ST. LOUIS -- Tommy Pham strode into the interview room at St. Louis’ downtown Hyatt Regency like a seasoned pro. He was the first Cardinal player to talk to reporters during the club’s three-day Winter Warm-Up event, and he entered wearing a sharp black jacket, tan chinos and boots with a gold chain around his neck. Everything about the presentation was confident and laden with poise, but the first words out of his mouth were more like a nervous inner monologue, “No tough questions.”
There aren’t many difficult questions about Pham’s play. He finally got an extended major-league stay in 2015, flashing the talent that keeps the St. Louis front office so optimistic about his future, even at 27. He belted five homers, raced for five triples, hit .268 and made highlight-reel catches in the outfield like he was shagging balls in BP.
The tough question for Pham, as it has been for much of his career, is how does he stay healthy enough to keep a good thing going?
The health problems started with his eyes.
Despite tremendous talent, Pham was struggling to hit in the minors. From 2006-2008, he needed a lot of work and some luck to get his average over .200. That final year he struck out 156 times in 113 games. A visit to an eye specialist revealed Pham had a degenerative eye disorder, which explained he was having trouble tracking pitches
“After ‘08 is when I learned about keratoconus, and that I had it. So ‘09 was my first season really transitioning into the contacts,” he said. “The problem with glasses is the prescription is in the center of your lens. When you’re trying to hit a baseball, the ball is moving, so if you’re tracking the ball like this (standing profile and tracking the ball from your left to your right), you might not be seeing the prescription through the middle of the lens. You don’t want your head to move when you’re hitting. You just want to track it with your eyes.”
It took awhile for Pham to adjust to the contacts, but by the second half of 2009 he settled in. His ‘09 season saw him cut more than 50 strikeouts from the previous year’s total, and only 45 came in the second half.
Things were trending up, and Pham was looking toward the next challenge. Then in 2010, he broke his wrist. The next year, he tore a ligament in his wrist attempting to rob a home run ball and halted his 2011 season after 40 games. He was hitting .294 at the time.
In 2012 he tore his labrum diving for a ball. He played with the injury for a time but eventually underwent surgery. In 2013, it was his other labrum, following a promotion to Triple-A Memphis. He came back and hit .301 in 45 games in Double-A.
Finally in 2014, Pham was able to stay relatively healthy. He played in 104 games for the Memphis Redbirds, hitting .324 with 10 homers and 44 RBI. Most importantly, he struck out just 81 times. Last season was to be the year he broke camp with the big club, but a torn quad in spring training put him out of commission for more than two months.
He eventually found his way back to the bigs in July (he was up briefly for six games and two ABs in 2014), and after the strength of his first real audition, he is unwilling to let injury reclaim his dream.
“I saw a nutritionist this offseason. Apparently I don’t eat enough vegetables. [They said] the vegetables help the cellular tissue in your muscles, and I like to eat meat - sorry to any vegetarians in here. I guess that’s not the right way to eat. I need to eat a lot more vegetables,” he said. “I stretch a lot. I probably stretch the most on the team. In season I lift a lot but I don’t think my workouts hinder anything. I like to stay in shape throughout the season. It’s really a matter of - from what I’m learning - it’s nutrition and sleep. So we’ll see how that goes.”
But even with his muscles and joints at full strength, Pham’s vision still poses a challenge. Because of the degenerative nature of keratoconus, he must get new contacts every year. His corneas are too thin for lasik, so there will never be a finish line to the adjustments.
Last season, his contacts couldn’t adjust to his eye movements but he pressed ahead, unable to risk adjusting mid-season.
“This previous off season the contacts, the new ones that I received, weren’t necessarily the best fit. Plus now, from what I’ve learned at this new doctor, the type of contacts that I wear is important as well,” he said. Having previously worn gas-permeable lenses, Pham made the switch to a hybrid lens this year in hopes of finding a lens that can track along with his eyes.
“I was left with the impression that once I transitioned from glasses to contacts, that the contacts move on your eyes just like your eyes move. That’s not necessarily the case,” he said. “These hybrids … they’re going to give me the best vision and not necessarily the best fit, but I wanted the best vision.”
The Las Vegas native is at a crucial crossroads in his career, and every tweak to his vision, every stretching routine and every side of vegetables carries tremendous weight.
Jon Jay, who would have likely entered 2016 with the incumbent’s edge in center field, was shipped to San Diego after what amounted to a lost season in 2015. The club then failed to sign Jason Heyward, losing out to the youth-driven Cubs, leaving Pham, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk to split two remaining outfield spots (with some likely late-game work in left).
Speaking at the club’s Winter Warm-Up, GM John Mozeliak defended the choice to pull back from the free agent market after signing pitcher Mike Leake, saying he is committed to providing opportunities to young players.
“To me it’s still about creating a place, a chance, an opportunity for these guys. I think it’s not taken lightly in our clubhouses,” he said. “There’s a belief that if you do work hard, you’ll get a chance to play here. That’s probably the biggest apple we can put out there.”
But baseball is a results-driven business, and while the team is willing to give their in-house understudies auditions, players like Pham can’t afford to flub their lines.
“I always feel like when you’re somebody like Tommy Pham, turning 28, at some point you either do or you don’t. I think for him, this is a window to try and go out and prove he can contribute at a major league level,” Mozeliak said. ‘I think all of us got to see it a little bit last year and believe it’s there. Certainly from an athletic standpoint, he might be the most athletic guy on our team. So I think giving him this chance makes sense.”
Pham is outwardly confident when he talks about the window.
“It shows they have high expectations,” he said. “They think very highly of me as a player. All this is good news to me.”
But with expectations come consequences. Pham has proven he has the speed, the glove and the bat to hang in the majors, but if his body fails him again, it’s getting awfully late to say it’s still early.
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