DUNEDIN, Fla. – Rich Thompson is easy to pick out in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse.
The Aussie accent stands out, for one. Then there’s the Athens 2004 Olympic tattoo on the back of his shoulder.
The 28-year-old right-handed reliever signed a minor-league contract with the Jays in December that came with an invitation to spring training. He arrives from a brief stint with Oakland and a lengthy spell in the Angels organization.
It’s another chapter in a baseball career that has taken Thompson around the globe. He’s starting his 12th season in pro baseball.
The Aussie pitcher is not to be confused with the American outfielder Rich Thompson, whose career includes stints in the Toronto, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Arizona, Boston, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay organizations.
This Thompson signed with the Angels when he was 17.
“It’s been a long road, but hopefully we can get some more time in the big leagues. And get some more Aussies in the big leagues,” he said.
When he came over to North America in 2002, he wasn’t sure what to expect. But he knew just signing a pro contract wasn’t the end of his journey.
“It was always my goals to get to the big leagues. And stay for a long time. And it’s been pretty good so far. I’m still getting a uniform,” he added with a smile.
Thompson had a good 2011, spending the entire season with the Angels. He went 1-3 with a 3.00 ERA with 56 strikeouts and 20 walks in 54 innings.
But last year, his major league experience was limited to three innings in total with the Angels and Oakland. He spent the bulk of the year with the Sacramento River Cats, the Athletics’ farm team in the Pacific Coast League.
Thompson still isn’t sure what happened.
“It was kind of a funny year,” he said. “I thought I had done OK the year before. Just the way things played out, I spent most of the year in Triple-A.”
Thompson is probably a exercise in depth for the Jays, who are hoping they get the 2011 version. There are two spots up for grabs in the bullpen and Thompson’s name has not been mentioned in the sweepstakes.
“He’s going to get some opportunities to pitch here, no doubt,” said pitching coach Pete Walker, choosing his words carefully. “He’ll get his innings and hopefully he makes the most of it.”
Thompson, however, is nothing but positive.
“It’s really good, it’s exciting. Nice to get a new start,” he said. “And hopefully a good new experience here with the Blue Jays.”
His goal is to just to give it his best shot. “There’s nothing more I can do than perform my best.”
Thompson, who throws a fastball, curve, cutter and change-up, has already drawn praise at camp.
“You were getting reactions from hitters saying he’s hiding the ball well, you can’t see it,” catcher Josh Thole said after handling Thompson during a live batting practice session. “A good mix of pitches too.”
Thompson’s baseball journey led him to his wife, who is from Arkansas. They have a two-year-old son and a home there, but spend about a month a year in Australia.
“Not long enough for me, but that’s the way it is,” he said.
A native of Hornsby, Australia, he went to high school in Sydney. He played just about every sport growing up, including T-ball from the age of five and a half.
“I really never stopped, just fell in love with the game straight away. It was just a constant in my life. Everything else came and went. And I just kept playing baseball and kept going through the ranks playing with Australian teams and state teams. And I ended up getting signed.”
It took time to get to the majors. He made his debut Sept. 1, 2007, against Texas, striking out two before giving up a double to (Ian) Kinsler. He wrapped up a scoreless inning by getting a groundout to second base.
“It’s funny how you remember your debut,” he said with a smile.
“It was a breath of fresh air for me,” he added. “It just spurred on everything. To get that first taste of the big leagues was really amazing.”
He has appeared in the majors every year since then, although some seasons were shorter than others. His career MLB totals read 3-4 with a 4.21 ERA, 105 strikeouts and 37 walks in 82 games (104.2 innings).
In 2004, a 20-year-old Thompson won an Olympic silver medal with Australia.
The Aussie defeated Daisuke Matsuzaka and Japan 1-0 in one semifinal while Cuba defeated Canada 8-5 in the other. The Cubans went on to win the gold-medal game 6-2 while Japan downed Canada 11-2 to take the bronze.
“A tremendous experience,” said Thompson, who joked the Australians were “favoured to come seventh.”
One of 31 Australians to play in the majors, Thompson is the first from Down Under to play for an MLB all-star team, touring Taiwan in 2011.
Thompson follows in the footsteps of Japanese-born Australian pitcher Micheal Nakamura, one of several Australians who have gone through the Toronto system.
“It’s pretty great to be here actually,” said Thompson, “because when I first signed originally, it was between the Angels and the Blue Jays.
“It’s kind of exciting to play for a Commonwealth team. And I really love Toronto when I’ve been there as a visitor.”