When Tommy and his twin sister were born in 1988, his biological father, Anhtuan Pham, was in prison. Tommy says he's seen Antoine a couple of times.
"When Antoine got out of prison, the twins were 12 and we met him at a Walmart near our house," Tommy's mother, Yawana Polk, said. "Tommy was a little agitated from the start. He asked him, 'Why does your mom (Tommy's parental grandmother) always talk bad about my mom?' Tommy said, 'My mother never said one thing bad about you.' Then Tommy got up and said, 'Let's go.'"
Tommy says he has closed the door with Antoine.
"I can understand getting in trouble and doing your time. But when you keep messing up, I don't know how you do that," Pham said. "The last time I talked to him—I don't remember exactly when it was, but since high school—I told him that was the last time I was going to talk to him." (It was probably around 2007 that they met.)
Pham got the attention of many scouts for his pitching ability while in high school. He topped out at 92 mph with his fastball and had good feel for his slider.
But Tommy made it clear that he wanted to hit. His agent (since fired) priced Pham out of the third round. So the Cardinals didn't draft him then, waiting until the 16th round where scout Manny Guerra got him to sign for $325,000 (the same bonus St. Louis gave third-rounder Gary Daley).
Before 2007 spring training, Baseball America rated Pham as 22nd-best prospect in the Cardinals organization.
Tommy was not in the book in 2008 through 2013, missing the list entirely for six straight years. But he was back in the book in the spring of 2014 as 23rd-best prospect in the Cards' organization, but moved up to #15 in the winter before 2015 spring training.
In August 2014, Pham became the first player in Memphis franchise history to have four hits, four RBIs, and four runs in the same game.
Pham was called up to the Majors for the first time on September 7, 2014.
Tommy had just turned 18 and was playing in Johnson City, Tennessee, a long way from Las Vegas. Even though he denied being homesick, it was hard to believe that he was not. After every game, he had been calling his mom with updates on his progress.
"She told me to stop calling every night and call every other night," Pham said with a laugh.
Pham is Vietnamese-American and the first such person to play in Major League Baseball since pitcher Danny Graves last appeared in a game in 2006. Tommy and his sister were raised by their working mother, Tawana, in Spring Valley, Nevada.
“He has had to overcome (incredible adversity). He views those obstacles as challenges, personal challenges to be defeated. He is that driven,” Shildt says.
Pham knows where that incredible inner strength originates. “My mom, Tawana, was a driven person. I watched her go to work every day and come home and make dinner and a home for me and my sister. She kept a roof over our heads and food on the table. She did all she could for us. She’s a big part of my life. We still talk a lot.”
In Spring Training 2017, Tommy went quietly to Minor League camp. At the time, he looked lost at the plate (9-for-42 with 16 strikeouts) and had been outplayed by Jose Martinez.
Over the next month, however, Pham would correct his vision and, in turn, his confidence, setting the stage for an emphatic return to the Majors. Injuries to Stephen Piscotty and Dexter Fowler developed an opportunity, one that Pham seized. And now the biggest question surrounding Pham is whether he's finally poised to stay.
"I feel like my ability will speak for itself," Pham said. "I drive the ball pretty consistently. I'm going to play better defense this year. I'm going to steal some bases. If I do all that, there are not too many guys in the league that bring that set of abilities to the table."
The skill set has never been in question. It's why the Cardinals have retained Pham despite myriad injury issues and prolonged slumps. Perhaps the payoff is arriving now.
Tommy, a student of sabermetrics, always believed he was capable of thriving at this level. When the results weren't there, he'd look at his spray charts or stats like exit velocity and line-drive rate to assure himself that his approach was sound. Pham is an avid consumer of advanced metrics and Statcast data, finding that it provides supporting evidence to what he long believed were strengths.
"He's a dangerous player when he's locked in," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's just getting the opportunities."
Pham will continue to earn those opportunities with his current sort of production, perhaps even at the expense of those who beat him out for Opening Day 2017 roster spots. He could challenge Randal Grichuk or Piscotty for playing time once Piscotty returns from the DL. And Pham may block Martinez from regaining his spot as the team's extra outfielder when he, too, gets healthy.
After years of vacillating between the Minors, big leagues and DL, Pham believes he's finally on the verge of sticking where he wants.
"I've been having pretty consistent quality at-bats since the start of the Triple-A season," Pham said. "I'm just trying to continue with my routine and put together quality at-bats each and every day." (Langosch - mlb.com - 5/11/2017)
Tommy is a happy-enough guy. He struts around the clubhouse wearing one of his "Pham-tastic" T-shirts. But he takes the game very seriously.
On August 20, 2017, MLB went to the Little League World Series, with Williamsport PA hosting the Cardinals at Pirates on a Sunday Night ESPN game. During the day, the big and little leaguers hung out together for several hours.
As the day went on and the August sun heated things up, Cardinals OF Tommy Pham brought relief from the summer heat in the form of 200 snow cones. And he had some help as teammate Carlos Martinez chipped in for a share of the purchase:
Opening Day 2018 Questions and Answers with mlb.com:
MLB.com: Can you believe the season you had in 2017?
Tommy Pham: Yes, I can believe the year I had, because it's everything I thought I could do. I was just consistent all the way around—defensively, offensively. I managed to get on base, cut down my strikeouts. I drove the ball a little bit. I was able to do everything I wanted. There is still room for improvement. I would say I did a better job helping the pitchers out whenever I could.
MLB.com: Who helped you have a great season?
Pham: Just mainly the opportunity, because, in 2017, I was able to get two months of consistent playing time before everyone was back [from injuries] and ready. By the time everyone was back—and the team saw what I did —it was hard to take me out of the lineup.
MLB.com: How did you manage to have such a great season despite having keratoconus, a rare vision disorder?
Pham: I had the right corrective lenses to allow me to play at a high level. I'm constantly eye-checking myself, only because I have to play. When I don't play, I don't wear my lenses.
MLB.com: You credit Astros GM Jeff Luhnow—who had previously been in the Cardinals' front office —for getting your vision corrected. How did that happen?
Pham: When I was first diagnosed with my condition, he set it up to get tested. He just always believed I was too good of an athlete to struggle in this game. [After 2007], I hit a lot of home runs, but I struck out a lot, and Jeff thought it was my vision rather than my actual swing . . . sure enough, he was right. A big thanks to Jeff.
MLB.com: Do you talk to Luhnow often?
Pham: I don't see him often. But I did see him last year on the back fields before we played Houston during Spring Training. I told him I was struggling. He wanted to congratulate me for what I overcame. He told me I should get my vision checked again, because I'm too good to struggle in this game. I got my vision checked before Spring Training ended, and he was right.
MLB.com: Fair or unfair, you struggled inn 2018 Spring Training and the media mentioned your vision problems. How do you feel about it?
Pham: People struggle in this game. If anything, I was looking at my mechanics before my vision. My mechanics were not there quite yet. It's getting better. It wasn't there at the moment. When I'm struggling, people are going [to question my vision]. They don't know anything about me. I use my own doctors. I don't even go through the team. The only people that know about me is me and my eye doctor.
MLB.com: What improvements would you like to make this year?
Pham: I would like to be consistent again and play more games. If I could get out on the field 150-plus games, that means I'm very consistent and I'm helping the team win. (Ladson - mlb.com - 3/29/2018)
Las Vegas in recent years has become a reliable supplier of young stars such as Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo. It's the sort of place where former minor leaguers can set up businesses and coach their sons, as Bryant's and Gallo's fathers did.
But that was not Tommy Pham's Vegas. Thomas James Pham was born on March 8, 1988. His twin sister, Brittney, came two minutes later. Their mother, Tawana, was 17, and their father, Anhtuan, 19, was incarcerated, as he would be for most of the twins' lives. (He was to spend his 50th birthday in prison in June 2018; and he was expected to be released in October 2018).
Tommy has no relationship with his father. They've met three times, twice when Anhtuan was locked up and once outside prison. "He used to write me letters. I told him years ago that I was down, and I wouldn't visit him again."
Anthuan was born in Vietnam during the war to a black American father and a Vietnamese mother. He had moved to the U.S. as a youngster with his mother, brother and sister. He was a gifted football player, but he became enmeshed in drugs and street crime: Corrections records show a rap sheet spanning three decades.
The pregnancy, Tawana says, crushed her parents at first: She had wound up a single mother of two, and she hadn't even finished high school. But they offered to raise the twins with her as long as she worked. So she landed in food service, as a busser at first, working her way up to server. She got a second job in a bakery.
Tawana needed the money and the help. Tommy wore leg braces from two to 3-1/2; the pediatrician worried he had rickets. She was working so much, she could hardly spend time at home. When the twins were five, she married Fred Polk, and electrician, and soon after they had a daughter, Mercedes.
But Tawana was still holding down two jobs, which left Tommy and Brittney to look after themselves. Tawana set rules—no bad grades, no unstructured time—and Tommy went about enforcing them rather than stressing her out or risking her wrath. (Brittney still thinks of Tommy as her dad; he'll weigh in on her dating life and tsk-tsk her about drinking when they go to nightclubs.)
For the Pham kids, organized sports represented their only shot at fun. (Brittney's sport was basketball.) During baseball season, Tommy's coaches ferried him to practices and games. Once he started travel ball, at 10, with tournaments every weekend all over the country, coaches Todd Gamboa and AJ Ramirez became surrogate fathers to Tommy. But for Tommy, that wasn't especially close to the real thing. Parents would console their kids when the made errors. The coaches didn't do that, not even for their star shortstop. (Jack Dickey - Sports Illustrated - 4/09/2018)
Where his twin sister, Brittney, is bubbly and social—she is a bartender—Tommy can be steely and distant. He berates himself for mistakes and broods after bad games. Since tasting success, Pham's only gotten harder on himself.
In May 2016, Pham's twin sister, Brittney, got a call from a number she didn't recognize. It was a police sergeant informing her that her father was in intensive care. He had been shot nine times by an off-duty cop while allegedly trying to shoplift two bags of crab legs from a Washington, D.C. grocery store.
He had supposedly pulled a replica hand-gun on the officer.
Brittney saw him shackled to the hospital bed. And she told her father that Tommy would probably not have a relationship with him.
"I don't feel sorry for myself, I really don't," Pham said. "I made the most of my situation—but those things weren't hardships for me. It was just life." (Jack Dickey - Sports Illustrated - 4/09/2018)
Pham spent the offseason before 2018 spring training like he did the one before it, training in Miami. He'd like to be back in Vegas, but the city lacks a sports performance facility that meets his specialized requirements. So he rented an apartment in a downtown high-rise with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the city and Miami Beach.
He keeps the place clean; his whole family is fastidious. On his coffee table sits a book of Spanish grammar. Tommy has a brilliant smile, one he uses sparingly, saving it for moments like this.
"I ain't gonna lie to you and be like 'I wanna be able to communicate with my Latin teammates.' I'm learning because I like Spanish women," he says.
Whatever the context, Pham always puts in extra effort to improve.
Tommy spent thousands in 2016 on special contact lenses to improve his degenerative eye condition, keratoconus. They didn't help so he ditched them. When the Cards' pitching machine broke, he ordered a new one, the $3,300 Hack Attack, which simulated a pitcher's actual elevated release point.
He reads everything he can on mechanics, nutrition and sabermetrics. (Jack Dickey - Sports Illustrated - 4/09/2018)
Tommy is all about baseball. "Before I go to the park and when I get home after a game—man, even if we have a day off—my TV is almost always tuned to MLB Network or one of the channels on the MLB Extra Innings package. I might check out HGTV on occasion," Pham said.
Baseball has been #1 for Tommy since before high school.
"I played shortstop back in the day, so I focused on watching three of the best: Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin and Alex Rodriguez."
Tommy did take up boxing during a few off-seasons when he was in the minors.
"It started as part of my training program, but then I learned how to actually box a little, and I got serious and did it to become a better boxer. I sparred quite a bit, and even went against a pro guy once. I only hit him twice. He hit me a lot more than that. It gave me a different level of respect for boxers," Pham says.
June 25, 2018: At Milwaukee's famous Pfister Hotel, sometimes their guests check in and never check out. That's right: The hotel is rumored to be filled with ghosts— kind of like a non-threatening Overlook Hotel. Often the first choice among big league teams when they come to town to play the Brewers, the hotel is known for its terrifying history of things that go bump in the night.
Clint Hurdle once comforted a Pirates player that was frightened while in the hotel. Ji-Man Choi experienced one of its many paranormal events while trying to sleep. Carlos Gomez heard voices when he got out of the shower.
The Cardinals, recently in town to play the Brewers over the weekend, were just the latest to confront the ethereal plane. After his start on Thursday, Carlos Martinez posted a video Instagram on saying that he couldn't sleep in his room because of a free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparition. Same with outfielder Marcell Ozuna. So, the two of them—along with Tommy Pham and some Cardinals coaches—headed to Francisco Peña's room for comfort.
"We are here in Milwaukee," Martinez said in Spanish in the video. "I just saw a ghost. In Ozuna's room, he saw another one. We are all here. We are all in Peñita's [Francisco Pena] room. We are all stuck here. We are going to sleep together. If the ghost shows again, we are all going to fight together."
Not sure what Martinez's plan of attack was, but he may have wanted to contact Rockies pitcher Jon Gray, who hunts ghosts in his spare time. (Michael Clair and Javier Castellano / MLB.com @michaelsclair)
Tommy's smile is splashed all over St. Louis. On billboards and bus stops, Pham's face has become a familiar sight beyond the walls of Busch Stadium, where more often than not he mans center field. But when the Cardinals aren't playing, Pham regularly patrols a different area, where he feels that exposure brings responsibility.
That's in the community, where Pham spends a bulk of his in-season off-days. Most of his work involves local Boys & Girls Clubs, which Pham will visit with a purpose. Important for Pham is being a role model for inner-city youth during a time in which black players make up a small percentage of Major Leaguers.
"St. Louis is a city where kids look up to you so much," Pham said. "Especially young black kids—when they see someone like myself, a black athlete, a black St. Louis Cardinal, that's something that they relish. I go to the community just to say what's up to them, bring some smiles to their faces."
For Pham, who grew up without a father figure, having athletes to look up to was vital. Though he didn't have any local teams to root for living in Las Vegas, Pham took every chance he could to watch his heroes on national broadcasts. His favorite baseball player was Derek Jeter; he also looked up to Barry Larkin, Barry Bonds, football star Deion Sanders, and NBA legend Michael Jordan.
"It was kind of my way out, what helped me stay on a straight path," Pham said. "For me, it was about taking the bad and making it good. Sports made it better."
Pham can relate to how his appearances feel for kids after he met Bonds last year. Pham said Bonds told him he loves the way he plays. "That's something I'll always cherish," Pham said. "Because he was one of my favorite players growing up."
Pham began working consistently with kids shortly after he was promoted for good in 2017, making cameos at baseball camps and popping into local Boys & Girls Clubs on his days off. As the appearances added up, so did his on-field numbers. Pham emerged as a surprise star of the National League in 2017 and his community involvement hasn't slowed.
"When I go and talk, they see someone of their skin complexion," Pham said. "I ask them, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I get a lot of different answers. But for the ones who say, 'Baseball player,' I'm someone they can relate to. If they see someone like me coming in and messing with them, that's something they can remember for the rest of their life. It gives them that extra motivation."
Pham sets a similar example in his personal life for his young nephew, Clayton. Clayton, the son of Pham's twin sister Brittany, texts his uncle every day. The two recently caught up while Pham sat in the visiting clubhouse in Cincinnati prior to the Cardinals' series finale against the Reds. Pham spoke glowingly of his nephew, right after outlining the details of a youth camp he was set to work in St. Louis the next day.
"I'm the male figure in his life," Pham said. "I told him to do something that will make him better every day. Whether its baseball, basketball, or soccer—do something, but don't do nothing." (Trezza - mlb.com - 7/26/2018)
May 21, 2019: In a recent sit-down with MLB.com at Yankee Stadium, Rays outfielder Tommy Pham discussed a wide range of topics, from the Rays’ rivalry with the Yankees to his time with the Cardinals.
MLB.com: The last time I saw you, you were a member of the Cardinals. How do you like being with the Rays?
Tommy Pham: I enjoy winning, but they are a very young team, have great chemistry and we have a fun atmosphere. There is a lot of things to like here.
MLB.com: What is there to like?
Pham: Everyone meshes with everyone on this team really well. The chemistry is something that everybody is starting to get talked about a lot—the loose, fun atmosphere.
MLB.com: When you were traded to Tampa Bay last July, what was your reaction? Did you think you would be a loose atmosphere?
Pham: Well, before I was traded, there were rumors that there were a couple of teams looking for a righthanded-hitting outfielder and I kind of fit that description. I was, more so, shocked that I was traded here in comparison to the other teams. I was also shocked I was traded away. I felt like, with the Cardinals, things were not going well, but I still felt we were a playoff-contending team. But this team, Tampa, had been eyeing me for a few years. As they said, they are happy to have me.
MLB.com: Everybody talks about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, but there is a rivalry between the Rays and Yankees. How do you feel about that?
Pham: Well, it’s just two good baseball teams in a very tough division—just going at it. Whenever you have two good teams, especially within the division, there is always going to be a great battle.
MLB.com: The one thing I noticed about you is that you are a perfectionist. When I approached you the other day about doing this interview, you were reluctant and talked about being in a slump. You were hitting in the .280s. Why are you such a perfectionist?
Pham: This is a game based upon failure. I meant everything I said because the quality of my at-bats has been down. I’m starting to swing out of the strike zone. I’m really not hitting the ball harder or driving it. I’m having this week-long slump. It’s really important to me because I’m such an important piece in the lineup. Having said that, with me going good, I help others out as well.
MLB.com: It sounds like the Rays are making you feel at home.
Pham: Definitely. They are very appreciative. They respect everything I do. They are just glad to have me.
MLB.com: Did you feel that way in St. Louis?
Pham: I felt like my teammates loved me, but not necessarily the front office. You have to talk to Mo [Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak] about. Mo didn’t give me a chance like these guys did.
MLB.com: You did something that is unheard of. Even though you had a great season in Tampa last year, you asked permission to play in the Dominican Winter League. Why did you do that?
Pham: I feel the more I play, the more I get better—just to go out there and keep playing, keep learning regarding my craft.
MLB.com: In what way did the Dominican Winter League help you?
Pham: It’s a tough environment. The umpires have a generous, pitcher-friendly strike zone. The balls don’t go far at all. There’s something with their balls. It’s like soft, I guess. The parks are big. Everything is a disadvantage for the hitter. You really have to learn how to hit in uncomfortable situations because the strike zone is brutal. [The umpire] call balls way off the plate—under the zone, above the zone. So you are constantly down in the count. You drive balls and they get swallowed up in the air. It teaches you how to zone in to be a better hitter. (Editor’s note: Pham hit .279/.340/.326 in 47 plate appearances for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League.)
MLB.com: When I first met you, you were big into analytics. Your current team, the Rays, have popularized the opener. How do you feel about that part of the game?
Pham: The opener has helped us. Right now we are in a tough predicament with a starter down (Tyler Glasnow). We are trying to make up some innings. This is going to be a tough couple of months for us, but we have benefited by using the opener. We have the arms to do it.
MLB.com: I want to talk about the hitting. The offense is not bad, either. As you said, if everybody stays healthy, this offense can compete against anybody.
Pham: Especially with me firing on all cylinders. When I’m right, we can put up some runs. You starting to see guys like Austin Meadows emerge. We’ll see how well he plays in a full year. We have guys that can hit the ball hard and work the count. Right now, we are dealing with some injuries.
MLB.com: You said the offense depends on you. Why do you feel that way?
Pham: Because I’m in an important position in the lineup. I’m hitting in the two-hole. Usually, when I’m in the two-hole, that spot in the lineup gets a lot of important action, whether you are getting on base or driving in the runs. So you can’t be slumping in the two-hole. Just last year, I saw how important the two-hole is, whether my experience is going good or bad. When I’m going good and I’m hitting in the two-hole, I make a lot of things happen because I’m getting on base usually with no outs or one out or there is somebody on base in front of me. We could go first to third or first to home, just a chance to have an impactful inning.
MLB.com: You seem like you have a lot to prove.
Pham: That’s just life, man. People in the professional sports world are always going to say you can’t do something. With my age and everything, people are already down on me. I’m on the latter part of the curve where you get worse.
MLB.com: Just because you are in the your 30s?
Pham: Yeah, that’s what people say. I can still run with the best of them and I still hit the ball hard with the best of them. When you have those two attributes, you are going to have some success. (B Ladson - MLB.com - May 21, 2019)
Feb 13, 2020: Tommy distinctly remembers his trip to San Diego the previous summer. The Rays were fighting for a Wild Card berth, and they won two of three games at Petco Park, pushing the fading Padres further from contention.
Evidently, three months before he was dealt to San Diego, Pham was already taking notes. The Padres, Pham recalled, struck out way too much. (Thirty-nine times, to be exact). That isn't going to fly.
"We're going to have to do a better job of controlling the strike zone," Pham said. "From when I played against San Diego last year, what I saw outside looking in, we didn't do a good job of controlling the strike zone. There were a lot of punch-outs.
"I know Tampa's one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, and they strike out a lot of guys. But you have to give yourself a chance. Strikeouts are part of the game. Don't get me wrong, I strike out a lot, too. But make the pitcher work for it. Go down with a fight."
And that, in short, is why Tommy Pham is a Padre. First and foremost, that mindset is precisely what the Padres have been asking of their hitters for the better part of the past decade. San Diego led the National League with 1,581 strikeouts last season, while finishing 26th in on-base percentage. (And that 26th place finish was an upgrade after five straight seasons finishing last in the Majors.)
But Pham's remarks were also an encapsulation of his personality – fiery and intense with a tinge of brutal honesty. The Padres had been searching for a presence like Pham to help ignite a young clubhouse. (AJ Cassavell - MLB.com - Feb 13, 2020)
June 2006: The Cardinals drafted Pham in the 16th round, out of Durango High School in Las Vegas, NV.
July 31, 2018: The Cardinals traded Pham and international slot money to the Rays for minor leaguers Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrerra, and Roel Ramirez.
Feb 5, 2019: Pham won his arbitration case against the Rays. The 30-year old outfielder will make $4.1 million, while the Rays had offered $3.5 million. It's a significant pay raise for Pham, who made $570,100 in 2018.
Dec 6, 2019: The Padres traded OF Hunter Renfroe, 2B Xavier Edwards and a PTBNL to the Rays for OF Tommy Pham and SS/RHP Jake Cronenworth.
- Jan 10, 2020: Pham and the D-backs avoided arbitration, agreeing on a one-year deal for $7.9 million.