After all, he’s a professional baseball player and mid-March is normally a time when he’s preparing for the long grind of a season.
Of course, normal made a lickety-split departure last week. Former Binghamton Met Thole is among a worldwide cont...ngent of athletes across all levels of competition who had their lives turned upside down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
He’s been drawing paychecks for his catching skills since 2005 and along the way he was the receiver for the lone no-hitter in New York Mets history and handled R.A. Dickey’s knuckler in the Big Apple and Toronto.
Thole, 33, spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues, the last coming in 2016.
This spring he was with the New York Yankees in Tampa, Florida, knowing his chances of landing a spot on the big-league squad were slim but he was hoping to play for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“The Yankees did a wonderful job of keeping us posted on what was really going on,” said Thole, who lives in Owego with his wife and three children. “I don’t think it became real to anybody until the NBA decided to take a hiatus from the season until things got cleared up. I think that’s when guys started asking questions and it became real for us.”
After hearing from Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, Manager Aaron Boone and a doctor who came into the talk to the team, Yankees players opted to stay in Tampa during the suspension and continue to prepare for the season.
“We had a kid on the minor-league side catch the virus and that’s when everybody put their foot in and said this is becoming a lot more serious than we thought,” he said. “We had April 9 as a go date and we thought, if we all go home for a week or two, what good does that do us? Stay together and keep working out. Once it became clear it was going to be a much longer hiatus, it made sense for guys to get home with their families.”
Thole broke camp with the big club in 2009, but after a couple of exhibitions at newly-opened Citi Field, he was sent to Binghamton.
“I remember that shooting at the ACA,” Thole said of an April 3 tragedy at the American Civic Association, where 13 people were killed by a gunman. “I remember pulling in and how dark and gloomy it was. That was kind of hanging over the city. We talk about community and I remember how everybody rallied together and got past it.”
Earning a spot in the All-Star game, Thole hit .328 in Binghamton with a homer and 46 RBI.
“One of the first times I was out having dinner, I met her and a couple of her friends and here we go, now we’re living here,” he said. “We’ve been married for 10 years.”
He made his major-league debut Aug. 31 and had a hit in his first at-bat. Thole went on to hit .321 with nine RBI in 17 games with New York.
The New York Mets started playing in 1962 and heading into the 2010 season, they’d never had a pitcher throw a no-hitter.
That changed June 1, when Johan Santana struck out eight and walked five in an 8-0 victory over the Cardinals at Citi Field.
“That’s a highlight of my career that will never be forgotten,” Thole said of Santana’s 134-pitch performance. “It didn’t become real until about the seventh inning. Johan, if you know him, his personality, he’s a big joker – even on days he starts. He’s the same guy.
“Around the seventh inning, he sat at the end of the bench by himself and no one said a word to him. That’s when I really felt it was real.”
When a 3-2 changeup dipped under the bat of David Freese, Santana completed the no-no.
“I remember running out to the mound, it became so surreal,” Thole said. “Other than going to the playoffs with the Blue Jays, that was by far one of my personal highlights that I’ll never forget.”
Stressful was the word used to describe catching Dickey, the 2012 Cy Young winner with the Mets.
When Dickey and Thole were part of a trade with Toronto that brought Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets in 2013, it kicked off a four-year stint with the Blue Jays for Thole.
His gig? Catching Dickey’s knuckleball, an unpredictable pitch that gives catchers fits.
“I ended up finishing my (big league) career as a specialty catcher,” said Thole, who bats from the left side and throws from the right. “It was fine, we were fortunate enough to go to the playoffs twice with the Blue Jays and to be part of that is something in my major-league career I’ll never forget.
“It was stressful. Early on in my career it was really stressful. Going into September when every game counts, you don’t want to be the guy who costs your team a chance.”
Since minor-league baseball returned to Binghamton in 1992, two who’ve managed here have gone on to become big-league skippers – John Gibbons and current New York Mets manager Luis Rojas.
Gibbons managed in Binghamton in 1998 and went to hold the same position with Toronto from 2004-08 and 2013-18.
“I love Gibby,” said Thole, who played for Gibbons from 2013-16, making the playoffs the last two seasons. “Gibby goes down as one of my favorite skippers of all time. You know him, he doesn’t change. He’s a great baseball mind.
“The amount of personalities on those Toronto teams every year we were there, there’s no one who could manage those personalities like Gibby did. He was so good at it. He truly cared about his players, he kept you loose and that’s why we were successful.”
Name a Holiday Inn or Hilton or Best Western somewhere in the United States and there’s a decent chance Thole has stayed in it.
During a 15-year career, he’s played in Kingsport, Tennessee; Savannah, Georgia; St. Lucie, Florida; Peoria, Arizona; Binghamton; New York; Buffalo; Toronto; New Britain, Connecticut; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Oklahoma City; and Salt Lake City.
Regardless of sport, 15-year pro careers are rare and in baseball, especially for catchers.
“Before we moved (to Owego), we lived in Denver and I took up Pilates, which is something I think helped me stay healthy more than anything,” he said . “… A lot of it is just taking care of yourself in the gym more than anything. During the season, I do like to lift weights and stretch a ton, that’s been my M.O. over the course of my career.”
Obviously, Thole wants to stay sharp during this layoff, but finding places to exercise has not been easy.
“It’s funny because all the local gyms are closed, my wife owns a Pilates studio in Owego and she closed down, so here I sit with nowhere to work out,” he said. “Fortunately enough, I have my father-in-law. He has 100 acres that we have a lot of work to do on. My workouts have become more Paul Bunyon-style workouts.”
“Baseball players are wired differently,” he said. “When we leave for spring training, we get dialed in to play baseball, not take this break.
“First and foremost, I think this virus is just running rampant through all the world, not just North America and I think we need to make sure we get this dialed in before we put anyone at risk. Once we get this cleaned up, we’ll be back on track. Hopefully, come July, it will be like we never missed a beat.”
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