Spring 2021 Magazine

21 MLB players to watch in 2021: Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Ryan Thompson

Through the month of March, leading up to MLB Opening Day on April 1,
Sports Spectrum is highlighting 21 Christ-following players to watch in 2021.

Everything seemed to be going right for Rays pitcher Ryan Thompson in 2020. He was on a big-league roster for the first time and made his MLB debut on July 24. Before long he was pitching in the World Series, and pitching well.

But the fulfillment Thompson expected to come with his individual and team success never arrived.

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“Going as far as I did, making it to the World Series and performing in the World Series, I thought that was the Holy Grail,” he said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s the pinnacle of my sport. I’m there and this is supposed to give me this pleasure, this reward. And it didn’t.”

Three days after the Rays fell to the Dodgers, Thompson broke down while flying home to Oregon.

“I was in the middle of a flight, and I cannot explain it,” he said. “I just had a breakdown. Everything just hit me at once … I’ve never cried in public before, and it just hit me.”

Thompson, who became a Christian in 2016, had a real “come to Jesus” moment. He realized his behavior wasn’t reflecting his priorities, namely his faith and the relationship with his girlfriend he’d just put on pause.

“I had all these revelations,” the 28-year-old said. “I had sacrificed this relationship that I knew was a gift from God. I sacrificed my relationship with God. I had basically given up everything I could give up for this baseball dream.”

His major-league career started off fairly well, as he posted a 4.44 ERA in 26.1 innings during the regular season, helping Tampa Bay win the American League East for the first time since 2010.

Thompson saved his best for the postseason, though. He only gave up two runs (both earned) in 9.1 innings of work, striking out 10 batters and allowing seven hits. Just one of the nine Dodgers he faced in the World Series reached base, via a walk. None of them got a hit off him.

Thompson credits sessions put on by Baseball Chapel during the pandemic for introducing him to a concept he has started to truly understand: Baseball is what he does, it’s not who he is.

“That shook my world,” Thompson said. “Because baseball has been — it seemed like it was — my identity.”

Changing the way he views his identity has been part of his transformation.

“I sat there and I just kind of evaluated who I was in my life, all the things that I sacrificed to get there,” Thompson said. “I thought about it, and I’m still acting like baseball is who I am. I’m trying to tell myself how I’m supposed to act, but who I am is a Son of God.”

A new season provides the 23rd-round draft pick (out of Campbell University back in 2014) a fresh start in more ways than one. Thompson knows what life as a big leaguer is like now and doesn’t have to worry about everything that comes with being a rookie.

It also gives him an opportunity to apply his newfound perspective on life with God at the center, and live out his faith in a deeper way.

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