Tommy Pham

A classic Tommy Pham story shared by Adam Wainwright

It took more than eight years after he was drafted in the 16th round of the MLB Amateur Draft for Tommy Pham to make his major-league debut. So perhaps it’s no surprise that by the time the 27-year-old got his first extended shot at the majors, he was willing to give his Cardinals teammates an earful.

Born to a 17-year-old mother and a father who was in federal prison (as he would be for almost all of Pham’s childhood), Pham grew up in poverty.

“I’m not your typical baseball player,’’ Pham said in 2019. “Most of these baseball players, they grew up in a two-parent household where their dad went out and played catch with ‘em, and stuff like that. I’m the complete opposite. My dad’s been in prison my whole life. If I wanted to play catch, I had to play catch with a brick wall with a tennis ball. If I wanted to work on my hitting, I had to throw a whiffle ball up and hit by myself. …

“I come from a background where my mom was getting evicted out of houses, getting her car repo-ed, stuff like that. She always had to work for stuff that people take for granted.”[1]

As if that wasn’t enough for Pham to overcome on his way to the majors, he was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative eye condition in which the cornea becomes cone-shaped, like the end of a football. He had struggled in the minors for three years before his condition was discovered.

“His overcoming that issue, and this is not hyperbole, that’s one of the most impressive athletic feats,’’ said Mike Shildt, who managed Pham in the minors and also has keratoconus. “Baseball is the most highly visual game there is. This guy has dealt with a disability that is hard for people that have it, speaking from experience, to just function. And you’re talking about being an elite major-league player.’’[2]

With that background in mind, perhaps it’s no surprise that Pham has been fearless throughout his career, including his rookie campaign. In 52 games as a rookie in 2015, Pham hit .268/.347/.477 with five homers and 18 RBIs. Just as the rookie set high standards for his own play, he expected the best from his teammates and wasn’t afraid to tell them when they failed to meet those expectations.

In May 2024, MLB Network host Greg Amsinger shared a story he heard from former Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, who was telling him that Pham, now a veteran outfielder, was the perfect acquisition for teams seeking to shore up their clubhouse culture. When Amsinger asked Wainwright to explain, the former Cardinals ace pointed to Pham’s rookie season.

“He’s been in the big leagues for three months. The Cardinals are losing, in a bad stretch, and Tommy Pham stands on a stool and starts airing everybody out,” Amsinger recounted. “This is a rookie Tommy Pham, in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, just standing and saying, ‘You don’t show up to the yard on time. You’re not giving 110%,’ and he’s just going around the room.

“Adam said he looked at Yadier Molina, and they’re the two leaders in the clubhouse, going, ‘Should we cut him off?’ and they’re like, ‘Nah, we’re going to let this go. He’s not wrong.’ So they let him air everybody out, and then Wainwright walks up to him and puts his arm around him and goes, ‘Hey, Tommy, that was great. Let’s give it another year before you do that again.’”[3]

The Cardinals went on to win the NL Central that year, though they fell to the Cubs in the NL Division Series.

Pham played three more seasons with the Cardinals. His best campaign coming in 2017, when the 29-year-old hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 homers, 73 RBIs, and 25 stolen bases.

At the 2018 trade deadline, the Cardinals sent Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays for Genesis Cabrera, Roel Ramirez, and Justin Williams. Since the deal, Pham has played for the Rays, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Mets, Diamondbacks, and White Sox.

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[1] Marc Topkin, “Why we can’t all relate to Tommy Pham’s fire,” Tampa Bay Times, March 2, 2019.

[2] Marc Topkin, “Why we can’t all relate to Tommy Pham’s fire,” Tampa Bay Times, March 2, 2019.

[3] “MLB Network lead host Greg Amsinger,” The Opening Drive, 101 ESPN, May 2, 2024.