Robby Thompson, who was named yesterday as Eric Wedge’s bench coach, authored the most courageous feat I’ve ever witnessed on the diamond during my 25 years covering baseball.
First, a little background. Thompson and I both arrived in San Francisco in 1986, he as the largely unheralded rookie second baseman on a Giants’ team that had lost 100 games the previous season, and me as a newly hired reporter at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, assigned to cover all the Bay Area teams.
Thompson immediately established himself as one of those scrappy, over-achieving infielders — think David Eckstein, but with more offensive skills — that help teams win. And the Giants, under new manager Roger Craig (and with considerable contribution from their other rookie starter, first baseman Will Clark), went 83-79 in 1986. One year later, they won the NL West division and wound up one win away from World Series before losing two straight to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
That was the start of a productive career for Thompson, who would go on to make two All-Star teams and battle through innumerable injuries. In 1993, when this incident occurred, the Giants engaged in a truly epic battle with the Braves for the NL West title, with both teams heading into the final game of the season tied with 103 victories. Remember, this was the last season before the wild card was instituted, so one of these teams was going to go home with the empty distinction of having more victories than any second-place team in history.
Thompson was in the midst of his best season, a not insignficant contributor to a Giants’ lineup that had been reinvigorated by the arrival of Barry Bonds, who would be the NL MVP that season. Thompson wound up hitting .312 with 19 homers, 65 RBIs and a .870 OPS, as well as winning a Gold Glove. Those who were around the team will tell you, as well, that Thompson was the emotional leader of that Giants’ team.
But on Sept. 24 at Candlestick Park, in the heat of the pennant race, a horrible incident occurred. Padres closere Trevor Hoffman, who could bring the heat in those days, came up and in with a fastball that hit Thompson in the face with a horrifying thud. He went down in a pool of blood, writhing on the ground. Anyone who was there will never forget the stunned silence that overcame a large crowd at the Stick. Dusty Baker, the GIants’ first-year manager, compared Thompson’s cheekbone to a hard-boiled egg that had been dropped. Veteran players said it was the worst beaning they had ever seen.Thompson’s left eye swelled shut, and he was rushed off via ambulance to Stanford Hospital for tests.
The diagnosis came back as a broken left cheekbone, and Thompson was categorized as out for the season. After seeing him back in the clubhouse a few days later, you could understand why. Bruce Jenkins in the SF Chronicle wrote, “His left eye is fire-engine red, and under the skin his cheekbone is a jigsaw puzzle.” It wasn’t quite Tony Conigliaro, but it was pretty bad.
Meanwhile, the Braves and Giants went back and forth, swinging at each other like two heavyweights. The Giants went 14-2 down the stretch to catch the Braves, both with 103-58 records heading into Sunday’s Game 162.
That final game for the GIants, at Dodger Stadium, loomed huge, obviously, the focus of all of baseball. You almost had to assume the Braves would win their game, behind Tom Glavine, and sure enough they did, 5-3, over the Rockies (the Rockies were 0-13 against the Braves that year, to the Giants’ ever-lasting frustration). Baker decided to send rookie Salomon Torres to the mound against the Dodgers, choosing him over veterans Scott Sanderson and Jim Deshaies in a decision that would be second-guessed for a generation.
And when the lineup was posted, lo and behold, there was Robby Thompson, penciled in at second base and batting in his customary No. 2 hole. He had pleaded with Baker to let him play, and the Giants’ medical staff had fashioned a massive hard plastic mask, something straight out of Phantom of the Opera, to protect his face.
There was no storybook ending. Torres got shelled, the Giants lost 12-1, and their season ended in misery — 103 wins and no playoffs. Thompson went 0-for-4. But just by standing in there against Dodger starter Kevin Gross — another guy who could bring some pretty good heat — and holding his ground, Thompson made a huge statement about guts and fortitude. I remember that every Giants player was in awe that Thompson had even played.
If Thompson, in his role as bench coach, ever tells a Mariner player to toughen up, he’ll have some credibility behind those words.