Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#518 - Derrel Thomas

Derrel Thomas looks like he’s the only guy on the field at Riverfront. That makes this photo a pretty good representation of its subject since over the course of his career Derrel put in time at every position outside of pitcher. In his sophomore year of ’73 he put in most of his time at shortstop after playing mainly second his rookie year. In ’74 he’d start some games at second and for the Giants a couple years later he put in his first considerable amount of time in the outfield. In his return trip to San Diego later in the decade he’d do his first base time and a few years later during his long stay in LA he gave catching a shot. That flexibility kept Derrel in the game a long time, which was a good thing since things fell apart for him a bit when he finally left his playing career behind. But right now it’s ’73 and while offensively it was a bit of a step back from his rookie year he did up his stolen base total. He also didn’t get into as much trouble so he was seen as a bit of an anchor for the middle defense. At least for a little while.

Derrel Thomas grew up in LA where he played the big three sports and in baseball was a pitcher, shortstop, and first baseman. His senior year he hit .520 and he was made the first pick by Houston in the ’69 winter draft. He hit pretty well that summer in A ball and then upped his average when moved to Triple A. The same thing happened in a ’70 split between Double A and Triple A, though the averages weren’t quite as high and he began the season at the higher level. Those two years he played mostly at shortstop. In ’71 he moved primarily to second, had a very good year at Triple A, and made his debut in a late game in Houston. After the season he, Bill Greif, and Mark Schaeffer went to San Diego for pitcher Dave Roberts.

With the Padres Thomas was immediately placed on the big league roster and his rookie year he was primarily based at second. He was considered a bit of a showboat but had a pretty solid rookie season and made the Baseball Digest rookie team as its shortstop (Dwain Anderson, one of Derrel’s back-ups in ’73, was the Topps guy). But his real notoriety came via some of the trouble he got into with management: he complained loudly when he was briefly sent down to Triple A; and he refused to wear his seatbelt during a flight, nearly getting the whole team kicked off the plane. Things settled a bit in ’73 and in ’74 the Padres got Glenn Beckert to play second, initially relegating Derrel to understudy status. Beckert was hurt at the beginning of the season though, and with new teammate Bobby Tolan helping to corral his negative energy, Derrel had a strong offensive start to the season, hitting over .300 well into May. Then when Beckert came back he didn’t have his offensive pop any more, so Derrel continued as the de facto starter at second and also filled in at third when the bats of Dave Hilton and Dave Roberts went cold. He had a much better year offensively - .247 with 24 doubles and 41 RBI’s – but after that season he was traded to San Francisco for Butch Metzger and Tito Fuentes. In ’75 Derrel replaced Fuentes at second and had his best offensive year, hitting .276 with 99 runs scored and 28 stolen bases. In ’76 the Giants got Marty Perez from Atlanta and between that acquisition and some down time from a thigh injury, Derrel’s stats pretty much halved and his average slid 40 points. In ’77 he bounced to over 500 at bats and his stats all revived to close to where they were in ’75 along with ten triples. That was also the season he had over half of his starts in the outfield, primarily center. After that year he returned to San Diego for Mike Ivie. For the Padres this time he was super-sub, getting over ten starts at first, second, third, and center, but only hitting .227 for the season. After that year he left as a free agent.

Thomas became only the second free agent signed by the Dodgers – the first was Terry Forster – and his signing was primarily to replace Lee Lacy, who had moved on to Pittsburgh. He would stay in LA the next five seasons, where he played varying amounts each season. The most was his first season of ’79 when he became the starting center fielder due to injuries to Rick Monday and Reggie Smith. He hit .256 with 44 RBI’s and 18 stolen bases in 406 at bats in what was by far his biggest offensive year there. In ’80 he got into some games at catcher but played mostly center and the infield. He hit .266 that year and then .248 in ’81 for the Series winners. He got into all three post-season series that year and also made headlines when a boat was piloting was seized by the FBI coming into the harbor in San Diego (it belonged to Harold Smith, a boxing promoter who’d embezzled a bunch of money). In ’82 he missed about half the season after breaking a leg colliding with coach Danny Ozark while rounding third base. After the ’83 season he left as a free agent, dogged by an accusation that he was one of the players caught up in the drug investigation going on then, which was later rescinded. He hooked up with Montreal for the ’84 season for whom he played shortstop and left field before being sold to California in September for the stretch drive. In ’85 he hooked up with the Miami Marlins, an independent A team, before being sold to the Phillies in May where he played things out. Derrel finished with a .249 average with 140 stolen bases and in the post-season hit .263 in 15 games.

In ’86 Thomas played in Mexico, for the Tabasco Ganaderos, before returning to The States. In ’87 he managed the independent Class A Boise Hawks but after a 9-29 start he was let go. In ’88 and ’89 he managed at Leuzinger, an LA high school, but that experience didn’t go terribly well and resulted in the team quitting on him. During his time there he also managed a strip club, which he continued to do until he returned to Dorsey, his alma mater, to manage the team in ’92. Shortly thereafter he got busted in a sting operation for trying to sell cocaine. He pleaded no contest, served a little time, and got back into ball by umpiring local high school games beginning in ’94. He got back into coaching and in ’97 managed the Billings Mustangs, a Reds rookie team, going 39-32. That ended when he was again accused of possessing cocaine. In ’98 he managed the Tri-City Posse, an independent team with a loose affiliation with the Devil Rays. He was then a roving minor league coach for a few years before hooking up as a scout for the Rays (2002-’05), and then Oakland (’06) and LA (’06-present). He also began a foundation a few years ago that is baseball-based and seeks to inspire kids through the game.

Derrel’s star bullets are all one-liners from ’72. He was an all-city wide receiver.

These two guys never faced each other:

1. Thomas and Bobby Murcer ’75 to ’76 Giants;
2. Murcer and Mike Hegan ’73 to ’74 Yankees.

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