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Tommy Pham: Authentic, Honest, Raw and Scary to Fans Who Prefer Phonies

Let’s talk about Tommy Pham.

Or, as I meant to  say, Tommy Mutha——- Pham. 

The center fielder who would climb the outfield wall to make a catch, who would try to run through that wall to make a catch … who would willingly end his own career by suffering an injury just to help his team win a game ..

Well, he actually broke apart baseball’s wall of protocol and put his career out there on the line by going off  in an interview with SI. Pham directed his rage at Cardinals’ management for past injustices, used more F-bombs than other words that start with letters other than F, channeled his inner Zach de la Rocha, made some of Our Finest Citizens unhappy.

But many Cardinals fans are supportive of Pham, and that must be stressed as well.

Just so I make myself clear: unlike what you will read elsewhere in our village, there will be no straddling of the fence here.

I support Pham 100 percent.

I support Pham 100 percent for a lot of reasons, but let me share a personal story that explains why I think I relate to him.

It was a long time ago. My newspaper career was incubating. I wasn’t in college. I didn’t get a degree. I dropped out. My late parents — and I miss them and love them — were extremely disappointed in me. For a while, they pretty much wrote me off as a failure. Tough time, but I was determined to do it my way.

I got a part-time gig at dying newspaper in Baltimore just by hounding them until they said Yes, come on down, at least you’ll stop bugging us.  I was paid minimum wage. I lived on saltines left behind on the copy desk, and the occasional turkey sandwich from the tavern next door, often donated by a bartender who felt sorry for me. In a year, I was hired as a full-time writer. It was still a struggle, but I kept pushing, trying to move forward, working like a fiend. A year after that, I was covering pro football. I was really young, but I hustled like a wild man, no one outworked me, so I broke a lot of news stories. And I was very much broken … financially.

A former editor had moved to another paper, in Pittsburgh. He had three jobs open. I called him. I told him I wanted to apply for one, two three or any of the jobs, depending on what made sense to him.

He laughed at me. He was insulted that I had the audacity to think I was good enough to work for him, and that I was qualified to even apply for one of the jobs. I’ll never forget what he said next … I’ll never forget it for as long as I am living and still capable of remembering that sneering voice on the phone.

The man said:   “I would never hire you. You’re not ready now, and I  don’t think you’ll ever be ready.” 

I tried to explain: hey, I was a kid then. I’ve grown. No rookie. I’m a veteran. I’ve done a lot since you were here.

He laughed at me again.

“Not a chance,” he said. “I really don’t know why you bothered me with this. I have 300 resumes to go through and if your resume’s is in here, you’d probably be at No. 298. But check back with me in a few years.” 

A few years? And that was just a throwaway line because I think that even he realized he was being unnecessarily cruel.

Let me tell you all … I was crushed. A former editor, someone I looked up to, ridiculed me for applying for a job in his sports department.

I was down for a few hours, and then I got mad…. in the best possible way… and I’ve stayed mad.

Because of that humiliating experience, I’ve never stopped working and pushing and the intensity still burns. I’ve never let up. I work a helluva lot harder than I need to. I think people around me just realize I’m a mad man. But I don’t care. That phone call — that phone call  … I’ll show you.

I’m  59; is that crazy? Sure is.

Crazy like Tommy Pham.

Carrying that around, motivating me, some 37 years later.

Let me give you the postscript to the story …

A year later … only ONE YEAR … after the phone conversation that was so demoralizing it could have killed my dreams and my desire to be a sportswriter, the same jackass editor called. Oh, what’s that? He wanted to hire me to cover the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Well, as it turns out, in the year since he tried to ruin my confidence, I had won a couple of major national reporting/writing awards, and broken some major stories, and I was getting a few job offers from newspapers looking for a football beatwriter. But no, I didn’t expect to be recruited from THAT GUY.

Anyway, he offered me the Steelers’ gig. Said I didn’t have to interview for it. I was the choice. The pick. The one. Let’s talk about salary, he suggested. Here’s what I’ll pay you.

I interrupted…

“Bleep You,” I said … (except I didn’t say “bleep.”)

He responded, “Excuse me?”

Me:  “Go bleep yourself. I’d never work for you.”  (Again… I used a word other than ‘”Bleep.”)

Was I over the top? Yeah, probably. But I saw no reason to be a phony. I don’t think wounded animals who are primed to strike back at the source of the pain are going to worry about showing good manners.

Oh, so you think I’m going to shame Tommy Pham because he’s still angry about simmering or boiling grievances? No way.

And if you get mad at me for supporting Pham, well that’s your right, and you can get mad at me. And you can say mean things … and you can breath fire in my direction … and you can bring the invective … In other words, you can do the Tommy Pham thing too!

This Pham interview was not surprising.

This interview was Pham being Pham.

Being himself instead of a phony … a politician … just being who he really is.

And here’s what Pham is: a man who has pushed his way through all sorts of terrible things, including a very tough childhood, and circumstances he couldn’t control, and having to wear leg braces as a kid, and having a sorry no-account father who abandoned him, and watching the people he loved struggle every day just to get through to another day… and getting drafted late, and signing a minor league contract, and getting knocked down by injuries, and healing and recovering and rising only to get knocked down by another injury … and then another injury … and then another injury … and another.

And then having to deal with detours, and seeing preferred prospects move ahead, while he stays behind… and getting the sense that he wasn’t wanted, and NOTHING would be given to him, including the benefit of the doubt, not like the other outfield prospects who were acquired in a trade, or drafted in the first round, and had to look good to make the front office look good.

Knowing that he was on the B list — not the A list like the others — didn’t stop Pham, either. Ticked him off, but didn’t stop him. The rough childhood didn’t stop him, the injuries didn’t stop him, the politics of the profession didn’t stop him… hell, blindness couldn’t stop him. BLINDNESS! Nothing would defeat Pham, not when he has all of this roiling inside of him…

Call it anger, hunger, pride, intensity, edge, rage, drive, motivation, fuel, or an unbreakable will.

It’s there, all of it … and Pham has drawn from his volatile emotional tank  to constantly overcome everything and anything. And one he proved he belonged, and that could play at the highest level in the majors — his phenomenal 2017 season was one of the best by a Cardinal in franchise history — Pham wasn’t going to relax. No, he’d be more determined than every to maintain what he’s earned. He wouldn’t let mediocrity creep in through complacency. Not chance. He’d dig in even harder. Easy Street? He didn’t know the way to Easy Street. So F that Easy Street. It’s always going to be the hard streets, the back streets, for T Pham. That’s how he stays tough.

Does this raw, high-voltage emotion affect his play? Damn right it does. It affects his play in a way that makes him a special player — the very best this team had in 2017. And it affects his performance in a way that makes the Cardinals better. And this is why fans have loved watching Tommy Pham going 100 percent, maxing out all of the time, never easing up, never cheating them or himself, and respecting the game by playing the game with peak intensity. If he went about this as if he thought the next game would be his last … well, maybe that’s because it  could  be his last. This is one person who takes nothing for granted, not for a second.

That’s Tommy Pham. That same intensity that you admire on the field — the intensity that you applaud and hold up as an example of how a ballplayer should go about it every day — can bubble over and flare up in other ways … like his tirade in the SI interview. But here’s the end result: the hard edge you surfaced in that interview wasn’t a different side of Tommy Pham; it was the essence of Tommy Pham … he’s authentic … he’s real … he’s raw … and this is why he was able to survive so much physical damage and depressing developments …  and this is why he plays his heart out every time he steps on a baseball diamond… this dude will give you everything he has to give, and he may even give you some things you don’t want … like going like an old b-52 to drop all of those F bombs.

And if some of Our Finest Citizens reacted with a “just shut up and play,” order to Tommy Pham … well, they don’t get him, and never will, and they want him to stay in his lane, because no one likes a mouthy player, right? …. well, unless the mouthy player looks like them, and then the mouthy player is “fiery” and a “fierce competitor” and hey, wasn’t that John Lackey was awesome as a Cardinal,  the way he was stomping around the mound and cursing umpires and spitting like a 3-year-old having a tantrum?

These closed-off souls don’t comprehend the reasons why Pham made it this far … and why he was able to have the strength of character to recover from setback after setback, and to persevere from the bad breaks that came on top of bad breaks … and why he found the resolve — and defiance — to keep going when he got put on the disabled list again, or passed over repeatedly, until his career had almost faded to nothing. The anger and the rage was about all Pham had left at times — that and talent — but he wasn’t surrendering. He would prove it … that if he stayed healthy and received a fair opportunity — would become an elite MLB outfielder.

You can’t watch Pham on the field and like him, and admire him,  and appreciate how many obstacles he’s cleared down to earn the spot as your center fielder.  You can’t cheer that Tommy Pham, and then pivot and tell that other Tommy Pham — the outraged and outspoken Pham — to shut up and play baseball. They are one and the same. Pham is the maximum-intensity ballplayer that makes you so happy because of the maximum-intensity righteousness that makes you so unhappy.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Tommy Pham Did Some Serious Cardinals Venting to SI. Here Are Some Highlights.