For Arizona Diamondbacks DH Tommy Pham, the World Series is not a game
At 35, Pham still has a serious approach to his performance
PHOENIX — Built different.
These days on Al Gore’s internet, you’ll hear that phrase thrown around a lot, sometimes mockingly with just a touch of earnestness, other times with complete seriousness. The idea being that no matter what nominal changes and choices some people make as humans, others come out of the womb with a different makeup entirely.
For Arizona Diamondbacks designated hitter Tommy Pham, playing in his first World Series, none of this is a game. Following the series opener, which the D-backs lost but he homered in, the serious side of Pham was ever present. In the moment, it was about as clutch as it gets. A go-ahead shot to start the fourth inning, it felt like the National League Wild Card wonders might steal one in Dallas. After falling to an Adolis Garcia extra inning no-doubter, the Las Vegas native was not happy with his performance.
“Only one hard hit. Now, if you have five at-bats, man, let’s try to have three hard hits out of the five. Not enough hard hits, not enough hard contact, and that’s something I’m normally pretty good at,” the 35-year-old explained. “You don’t want to be a 5 o’clock hitter. The game is what matters.”
Pham is playing for more than just a title at this point. Depending on what happens in the offseason, this might be one of his final chances to be an everyday ballplayer on a big league club. He’s bounced around the past couple seasons and is a free agent in the offseason. Five squads in three seasons means that unless someone really likes you and your game, that next big contract just might not be there without undeniable excellence.
“One thing that I always take away from him is he always took everything so hard,” said Xavier Scruggs, who met Pham when he played at UNLV and Pham was in high school. Scruggs and Pham played together for the St. Louis Cardinals. “He was one of those guys that … team could be winning 10, nothing. He’d strike out. He might be the one by himself, emotional in the dugout.”
On the surface, it’s easy to look at that as selfish. But in 2023, the single biggest development in the minds of modern athletes is that the opportunity to compete is as important as the wins and losses. Obviously, championships are great for fans and everyone, but for some folks, if you aren’t up to your personal standard, it affects you.
“Guys used to make fun of him for that. It’s like, ‘nah, he just has a different passion for this game that maybe some of us don’t have,’ ” Scruggs noted in Dallas before Game 2 last week. Even though Pham was younger than Scruggs, his baseball IQ was already quite advanced.
“I think it was his work ethic and his understanding to talk about the game. Most guys got rubbed off the wrong way, but if you know Pham, you know he’s very intelligent. He’s somebody that studies the game hard. And me coming up too, I want to know the same things. How do you already know about analytics? And I don’t even know what that is.”
In Game 2, Pham went 4-for-4 in a blowout Snakes win to tie the Series. He had the chance to become first player to go 5-for-5 in a World Series game. Instead, much to the chagrin of many baseball fans, he deferred.
“I asked Torey, can Jace hit for me,” Pham wrote on social media afterward. “I wanted my dawg to get his first World Series at bat. Stop this narrative, please.”
Peterson not only reached, but scored. If that’s not a great teammate, I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, most people only really know Pham because of the scandalous headlines. He slapped an opponent on the field before a game in 2022 and told everyone that the guy deserved it. Earlier this season, when a fan accused him of having anger issues, he confronted the guy on X, formerly known as Twitter and told his side, even offering to pay for a lie detector test to determine what was actually said when he was on deck. Backing down is not in Pham’s game plan for life or baseball.
What many people don’t realize is that his life hasn’t been some easy jaunt to being a pro baller. His father, who is Black, is a person Pham has spoken openly about no longer having a relationship with due to his inability to stay out of prison. In 2020, Pham was stabbed during an altercation in a parking lot but recovered by the next season. Many people know that, but there’s more to the story. If you’ve ever seen the scar, it’s hip to hip, on his back. To a man, it’s a reasonable assumption that this wasn’t just some dustup gone awry with a blade. Someone was trying to kill him. Not that knife attacks are ever anything unserious, but we aren’t just talking about some random puncture wound. The fact that he’s ever even remotely got back to playing shape is wild.
Ironically, this season started in a place where many folks in baseball thought he might have a way better shot at getting to the fall classic: the New York Mets.
“New York was a crazy situation for me because the conversation I had with Billy [Eppler, Mets general manager] before I signed there, I didn’t think it was going to work. We had two other teams at that moment that were ready. And I was essentially choosing New York over them. And my agency really loved it for me, and I didn’t see it. I was like, ‘yo, Billy, how is this going to work?’ ” Pham said before the series started. “You have three really good outfielders already that are making way more money than me. I understand the business. And he goes, well, you’re going to play against lefties. You start against lefties and I want to give Canha, Nimmo and Marte more rest this year. So, those three guys would get a game off a week. So, right there, you’re looking at four to five starts a week. And I was like, ‘oh, this could work.’
“But when that wasn’t happening and I ended up having a meeting with him in the middle of May, like, ‘yo, I didn’t sign up for this.’ You guys told me something different. I’m playing twice a week. And then all of a sudden guys got hurt and I started to play more, and eventually I started to play every day. But what we saw the first six weeks in New York, I didn’t sign up for that. I didn’t agree to that. I thought going into New York there was going to be more playing time early for me. It just didn’t happen that way. But everything works itself out and God has the most mysterious way of showing it. I’m thankful for where I’m at now.”
Coincidentally, he faced his old Mets teammate, Max Scherzer, Monday night.
“Getting to play with him this year, it was actually awesome. I came away raving about him. He’s become one of my instant favorites of guys I’ve gotten to play with,” Scherzer said of Pham. “He knows how to prepare for a pitcher, more so than I even knew. So now, knowing him, it’s going to be fun to compete against him again.”
Pham the player versus the man might be an odd dichotomy for many fans, but this is who he is: a professional hitter. We’re talking about a guy who has a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus. He had surgery for it in 2018 and it’s still something he has to manage. During batting practice he’ll sometimes go to his eye kit, mid-session, to get the concoction right on which drops he takes to help him see. Partial blindness is not an option when you’re trying to hit a slider in October. One could say that his eyes are technically built different.
“And I think guys take it the wrong way because they don’t understand his personality and hasn’t taken the time to actually understand who he is,” Scruggs said. “That’s why some guys don’t get along with them because they assume that he’s a certain way. Selfish, or whatnot, all about himself. But that’s not the way he is. Because I know his family too. He knows my kids. He’s come over to the house holding the kids. So, I know he cares.”
Pham took the podium after his stellar night and broke down exactly how he’s focused himself this World Series after a subpar National League Championship Series. When asked if he’s been good enough, he referred to something he learned in St. Louis.
In Double-A at the time, he met a man named John Hartwig. A mental coach and leadership expert. From Hartwig, Pham received advice in the form of literature that really helped him with his approach to life, with one book in particular making a difference.
“He has the ability to be a truth-telling friend and, at the same time, openly display appreciation for others,” Hartwig said Monday. “There are not that many people in the world these days that will always tell the truth. In my experiences with Tommy, he is one of those rare people. There is no perfection, only the pursuit of perfection for a guy like Tommy. This is part of what I love and admire about Pham and his style.”
Even after going 4-for-4, he wasn’t pleased.
“I kind of felt off, man. By at-bat, I gradually started filling some things out in my movements, in my swing. So that helped, of course. Still trying to get a little bit better. I missed some pitches that I normally just don’t miss,” Pham said humbly.
“And in this game, man, they don’t give you too many mistakes like that, so I got to sharpen some stuff up. And the team’s going to need me.”
The name of the book, by the way? Good to Great. Sort of like how this Diamondbacks squad has stepped up this postseason.