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Judie Thomas knew her son had a deep-rooted passion for the game of baseball a long time ago. The last few years have confirmed that.
When Micheal Thomas played T-ball, where players chase after a ball — any ball in the field — and many children are unsure of which direction to run or are more concerned with finding a patch of dirt, he was most content with approaching home plate and sliding headfirst.
Now a redshirt junior catcher at the University of Kentucky, Thomas’ commitment to the game has magnified since he left Elizabethtown High School in 2009 to become the starting catcher on one of the top 10 teams in college baseball.
Thomas hasn’t forgotten his meeting with the UK coaching staff his senior year of high school. He wasn’t recruited to play baseball there. Instead, he had a full academic scholarship to the school he always wanted to attend. He was offered the same academic scholarship at the University of Louisville.
What he was looking for was a way into the baseball program.
He was told at UK he would be the 36th player on the roster and would redshirt — attend school and be on the team but not play in games — his first year in the program. That was good enough for Thomas.
“There were no promises of playing time,” he said. “Kentucky is where I have always wanted to go to school. I was told I would be in the program and that was good enough. It was a start.”
His first three seasons at UK amounted to this: He was the bullpen catcher as a redshirt freshman and tallied 26 at-bats over his next two seasons, earning one start last year as a sophomore.
Though Thomas wanted more playing time, he never thought about quitting, he said.
“I knew when I got here, that it would somehow work out,” he said. “There were times I questioned it, but I knew deep down that I would hate it and regret it if I did stop playing. I have never been a quitter and I have never fallen short of finding success because I know I will work hard enough to get what I want.”
So what is it that has driven the now 22-year-old since he was a child? When there is no immediate reward for hard work, it’s often easier to walk away.
He did whatever was asked of him, whether it was catching bullpen sessions, warming up a pitcher, charting pitches or picking the brains of other players at his position. He did it not knowing if the commitment would lead to playing time.
He isn’t “Rudy” of Notre Dame fame by any means, but Thomas certainly started at the bottom and worked his way up the UK ladder.
“As a parent, the fact that he has stayed with it for four years shows me how much he loves the game,” Judie Thomas said. “He truly does have a passion for the game. He has an amazing work ethic when it comes to sports and school.”
Raised by a single parent since he was 4 1/2 years old, Thomas watched his mother retire from the U.S. Navy, raise him, earn a college degree and become a teacher. She teaches third grade at Mudge Elementary School on Fort Knox.
“My mom has never told me to back off from challenges,” he said. “I knew that’s what this would be.”
After last season when the Wildcats lost catchers Luke Maile and Michael Williams to the professional baseball draft and graduation, respectively, the opportunity to earn a starting job was there for the taking.
Thomas has not disappointed.
“Micheal has worked really hard to change his body, which has allowed him to have more freedom in his stance, which has had a significant impact on his ability to block and receive the low pitch,” said UK volunteer assistant coach Keith Vorhoff, who works with the Wildcats’ catchers.
Thomas said he took his game to another level with his approach and spent the summer playing for Danbury, Conn., in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. When he returned to campus in August, he was ready to claim a key role.
“It really hit me as soon as the season ended,” he said. “I had worked three years for this moment.”
Thomas was one of the area’s premier players as he capped his Elizabethtown High School career as a three-sport athlete, also playing football and basketball. Out of high school, he drew interest from some small schools, and earlier playing time likely would have been available if he took that route.
That’s not what he wanted. When he was told by the UK coaching staff the day of E’town’s 5th Region Tournament game against Taylor County the opportunity he was seeking was his, in many ways, it was a dream come true.
In another way, it was the start of a long and uncertain journey.
“Everything is faster paced and everyone can play,” Thomas said. “College baseball is a competitive environment.”
Through frustrating days and nights wondering when he ever would see the field, Thomas kept working, driven to make his effort pay off.
“I’ve even told some people who asked about (Thomas) last year that he was probably the best third catcher in the country,” Vorhoff said.
The reward for his effort has been immense in many ways this season.
Entering this weekend’s series with Mississippi State, Thomas was hitting .341 with 13 runs driven in and one home run, while starting 16 of Kentucky’s 20 games. The eighth-ranked Wildcats took a 16-4 record into weekend play.
Thomas also leads the team in on-base percentage at .484.
His father, Frank, has managed to see some of his games from his home in Virginia Beach. Judie recently traded her 180,000-mile Saturn for a Chevy Impala. The Saturn logged thousands of miles on various road trips, including two visits this year to South Carolina to begin the season.
It was then son and mom realized there was plenty of reward for the hundreds of hours of work, the patience shown and the silent frustration.
“I was just filled with pride because this is what he wanted to do,” Judie said. “I am watching my child live his dream. I can’t help but smile to see him in his element.”
A kinesiology major, Thomas said he hopes one day to become a coach. For now, he is striving to make this UK season a memorable one.
“For every college player, you have one goal and that’s to get to the College World Series,” he said. “That’s what we are focused on and have worked for.”
Few have worked as hard as Thomas, whose journey has been long and winding — and rewarding.
“It’s just been amazing,” he said. “To play here is what I have always wanted.”
Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-175 or email@example.com.