Mild temperatures and the consistent sunshine of Southern California have helped young baseball players gain an advantage over prospects from other areas of the country. Yet, the accommodating weather comes with a cost as baseball competes with many other outdoor activities that attract young prospects. For 18-year-old Tom Thobe of Huntington Beach, surfing and skateboarding challenged his passion for baseball.1 Thus, when Thobe was drafted in June of 1987, he needed to choose between the Pacific waves or moving to Wytheville, Virginia, for his baseball career. After a year, Thobe quit baseball and moved back to California.
As stated by sportswriter John Weyler, “Pitchers who quit the rookie leagues and don’t touch a baseball for three years aren’t exactly what the scouts are looking for.”2 After three years of full-time employment, skateboarding, surfing, and partying, Tom Thobe began to think about his future.3 How would he support a family? What was his role in life? Each time he came back to the same conclusion: baseball. Through hard work and a strong support network, Thobe beat the odds and made his major-league debut in 1995 at the age of 25. While his major-league career lasted only a cumulative seven games across two seasons, his baseball experience emphasized the value of resiliency.
Thobe was born in Covington, Kentucky, on September 3, 1969, to Blanche (Lynch) and Jack Thobe. After moving to the West Coast to Huntington Beach, he played high-school baseball for Edison High School, a sports-centric school that has produced multiple professional baseball players including Dale Thayer, Donnie Hill, and Jeff Kent.4 In 1988 Thobe pitched for the Golden West College Rustlers, 115 innings in 17 games, with a 10-3 record and a 4.30 ERA under coach Fred Hoover.5 Having been drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 38th round of the 1987 amateur draft, Thobe decided to leave college ball in May of 1988 by signing the $30,000 bonus and headed for the club’s rookie league team.6
At age 18, Thobe made his minor-league debut with the Wytheville Cubs. By midseason, he was struggling. He failed to generate strikes from his curveball, leading to an ERA of 8.95, and walked 30 batters while giving up 10 home runs in 57⅓ innings.7 While competition can be challenging for new players, Thobe’s biggest challenge came from himself. As he stated, “I really missed the beach and the whole beach lifestyle. I was young and rebellious and when they told me to stop skateboarding, I just sort of told them where to stick it and kept doing it. Everything was catching up with me and I was ready to get a full-time job and chuck it.”8 His mother blamed his age, saying he was too young and “intimidated by the older players and pro ball.”9 Thobe finished the first season and returned the following spring for minor-league training camp. However, after seeing his workload diminish and receiving his assignment back to Wytheville, Thobe decided to quit, fearing that he could “be buried in the system.”10 He also offered, “Looking back, I didn’t really want to be there and everyone knew it, so there was a lot of friction all around. And the main thing was, I just wanted to surf.”11
Thobe returned home to California, where he was able to pursue his passion for surfing and skateboarding recalling, “when I first came home, I surfed all day and worked at night, making sandwiches.”12 He was finally doing what he dreamed about during his time in Virginia. After a few years of surfing, partying, and working monotonous jobs, the lure of the ocean began to run out. He began by experimenting with drugs and was later arrested for shoplifting.13 His perspective on life began to change after he met Jennifer Herrmann and began to question how he would support a family.14 As a 23-year-old without a college education or significant work training, Thobe reverted to what he excelled in during his youth: baseball.
Thobe knew the path back to professional baseball would not be easy. Having learned from his previous minor-league experience, he knew he would have to train physically and mentally to succeed.15 For his physical workouts, he enlisted the help of his brother J.J. Thobe, a right-handed pitcher who had just been drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1992.16 His workouts consisted of running and pitching during pickup baseball games in the area.17 Mentally, he began reading Anthony Robbins.18 Robbins, a motivational speaker and philanthropist, emphasized the important pillars in life to include physical health, relationships, emotions, and finances and has been a mentor for influential leaders ranging from President Bill Clinton to Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter Guber.19
Thobe learned about his first opportunity to pitch when his mother mentioned that pro scouts were hosting a tryout at Orange Coast College.20 He participated in the tryout, but his 86-mph fastball and breaking curveball failed to impress scouts.21 However, the event did reunite him with his former Golden West College coach, Fred Hoover. Hoover, an inductee into the Community College Baseball Hall of Fame, was one of the most winning coaches in Golden West College history, posting 12 conference championships before becoming the coach of the University of California Irvine.22 Hoover felt that Thobe should have turned down the Cubs’ offer in 1987, saying, “Tom was always a pain in the ass that way. … I think signing was a mistake, but then isn’t it for almost all of them? This kid going from Huntington Beach to live in Virginia at 18 years old? C’mon.”23 However, Thobe’s performance during the tryout made an impression on Hoover, leading his former coach to take a more active role in his career reboot. Hoover invited Thobe to pitch in the Golden West alumni game and later set up a one-on-one tryout for him.24 During the tryout, Thobe capitalized on the opportunity, throwing an 88-mph fastball and breaking curveball.25 Steve Youngward, the local area scout for the Atlanta Braves, liked what he was seeing from the 6-foot-6 lefty and within a week he was off to Braves spring training, receiving his assignment to Class-A ball with the Macon Braves in 1993.26
Being given a second chance in the minors thanks to the efforts of his old coach, Thobe continued to leverage mentors. Jim Acker, a 10-year veteran with stints in Toronto, Atlanta, and Seattle, had just been sent to the Macon Braves. Thobe roomed with Acker and began to learn as much as he could from the veteran. As Thobe said, “Before, I just threw it. Jim taught me more than I could’ve learned in five years of pitching. We talked nonstop about pitching.”27 Specifically, Acker taught Thobe how to throw a slider, as well as strategies for mixing pitches.28 Acker’s mentorship proved valuable to Thobe’s success in Macon. Thobe moved up to Double A in 1994 and Triple A in 1995, planting himself as a reliable reliever. By the time he received his first call-up, in mid-September, Thobe was 7-0 with a 1.84 ERA.29
In his first major-league appearance, on September 12, Thobe faced the Colorado Rockies in the bottom of the third inning. After forcing a fly out to end the inning, Thobe returned in the next inning with sluggers Dante Bichette and Andres Galarraga due to bat. After allowing a single to Bichette, Thobe got three straight outs to exit the inning unscathed. His next game came seven days later in front of the home crowd. With the Braves trailing the Mets 4-0, Thobe came into the game in the top of the sixth, facing Rico Brogna. After generating a fly ball from Brogna and a groundout from Todd Hundley, Thobe allowed a single to Butch Huskey before getting the last out of the inning on a lineout by Alex Ochoa. Thobe continued into the seventh inning, but allowed two singles to Dave Mlicki and Damon Buford before being turning the game over to Brad Clontz as the Mets scored four runs in the inning. Thobe’s final game of the season came against the Mets in Shea Stadium. He replaced Pedro Borbon to start the bottom of the eighth inning with Atlanta trailing the Mets, 6-4. Facing his first three batters, Thobe allowed two runs to score, on a single by Joe Orsulak, a double by Chris Jones, and a two-run single by Jose Vizcaino. Though he had faced only 17 batters in 3⅓ innings with the Braves (with a 10.80 ERA), Thobe had impressed the team and earned praise from Macon Braves manager Randy Ingle, who said, “You’d think that after all that time away from the game he would be very rusty, but he’s been incredibly sharp. Every time I’ve called on him, he’s done an outstanding job.”30
Tom‘s brother, J.J., made it to the majors in September 1995 and appeared in four games with the Montreal Expos. On September 22 he pitched the bottom of the eighth against the Braves in Atlanta, retiring the side in the order in a game the Braves won, 5-1. Tom watched from the bullpen but the two never appeared in the same game. J.J. pitched for the Columbus Red Stixx (South Atlantic League) in 1996, his final season in Organized Baseball.
Tom Thobe started the 1996 season with Triple-A Richmond. However, by early April, he was back on a major-league mound and off to a good start against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Entering the game in the bottom of the seventh, Thobe got three quick outs from two fly outs and a groundout. Three days later he faced the San Diego Padres. After retiring the side in the bottom of the seventh, Thobe returned in the eighth inning and allowed a Brad Ausmus single before forcing Jody Reed to hit into a double play. In his third appearance, against the Padres at home on the 21st, Thobe entered the game in the top of the 14th and faced four batters, allowing only a single. In the top of the 15th, after giving up a leadoff single to Rickey Henderson, he induced both of the next two batters to ground back to him and both times made an error. Henderson scored on a sacrifice fly and San Diego took a 2-1 lead. They were the only two fielding chances of his career; Thobe thus sports a career fielding percentage of .000. That is also his career batting average.
In an interview with Orange County Register, Thobe recounted his one plate appearance, stepping up to bat in the bottom of the 15th with a runner in scoring position and two outs. With no other batters left to substitute, manager Bobby Cox signaled to Thobe to take pitches and possibly draw a walk. However, Thobe missed the signs amid the noise and pressure, took a swing and grounded out to second, ending the Braves’ chance to come back.31 His last appearance on the mound in the big leagues came four days later, on April 25 at San Francisco. Steve Scarsone hit a home run off Thobe in the Giants’ 8-0 victory.
Returned to Triple-A Richmond, Thobe struggled to generate strikeouts and saw his ERA and WHIP increase to 6.13 and 1.750 respectively. Furthermore, he was aging. The next season, 1997, he turned 27 years old, did not receive any call-ups to the majors, and was let go by the Braves organization. Thobe played for the Cincinnati Reds’ Double-A affiliate in Chattanooga in 1998 before spending his last two seasons in baseball playing for independent-league teams including the Allentown Ambassadors and the Sonoma County Crushers.
After hanging up the spikes, Thobe returned to Orange County, California, where he worked in the hotel industry for 12 years before joining Ben’s Asphalt of Santa Ana as a project manager.32 The company leveraged Thobe’s baseball experience with success when it negotiated a contract with the Angels to resurface the stadium parking lot.33 Thobe continued to support the baseball community by participating in the MLB Players Alumni Association Legends for Youth baseball clinics in Southern California.34
Thobe’s career illustrates the level of effort, commitment, and support required to advance in professional baseball. He worked hard, both mentally and physically, and was fortunate to have support from his old coach, Fred Hoover, and seasoned veterans like Jim Acker. Thobe recalled the feeling of entering a major-league locker room for his first game. “I walked into the locker room the first time, and my jersey was hanging between [Steve] Avery’s and [Greg] Maddux’s. That was amazing.”35 The Orange County Register noted that his appearances were “seven more than if he’d never tried,” and more importantly, Thobe learned the value of “never giving up.”36
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com.
1 John Weyler, “Thobe Makes Most of Second Chance: Former Edison High and Golden West Pitcher is Back in the Minor Leagues with a Different Attitude,” Los Angeles Times, May, 13, 1993, retrieved from latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-05-13-sp-34950-story.html.
5 “Golden West College 1988 Baseball Statistics.” Retrieved from gwcathletics.com/sports/bsb/archive_files/stats/1988_Baseball_Team_Results.pdf.
15 Frank Mickadeit, “Tom Thobe: Big League Mound to Big A Lot,” Orange County Register (Anaheim, California), March 22, 2012, retrieved from ocregister.com/2012/03/22/tom-thobe-big-league-mound-to-big-a-lot/.
22 “Legendary GWC Baseball Coach Fred Hoover Dies at Age 81,” Rustler Athletics, June, 25, 2012, retrieved from gwcathletics.com/sports/bsb/2011-12/releases/20120625s008vf.
34 “Major League Players Alumni Association Brings Legends for Youth Baseball Clinic Series to San Diego,” Cision News, September, 24, 2015, retrieved from news.cision.com/major-league-baseball-players-alumni-association/r/major-league-baseball-players-alumni-association-brings-legends-for-youth-baseball-clinic-series-to-,c9835503.