Welcome to exactly why this series exists.
Tom Thobe spent eight years in professional ball, though that doesn’t include a four year layoff. In those eight years, he pitched in just seven games in the major leagues. Players like Thobe wouldn’t be much of a blimp in today’s era of hyper-analysis, but he especially wouldn’t get much of a mention in the mid-90’s era of “just report the basics” news coverage. But like I said, that’s why I love this series. As a fan of the game and long shots in general, giving Thobe some due is what brings me back to this column weekly.
Born a couple of weeks after Woodstock ’69, Thobe was born in Kentucky, but would graduate from Edison High School in Huntington Beach, California in 1987. That year, the Cubs made him their 38th round draft choice as part of a group of players that would also produce Matt Franco. Thobe would head to Wytheville, Virginia for the 1988 season and pitched 18 games with the Cubs. The results weren’t pretty. That’s what we in the biz call the classic “undersell.” His ERA was five points away from an even 9.00, or an earned run for every inning thrown. It “led” the Appy League and his ten homers surrendered was three off the pace for the worst total.
So, I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise that Thobe quit baseball after 1988. After all, baseball is littered with guys just like Thobe. One and done. He went back home to California and while his parents were likely supportive, they also knew he was wasting his potential after one bad experience. Okay, a really bad experience.
His mother informed him of a open try-out and asked him to give baseball another try. Worst case, you give it your best shot and move on with life. After the open try-out didn’t produce the velocity he needed, Thobe was set up by a former coach for a personal showing for a Braves scout. He found another couple of ticks of velocity and with his curveball looking good, the Braves signed him and brought him to spring training ahead of the 1993 season. He started at Macon that year and played well enough to skip past Durham and head to Greenville for 1994. Again, the production was there. That led him to a 1995 season with the Richmond Braves were he dominated the International League, posting a 1.84 ERA in 88 innings with a 1.03 WHIP. His great year didn’t end there, though. By late September, Thobe was getting a cup of coffee with the big league club. As he walked into the locker room, he saw his jersey sandwiched between the jerseys of Steve Avery and Greg Maddux. Pretty special.
Thobe struggled in two of his three outings, but he did get something for his troubles. A World Series ring. And if you have an extra $20K, you can have that very same ring.
In 1996, Thobe broke camp with the Braves as an extra left-hand arm. He wasn’t one of Bobby Cox‘s guys, which is why he probably came in for a wild game on April 21. Avery had tossed eight scoreless that day against the visiting Padres, but the ageless Fernando Valenzuela had gone six scoreless himself. The Padres got a run, charged to Brad Clontz, in the ninth, but a two-out walk by Chipper Jones against Trevor Hoffman led to a game-tying double by Fred McGriff. The Braves worked through the rest of the pen as the game stayed tied. In the 13th, the Braves had a chance to win it. Marquis Grissom doubled and with one out, Chipper walked again. However, this time, McGriff could only fly out. The pitcher’s spot was due up next and the Braves had to waste Mike Bielecki, who only threw one inning, and their last position player, Tony Graffanino, in order to go for the win. Graffy K’d on four pitches.
That led to Thobe, the last guy out of the pen. He worked around a single to pitch a quiet 14th. In the 15th, things kinda unraveled. Rickey Henderson singled and on a grounder that followed, Thobe would be charged with a throwing error. He would pick up a second error when he missed first base on the next play. Bases loaded, nobody out. He wouldn’t give up another base-runner, but he did surrender a sacrifice fly. The Braves would rally to try to prolong the game in the 15th. Mark Lemke singled, but after Chipper struck out looking for the second out, the Padres could see the bench was empty and Thobe was due up next. They put McGriff on, putting the tying run on second, but getting the far less threatening hitter at the plate. Ted Turner was yelling, “Get ’em, Lefty!” Cox was putting the take sign on in hopes the opposing pitcher walked Thobe. But Thobe missed the sign. Twice. Oopsie. He grounded out to second and after one more appearance in the bigs, his major league career was over.
Thobe struggled with Richmond after his demotion in 1996 and wasn’t impressive the following year, either. The Braves and Thobe parted ways and he would pitch the next two seasons for three different squads, including two stops in independent ball, but his career was over before the end of the century. He returned home to work in the hotel business before transitioning into a project manager at Ben’s Asphalt of Santa Ana. One of their biggest projects? Resurfacing the parking lot of Angels Stadium. Thobe might quit baseball, but he somehow finds it again regardless.