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Red Sox two-sport minor leaguer Shaq Thompson: ‘I still have passion for baseball’

03.22.13 at 10:53 am ET

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Last year, Shaq Thompson faced unique scrutiny in his first taste of professional baseball in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League. A highly recruited football player with a scholarship commitment to play in the secondary for the University of Washington, Thompson had nonetheless decided as a high school senior, after not playing for nearly six years, that he wanted to try baseball once again, both because of his love for the game and because of his concern about the long-term health risks of collisions on the gridiron.

And so, when the Sox took Thompson in in the 18th round as an incredibly raw baseball player out of high school, everyone expected him to struggle. Still, it would be hard to suggest that anyone would anticipate precisely how challenging the professional baseball crash course would prove.

Thompson went 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts, nearly claiming a hit in his last at-bat — a line drive to right field against Luke Bard — before heading to the Huskies for football season.

He had an outstanding freshman year, making a dazzling transition to linebacker, and there is buzz that he could emerge as an All-American defensive player as a true sophomore, perhaps even a Heisman candidate down the road. Yet despite the drastic contrast in his football success and baseball struggles, he is currently back in Red Sox minor league camp for a 10-day stint that spans his spring break. He’s spending his days on the back fields, juggling batting practice along with outfield and baserunning instruction with the course work that he’s doing in hopes of concluding his college degree in fewer than four years.

So, it seems worth asking … Why? Why did he decide he wanted to try to return to baseball initially, and why is he sticking with it now after last year’s highly publicized struggles?

“I just still had love for the game. I wanted to get back into it, see how far I could get, see how well I could do. I still have passion for baseball,” said Thompson. “[The first pro experience] was tough. Taking those years, I didn’t know how much that would affect your baseball skills. I thought you could take those years off and just get back into it. But I found out the hard way that you couldn’t.

“In high school, I’d probably seen one [legit] pitcher and that was it. Getting here, you see pitchers who are more developed, way better, more accurate, know where to place the ball, things like that.”

So, how did he deal with the struggles that were not only inherent in the game, but magnified by the time he’d had away from it?

“I’d taken years off. I knew I was going to get bad results. But I just kept practicing everyday, trying to get better,” said Thompson. “You’ve just got to get used to [baseball as a game of failure]. I got used to it. It was no big deal. You’ve just got to try to get better every day. I was just getting taught, getting instructions everyday, taking all that in. I knew I wasn’t going to do good in games, but I’d still go out there and try, get the hacks.”

Thompson earned the respect and admiration of his teammates, some of whom could relate to his struggles but who were not subject to the same scrutiny that followed both his prominence as a football prospect and his hitless streak.

Outfielder Iseha Conklin, for instance, endured some of his own struggles as a two-sport recruit out of high school who decided to pursue baseball full-time in junior college for a year because of his own concerns about the safety of football. Even with a year of junior college baseball — that included a trip to the JUCO World Series — under his belt, Conklin struggled in his first exposure to pro ball, requiring a late-season surge to finish his year with a batting average of just over .200. He could appreciate what Thompson was trying to accomplish, and the attitude he demonstrated in the process.

“You’ve got to respect the fact that he loves the game, and he’s spending his spring break at spring training, trying to get better because he has a passion for the game,” said Conklin. “It shows that he’s not just focused on football. He has a passion and a love of the game of baseball, and wants to come in here to work on things.

“You’ve got to respect the guy. He’s the only one really doing a two-sport thing. You’ve got to respect the fact that he has a whole different life than us, just focusing on baseball. He’s a good guy to be around. I honestly missed him when he left. I think it was the whole baseball team. He has a great personality. Some people would think, ‘He’s a two-sport athlete and he’s going to be cocky.’ But he’s the most humble guy I know around here. He always makes you feel smile and feel good about yourself. He’s a good teammate.”

The idea of quitting baseball based on that initial experience, said Thompson, never entered his mind. He understands that it will take time for him to get on the other side of the learning curve, to see if the development and instincts can be nurtured to allow his tremendous speed and power can sync up on the baseball field in a fashion comparable to what he’s doing on the football field.

It may never happen. The odds, certainly, are against it, given the time that Thompson has already spent away from the game and the fact that his exposure to it now will be sporadic while he continues to play football; whereas other minor leaguers are training for baseball year round, and playing in games for at least six months out of the year, Thompson might not get a third of that playing time.

Still, he is back for more, both during spring break and again this coming summer, when he will report back to Fort Myers to play again in the Gulf Coast League, before the onset of football practice. And really, based on Thompson’s first experience, he had no misgivings about the idea of returning to the Red Sox.

“I was thinking baseball is something I want to keep pursuing, come back here with these great guys I played with, great personalities [who are] fun to be around. They make you laugh everyday,” said Thompson. “I just really enjoy it.”

Thompson would have loved to have gotten a hit, would have loved for that sinking liner against Bard to have found grass. But the fact that it didn’t will not deter him from continuing his efforts to find out how far he can go as a baseball player.

“It didn’t sit with me. I had great teammates who had my back and said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ ” said Thompson. “That last hit felt good. I thought I was going to get it, but at least I put the ball in play. Going 0-for-whatever, it didn’t matter to me, because I was out there having fun with the guys. It was a great time.”

One, evidently, that is worth revisiting for the 18-year-old.

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