A song. Not the one in your heart, not the one sung blue, just a song.
That’s all it took to acquire Tommy Pham back in the winter of 2011. Five years into his professional baseball career with the Cardinals, he was marked “Clearance,” Rule 5 eligible, available to any major league team for the aforementioned tune. They all passed.
It didn’t bother Pham. He never looked for another job and he never looked behind.
“No,” he said. “Because of my drive. I was more driven than others.”
Scouts knew the name back in 2006. Pham was a star at Durango High School in Las Vegas, where former Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick once roamed, A shortstop and pitcher, he threw in the 90s and hit with authority. He was projected to go higher, but the Cardinals got him in the 16th round of the same 2006 draft in which they took Chris Perez, Jon Jay and Allen Craig.
All are established big leaguers. The 26-year-old Pham is still trying to get there. What has happened in between could have been written by Rube Goldberg. There have been breaks and tears, surgeries and setbacks, a list of injuries to make Jaime Garcia cringe.
It started in 2008, when Pham began experiencing vision issues. He hit 18 home runs during that Class A minor league season, but he batted just .203. It was discovered he had keratoconus, a thinning disorder of the cornea than causes visual distortions. He finally had surgery for the condition and has been able to correct his eyesight with contact lenses.
In 2010, he bounced from Palm Beach to Springfield, batting .339 for the Class AA Redbirds in 38 games. On Aug. 13, 2010, Pham put on what might be the single greatest performance a Hammons Field crowd in Springfield ever has witnessed. He swatted two home runs, two doubles and a single and made a home run-denying catch at the center-field wall.
Two days later, “Say Hey” Tommy became “Oh No” Tommy. He was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken wrist, ending his year. That touched off a 2½-season string of woes that included more wrist trouble, shoulder problems, more surgeries and extensive down time.
If they had reward points for disabled list stays, Pham would be living large. In 2011, he played just 40 games. In 2012, he played only 12.
“The injuries I was sustaining were due to making plays,” he said. “I mean, I got hit by a pitch, that just happens, that’s just bad luck. You get hit with a 90 mph pitch in the right spot and it’s going to break a bone.
“Then I was trying to rob a home run in Springfield and got hurt again … Then I hurt my shoulder diving back into a base … I mean all the injuries were from trying to make plays. So, I got to the point where I thought, ‘I have to stop going all out on certain balls.’ It’s not worth it.”
Last season, Pham played 75 games, splitting time between Springfield and Class AAA Memphis, batting .286 with seven home runs.
Memphis manager Ron “Pop” Warner, whose team recently was eliminated in the Class AAA playoffs, has joined the Cardinals for the homestand. Warner previously managed Pham in Springfield, as well as this season in Memphis.
“The whole thing is his health,” Warner said. “He’s had trouble staying on the field. This year, he was finally healthy all year long and you’re getting a chance to see what he can do.”
When 2014 began, Pham was a spare part on a Memphis team well-stocked with promising outfielders, including Oscar Taveras, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, not to mention occasional outfielder Joey Butler. Pham’s baseball life was passing before his eyes.
But remember, it’s Pham with a “P” and that stands for perseverance.
When there was movement at Memphis, Pham moved in. Healthy and unimpeded for the first time in years, he reminded everyone why — back when — he was an exciting prospect. He batted .324 with an .886 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). He smacked 10 home runs and demonstrated his speed with six triples and 20 stolen bases.
He played in more than 100 games (104) for the first time since 2010 and earned a call-up to the big-league roster Sept. 8. Pham has a slightly unusual throwing motion, perhaps a byproduct of his injuries. But Baseball America rated him the best defensive outfielder in the organization last year.
Never in a spring training camp, he now is a member of the Cardinals’ 40-man roster with a chance to help a team chasing a pennant. Pham is no longer a forgotten man.
“He runs well, he plays great outfield … he had a heck of a year with the bat,” said Warner. “He’s got major league tools. He’s got a good future, as long as he can stay healthy.”