews, he was the best possible version of that crazy guy at your work who comes in early, stays late, and has a maniacal gleam in his eyes the whole time. He seems like the kind of guy who makes improbable-sounding boasts and then works sixty hours a week to learn how to back them up. There’s something truly impressive about Pham’s singular drive. It’s not a drive that comes without flaws- maybe you wouldn’t want to grab a beer after work with that crazy guy at your office. Maybe he’s a little too intense to hang around all the time. From a distance, though, it’s just an incredibly appealing quality. Rooting for someone self-made and self-driven is fun, and every little detail I learned about Tommy Pham made it increasingly clear that he fit the bill.

There are a few other things bouncing around in my brain that are tough to quantify, but that make me appreciate and root for Pham even more. First, it’s hard to imagine a player who was harder done by the wage structure of baseball than Pham. He toiled in the minor leagues for the better part of his career, earning sub-minimum wage salaries for the better part of eleven years. He felt basically the way you’d expect about it. When he reached the majors, he got a huge salary bump, but was still far more valuable for the team than his compensation. You don’t have to feel any way about the struggle between labor and capital in professional sports. I’m a Capital in the Twenty-First Century kind of guy myself, but I’m not here to talk economics. You don’t have to support a massive redistribution of wealth from teams to players to feel like Pham deserves to do well for himself. He’s not some bonus baby who cashed a three million dollar check and then got a low nominal salary for a few years while he waited for his major league ship to come in. Imagine working since you were eighteen, with Pham-level intensity, and waiting ten years to get compensated for it. It’s hard not to feel for the guy, even harder not to root for him.

I haven’t gotten around to talking about Pham’s childhood, and I’m not going to try to write some pithy hundred-word summation of it here, but I implore you, read about it. He’s seen some things. Before I started following Pham closely, I always assumed he was part of the Bryce Harper/Kris Bryant Las Vegas contingent, some rich kids with their baseball dads out in the desert having fun. I couldn’t have been further off the mark, and that only makes me root for him more. Read the Sports Illustrated article if you haven’t- it’s here. Nothing was given to Tommy Pham. That’s okay- it’s in his personality to go out and get it himself.

This is hard to write about, but I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a racial element to me rooting for Pham too. Like I said before, I’ve never lived in St. Louis, but my family’s from there and I’ve always felt a strong sense of pride for it. It hurt me to see the city so hurt these past several years, to see it derided in national media and seen as a backwards and bigoted place by some. Baseball writers whispered that African-American players didn’t want to go to St. Louis, that their families didn’t feel safe there. I always hoped that was untrue, though I’m obviously not the best person to judge. What better way to show the nation how misguided that story was, though, than a homegrown and beloved African-American athlete leading the Cardinals? I don’t know how realistic this narrative is, how much anyone ever believed that St. Louis was a bigoted city or how much the city’s love affair with Pham would change that, but I sure as hell felt that way last summer, and I still do now. When some fans turned on Dexter Fowler for a perceived lack of effort, it wasn’t hard to wonder what exactly was behind the criticism. Former VEB writer John Fleming did a great job writing about this, and without rehashing his writing, let me just say that the man has a point. When I read it, though, it just made me root for Pham to succeed even more. Good luck calling Tommy Pham lazy. Good luck not rooting for Tommy Pham. It’s impossible!

It must be tough being a symbol. I’ve never met Pham, but I use him as an exemplar of a lot of things I believe in. Tommy Pham won’t read this article, but if he did, he probably wouldn’t give a damn what I think. He’d probably ignore it and go back to running at ludicrous speed on a treadmill. And yet. And yet, Tommy Pham means a lot to me. All these concepts I care about- economic fair play, the value of hard work, wanting the little guy to get his, social justice- I see them all in Tommy Pham. Is that unfair for him? It absolutely is. He didn’t ask for other people’s expectations to be heaped on him. I feel pretty confident in saying that what Tommy Pham wants to do is be left alone so that he can play some damn baseball, or run some damn stairs, or whatever training regimen he thinks is going to give him an extra twentieth of a second of reaction time in a game nine months from now. Still, though, he does an incredible job of living up to those expectations. Tommy Pham just goes out and plays baseball, and the way he does it makes me feel a little better about the world, a little better about myself.

That pride I feel about Pham? The importance I place in him? That used to be the sole domain of the Cardinals as a team. Ten years ago, the Cardinals meant a lot to me, but the players didn’t mean that much aside from the fact that they played for a team that was so important to me. Albert Pujols? Great guy, loved having him on the Cardinals, as soon as he went to the Angels I was pretty much off it. David Freese? What an awesome story. Same thing, though- he went to the Angels, and I moved on. I’ve always been a Cardinals fan more than anything else, and the players have just been dudes who happen to play for the team I care so much about. It’s not like that anymore, though. I’m still a Cardinals fan, very much so. My enthusiasm for them hasn’t diminished even one iota. I’ve added to my fandom, though. As it turns out, there was room for more. I’m a Tommy Pham fan. I want the guy to succeed, and not in an ‘I hope all ex-Cardinals do well’ kind of way. I’m invested. I’m bought in. I hope he kicks the crap out of the AL East. I hope he has another six-win season in him. I’ve bought a Pham Rays jersey already. And I hope that in 2019, when the Cardinals and the Rays meet in the World Series, I hope Pham wins the MVP. In a losing effort, though. I have my limits.

This is all jumbled. It’s hard for me to explain, and it’s probably just as hard for you to read. Fandom is like that, though. You can’t always put it into words. Well, maybe you can, but I certainly can’t. Am I rambling? Absolutely. Is this all nonsense? I don’t think so. Tommy Pham’s really important to me, in a way that Cardinals players haven’t been previously. I wanted to write something about that. Here it is.