To say Marcus Thames’ playing career got off to a good start would be a Gotham-sized understatement.
As a New York Yankee called up from the minor leagues on June 10, 2002, Thames hit the first major league pitch he saw – an elevated fastball from the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson – for a home run that landed near Monument Park.
To say the rest was all downhill from there wouldn’t be fair. There’s no way to top that, and Thames did slug 26 home runs for the Tigers in 2006. He would hit 115 during a 10-year career before getting into coaching three years after his final game, with the Yankees, Rangers, Tigers and Dodgers.
Fast forward to 2023, and Thames is talking with eager anticipation about being the White Sox’ third hitting coach in three seasons. It’s his third major league job, too – he was hitting coach for the Yankees from 2018-21, the Marlins in 2022 and the Angels, who fired manager Phil Nevin, last season.
Thames didn’t care to discuss that Bronx bomb against Johnson, though, when introduced to media on a Zoom call this week.
“I don’t remember. That was a long, long time ago,” he said. “I try not to talk about me when I’m doing this, but I had a pretty nice, successful career. I remember certain things. It was fun.”
Wait. You don’t remember?
“Yeah, I remember,” he allowed, “but I don’t like talking about it. It’s for me and my kids and my family. But other than that, right now it’s about those hitters that we bring into the locker room with the White Sox.”
The Sox had three coaches working with hitters in 2023, manager Pedro Grifol’s first season, and it was probably one too many. Hitting coach Jose Castro was fired after one season, assistant hitting coach Chris Johnson was reassigned but is expected to take a job with the Washington Nationals, and field coordinator Mike Tosar was hands-on with Sox hitters, who led the majors in swings at pitches outside the strike zone and were last in walks and on-base percentage.
Sox hitters took to certain coaches, not an unusual thing, but there was a lack of cohesiveness on that front.
Tosar, who went to high school with Grifol and coached with him with the Kansas City Royals, will be the assistant hitting coach.
“He knows these guys well, so I think that’s a good team [with Thames],” Grifol said.
“There’s clarity there. We feel these two guys can lead us to the improvement we need.”
Thames is already talking to Tosar.
“We’ll hit the ground running,” Thames said. “We’re having meetings now and we’ll be ready to go when it’s time to get going.”
Grifol said Thames gave a clear idea in interviews of what he wants to do, which is what Grifol wants — cut down chase rates, walk more and improve situational hitting.
“I don’t micromanage these areas, that’s their baby,” Grifol said. “He knows our deficiencies, he knows how we chase. He knows how I really want to improve the situational hitting aspect of our ballclub. He’s coming in with a plan.”
Thames will be getting to know Sox hitters in the coming weeks.
“The number one thing when it comes to hitting, you got to be able to swing at strikes,” Thames said.
“The game has come to a point where situational hitting has been a lost art until the postseason.”
After 101 losses in 2023, lost arts need rediscovering throughout the coaching staff. Other newcomers include first base coach Jason Bourgeois, major league coach Grady Sizemore, catching coach Drew Butera and bullpen coach Matt Wise. The latter two were with Thames with the Angels, Wise as pitching coach and Butera as catching coordinator.
Grifol calls Butera “one of the up and coming minds in the game.”
“I’m looking forward to him working with the catchers and game planning and game management aspect which I thought we were really poor at last year.”
Hitting coach is said to be one of the game’s tougher jobs – one man dealing with 13 personalities and swings over a long season.
“Not all the guys clicking at the same time,” Thames said. “It’s a lot of work, but I’ve been doing it for so long now, and I embrace that. I’ve been in New York, I’ve been in Miami, I just left Anaheim. I’ve been with some of the top players in the game and some of the players that are up and coming. It’s a challenge.”