New Brave comes home

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 24, 2003

John Thomson, seen here as a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, delivers a pitch in a game last season. Thomson recently signed a contract to pitch for the Atlanta Braves. He will spend Christmas in Vicksburg, his birthplace. (The Texas Rangers)

[12/23/03]John Thomson doesn’t remember much about Vicksburg.

How could he? He was only an infant when his parents moved. But Thomson, 30, does return every year for one thing to celebrate Christmas with his family.

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Thomson, a pitcher who just signed with the Atlanta Braves, will continue that tradition once again with his return to the River City.

This year even adds a special treat.

The family will hold a catered dinner for 40-50 guests at Cedar Grove Mansion and Inn. Thomson will even get to see one of his cousins a captain in the U.S. Army on leave from Iraq for the first time in 10 years.

When the meal is served and all bow their heads, Thomson will give his thanks for a great year and the chance for a dream come true.

“I’ve spent Christmas in Vicksburg my whole life,” Thomson said. “This year we’ll have a big family dinner, and I’ll actually be there on Christmas day.”

Six months after he was born in Vicksburg, Thomson and his family moved away. Moving actually became the family motto in his early days.

“Before my little brother was born, for three-and-a-half years we moved about five different times,” Thomson said.

They settled down in Sulphur, La., a small town between Lake Charles and the Texas border. Thomson grew up there and attended the town’s only high school Sulphur High.

He excelled in high school baseball. After his senior year, the Texas Rangers tried to sign him as a free agent, but Thomson opted to go to college.

After a year at McNeese State, he moved on to Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas.

Thomson turned pro in 1993 when the Colorado Rockies selected him with their seventh-round pick in the amateur draft.

Always known for his great control, Thomson made his debut in the majors in 1997. Pitching in Denver’s hitter-friendly Coors Field, Thomson finished his rookie year at 7-9 with a 4.71 ERA.

He continued to struggle the next two years before shoulder surgery forced him to miss all of 2000. He contemplated retirement, giving up on his love of the game. But he worked his way back.

Upon his return, Thomson had stints with the Rockies and the New York Mets before signing a one-year, $1.3 million deal with the Rangers last season.

He ran into trouble early in the year, posting a 6-9 record with 5.43 ERA before the All-Star break.

His career was heading in the wrong direction, but a pair of simple changes may have turned it all around.

“The best thing was introducing a curve and throwing it in different situations,” said Thomson, who had relied on two pitches throughout his career. “People used to sit on my fastball or slider. Adding the curveball allowed me to change speeds more.”

Before his surgery, Thomson threw over the top of his head with a high leg kick. The coaches in Colorado convinced him to alter his mechanics to put less wear on his arm. Midway through last season, he returned to his old form.

In his final 18 starts, Thomson went 9-5 with a 3.89 ERA on a losing team. He gave up only 29 walks in those games, for an average of 1.61 walks per start.

“With the second half of the season I had last year, I realized my potential,” Thomson said. “If I keep the same mindset, I can be successful and have a lot of good games.”

The Braves had always been on Thomson’s radar. He watched them throughout his childhood and was always a fan.

“Growing up in south Louisiana, there were two teams and two pitchers to watch Nolan Ryan in Houston and John Smoltz in Atlanta,” he said.

Thomson even modeled his pitching delivery after the two greats. Now he has the chance to call one of them a teammate.

“It’s going to be weird to be on the same team as John Smoltz,” Thomson said. “People have always told me my mechanics are similar to Smoltz’s.”

Thomson said he chose the Braves because he didn’t like the direction in which the Rangers were heading.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said of his decision. “But I’m leaving to go to a contending team. (The Rangers) are getting rid of a lot of older players. I went through that in Colorado and didn’t want to do it again.”

On Dec. 9, Thomson signed a two-year deal with Atlanta, with the option for a third year.

He will make $1.75 million next season, with a $1 million signing bonus. In 2005, his salary increases to $3.75 million. The option year of 2006 is for $4.75 million with a $500,000 buyout if the Braves choose to end the contract.

The Braves have high hopes for Thomson as he joins a club that has traditionally been kind to pitchers.

“He has shown signs of consistency that looks like he is ready to break out,” Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz said.

Thomson will join a rotation of Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez. He also will team with Braves manager Bobby Cox and famed pitching coach Leo Mazzone, known for maxing out the potential of his hurlers.

“We have confidence that any pitcher that comes here gets better,” Schuerholz said. “It’s the best environment for pitchers with Bobby Cox and a great pitching coach.”

Soon Thomson will find himself starting games with his boyhood idol Smoltz coming in to close them.

“I grew up watching the Braves,” Thomson said. “I’m very excited about going to a team I grew up watching my whole life.”

He’s also excited about going to a contender after spending last season with a perennial cellar-dwellar.

“Atlanta’s won their division 12 years in a row,” Thomson said. “People think not winning is OK, but it’s not. I like winning.”

Sitting in the dining room of Cedar Grove with his family, Thomson will spend his holiday as he always does in Vicksburg, where it all got started.

His journey has taken a few bumpy roads, but the path has just turned smooth.

And as visions of spring training, Turner Field and the Braves dance in his head, Thomson will wake up Christmas morning knowing Santa already delivered his gift this year.