Perseverance pays off for former Phillies

Mike Costanzo (Photo: Brad Penner/US Presswire)

The thing that keeps a lot of players going, especially at the minor league level, is their love for the game of baseball. In just the past week, two examples of that love, combined with perseverance, have taken players with Phillies connections to the majors.

Perseverance: Steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc. especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles or discouragement.

Obviously, perseverance is a key component for players who are striving to reach the major leagues. Some need more than others and some show more perseverance than others. For some players, there have been a number of difficulties, obstacles and discouragements along the way to the majors; some give up and fall victim to those obstacles, while others keep on and eventually make it to where they want to be.

This past week showed two great examples of perseverance and both carried links to the Phillies organization.

First, came the trade of fan favorite Rich Thompson to the Tampa Bay Rays. Thompson was one of those guys who are often referred to as "journeymen" who stick around baseball making a decent living as a Triple-A player and all the time have the goal of being a major leaguer in the back of their minds. For these players, it's the love of the game that usually keeps them around. That's always been the case for Rich Thompson.

The 33-year old Thompson was playing in his 13th professional season and his 13th minor league season. As a bright-eyed 25 year-old, Thompson got into six games with the 2004 Kansas City Royals, primarily as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. He was just 0-for-1 at the plate, but was able to swipe one base while appearing as a pinch-runner. Since then, Thompson's baseball life has been one of wondering if he would get another shot, but believing that he was good enough to play at the major league level. Honestly, it looked like time was running out. The Phillies were the fifth organization that Thompson had been a part of and he was playing in his fifth season in the organization without a whiff of reaching the major league level. He even went through a somewhat disrespectful demotion back to Double-A ball last season as part of a numbers crunch. The demotion was short-lived, but with what Thompson had been through in his career, he didn't deserve to be the odd-man-out for any length of time.

While Thompson was playing well for Lehigh Valley, he didn't appear anywhere in the line of succession of players that might be headed to Philadelphia. Then, came news that he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. The news came out of the blue and was surprising to say the least. The second part of the news was that the Rays weren't sending him to Triple-A Durham; they were adding him to the major league roster immediately. Seems a rash of injuries had hit in Tampa and there was a need for a legitimate centerfielder. Whether it was a situation of Thompson being the quickest available option the Rays could find or whether they were actually keeping an eye on him, isn't clear. Bottom line though was that Thompson was again a major leaguer. He appeared as a pinch-runner the night of the trade and quickly swiped two bases. The next day, he was in the starting lineup and lashed his first major league hit; somewhat of a Holy Grail for a player like Thompson.

Before long, his old teammates were watching him being interviewed on The MLB Network and got to catch a little of one of his games on television. To a man, the IronPigs clubhouse was cheering for Thompson in his new role with the Tampa Bay Rays. "The whole clubhouse was glued to the TV, and that's great, because it helps to show these guys that you just have to hang in there and always believe that it's going to happen," said IronPigs manager Ryne Sandberg.

In another case of perseverance, possibly a story of even more perseverance than Thompson provided, a former Phillies second round draft pick also reached the majors in a story with more irony than a Hollywood script could match. Mike Costanzo was the Phillies first pick in the 2005 Draft, which was actually the first pick the Phillies made in the draft having lost their first round pick to the Yankees. Costanzo was a Philly boy, who grew up a Phillies fan. When he was born, he literally came home from the hospital wearing a tiny Phillies jacket which he proudly displayed in his first post-draft visit to Philadelphia. This Philly kid was a third baseman with a big bat and he instantly became the heir-apparent to the recently signed David Bell, who was playing third base for the Phillies after signing as a free agent. After two seasons in the organization, Costanzo had reached Double-A ball and had hit 50 career home runs and driven in 217 runs while hitting .266 in the Phillies organization.

Former IronPigs' outfielder Rich Thompson is getting a chance to help out an injured outfield in Tampa Bay.

While it was tempting to keep him around to continue his rise to Philadelphia, the Phillies wanted to bring Brad Lidge to the team from Houston and the Astros wanted Costanzo as part of the deal. The trade was made and Costanzo never settled in the Astros organization as they packaged him in a deal with Baltimore to bring Miguel Tejeda to Houston. From there, it was downhill for the now former Phillies prospect. After hitting 11 home runs and batting .261 at Triple-A Norfolk in 2008, Costanzo's numbers shrank to just three home runs and a .202 average splitting time between Triple-A and Double-A in 2009. By the next season, he was in independent ball and had pretty much been written off.

After a decent start to the season with the Camden RiverSharks in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds had a couple holes in their organization and signed Costanzo to a minor league deal. He started at Double-A Carolina, which is where the irony starts; he was now playing for Carolina MudCats manager David Bell. The same David Bell he was supposed to replace in Philadelphia. The two developed a professional friendship which continued this season when Bell took over the reins at Triple-A Louisville and Costanzo came along and was hitting .291 with three home runs in just 23 games for the Bats when one day, Costanzo was taken out of the starting lineup that had been posted. He approached Bell for an explanation, but Bell didn't have one; at least not one he could tell Costanzo at the time.

"I knew what was happening," said Bell. "I just couldn't say anything, because nothing was official. I felt bad leaving Mike hanging and he was sort of just moping around figuring that he was in trouble for something and not knowing what was going on. It was a big relief when I could finally tell him."

Bell was beyond happy for Costanzo, who was finally getting his chance to play in the majors. In another twist of irony, Costanzo was taking a roster spot created by an injury to another former Phillie, Scott Rolen. "There was just so much about that whole thing that was weird," explained Bell. "It's like it was all just the right fit and everything fell into place. Telling him was the best moment of my managerial career, that's for sure."

Costanzo has since played in six games for the Reds and he too reached the Holy Grail, collecting his first major league hit.

"When I heard that he got that hit, I was excited for him," said Bell.

Perseverance; it's a funny thing. But if you need examples of how it can conquer a lot of obstacles, you need only look back at the transactions from this past week for proof.

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