Tommy Pham will always base his decisions off what he knows.
On this late September afternoon, Pham stared down disappointment.
As the days in the Red Sox season waned, Pham knew this was not why he was acquired from the Reds at the deadline.
“It’s been terrible,” Pham said of his 2022 season. “I’ve underperformed on so many levels.”
His time with the Sox was good in the beginning, but lately things have spiraled beneath expectations. After Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays, Pham was hitting just .239 on the year. His OPS fell to .692 after he went 0 for 12 in his last three games.
The competitive at-bats and the strike zone awareness he has been known for have evaded him. Pham suffers from a rare eye condition, keratoconus, which causes the cornea to weaken and thin, and he has dealt with that and another eye issue — chronic dryness, which impacted his clarity of vision.
He’s gotten that under control now, he said, after grinding through it this season.
That aside, deep down, beneath the ruggedness that defines his demeanor, the designer Tom Ford button-ups that define his style, and the diamond necklace, bracelets, and watches that define his flash, is pain caused by his lack of production.
“I’m a better player than I showed, and that’s what hurts me,” Pham said. “I could help the team out in more ways than what I’ve done this year.”
The team aspect is important. Pham is not the type for jokes all the time. There’s always a time and a place. The outer layers of his being require trust to penetrate. Loyalty is something that Pham takes seriously. Once he knows he can trust you, as one person close to Pham stated, “He’ll do anything for you.”
Pham always wants to impact winning. Whatever his passions are, wherever his loyalty lies, you can count on him to show up.
“I’m as real as they get,” Pham said. “I’m a stand-up guy. And you won’t get no b.s. from me.”
Not one for time off
Early one morning this summer, Pham was eager to find his swing. Nate Eovaldi was throwing a simulated game at Fenway Park. Pham was there, getting his hacks in against the righthander, who was working his way back from the injured list. Pham had a game to play that afternoon. Nevertheless, he was drenched in sweat at the early hour.
“He’s intense,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He doesn’t take one pitch off. I actually kind of had to give him a hug, like, ‘Hey, bro, you’re going to be OK.’ ”
The intensity, the relentless pursuit, are part of why Pham is admired so much by his peers, managers, and coaches around the league. They’re part of the many layers of his personality that have helped him carve out a nine-year career in the majors, with a .260 batting average and an OPS just 11 points shy of .800.
“I’ve said multiple times, when we acquired Tommy, it gave our lineup a presence,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who managed Pham for parts of two seasons in 2018-19. “We were young at the time and kind of in a little bit of a transition but it felt like us getting Tommy into our lineup with his production we were getting good again.”
Taking time off is not in the cards for Pham. He does not like missing games. He has been nursing that bad back, and after Cora sat him for one game, you could hear Pham in the clubhouse following a loss saying, “I gotta find Cora, man, I gotta play tomorrow.”
When asked by a reporter during a Baltimore series this summer if he felt his back would require an injured list stint, Pham said, “No! That is not an option.”
“He wants to play, he wants to do well,” said Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, a former teammate. “He’s definitely found a way to play when he’s not 100 percent.”
“Pitchers all love him because he’ll run through a wall for them,” said Red Sox first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Pham is described by his teammates as tough, a straight shooter.
“I’ve known him forever,” said J.D. Martinez, who works out with Pham in the offseason in Miami. “He’s a very honest person. I enjoy him.”
Pham is from the inner city of Las Vegas, born to a single-parent home. His mother, Tawana, had him at 17 years old. His twin sister was born two minutes after him. His father was in jail for dealing drugs during much of Pham’s life.
Pham had to scrap. That never left him.
When he was a Ray, he was asked if there was anyone he would like to thank for getting to the big league level. “Myself,” Pham responded, referencing the days he spent alone throwing a ball off a wall in the streets of Las Vegas.
But Pham has developed a bit more perspective since then. Perhaps, at 34, he is a bit more removed from the rawness of disappointment.
“I was lucky, man,” he said. “I was a kid in the inner city and I had coaches that took me to and from practice and the games. I was fortunate in that sense.
“Baseball always grew on me. As I got older, it was baseball or bust. I started learning more about the game, developing more as a player, and I really had that mind-set: MLB or bust.”
No hiding the scar
Resilience and the precious moments of life have grounded Pham.
In October of 2020, Pham was the victim of a stabbing outside a San Diego strip club. Pham sued the club, saying that he was not protected. Ultimately, the sides settled, and Pham told USA Today that he got the maximum amount in the settlement.
The scar on his back is the result of 200 stitches. His injury required Pham to fly weekly to San Francisco so he could receive regenokine treatment that helped with the scarring and tissue damage.
Somehow, he was ready for spring training in 2021.
“That was a very tough recovery,” Pham said.
He does not hide the scar. Inside the Red Sox clubhouse, it is apparent as he readies himself for each game. It goes across practically his entire lower back.
“The scar on my back is luck,” Pham said. “I’m lucky to still be able to play this game with the damage that’s done. I’m sure you’ve seen the scar; it’s no small scar.”
The funk he has been in this year on the field, he knows, can’t compare to what he’s been through off the field. Even with his aggressive mentality, his chase for excellence and longevity in a game he hopes he can play for five more years, life off the field can hit harder.
“I was literally fighting for my life in a sense of getting back to normal,” he said. “This is nowhere near like that. This is somewhat temporary. That is forever.”
Pham was drafted in the 16th round by the Cardinals in 2006 out of Durango High School, where he graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
Pham wears his Cardinal days as a badge of honor, saying, “I came up different.”
The Cardinals, known historically as a first-class organization, shaped Pham, too.
When Pham feels disrespected, all those worlds have a way of colliding.
It’s why Pham, an avid fantasy football player, does not regret smacking Giants outfielder Joc Pederson back in May when Pham was still with the Reds. The two were in a league together along with other MLB players a year earlier. Pham felt Pederson was disrespecting him in a group chat, so he waited until the following season and slapped Pederson.
“Regarding the Joc situation, I don’t feel sorry for what I did,” Pham said. “There’s a certain level of respect that was crossed. Joc was disrespectful and I don’t condone, you know, the way he was talking to me in the group chat through the text. I don’t condone that.”
Pham paused for a moment, before adding, “If anything, he’s lucky I didn’t hurt his ass even worse.”
The ruggedness of his upbringing helped shape his resolve. Respect for others helped him navigate some of those trenches. Being in the know was the key to his survival.
In Pham’s world, where he grew up, there’s a certain line you don’t cross. When coming up with the Cardinals, that’s something they taught, too.
“You had to respect those that have earned their time,” Pham said.
Pham has a $12 million mutual option with the Red Sox for the 2023 season. There is interest on his part to return, but for now, all Pham says is “we’ll see,” adding that he needs to talk to chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, with whom he has a relationship dating back to their days with the Rays.
But Pham knows that familiarity in this business does not always equal another reunion. He’s not offended by that.
There are three games left in the season. The talk surrounding Pham and fantasy football is not as hush-hush as people may think. In New York, on a Sunday prior to playing the Yankees, Pham is screaming at the television during an NFL contest. The next week, in Toronto, during pregame, he’s looking at his running back depth. It’s thin with the exception of Saquon Barkley.
Cora smiled, calling him the best fantasy football player on the team.
How, though? What’s his secret?
“Others go off hype,” Pham said. “I go off what I know.”
Julian McWilliams can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.