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Home again: Thomas finds himself in familiar surroundings at McCormick Field 
By David Derrough, STAFF WRITER 

ASHEVILLE — Familiar surroundings can do wonders for one’s comfort zone. Especially, when you’re a 22-year-old minor-league baseball player who travels from town to town all season long. It’s also rare when a player gets the opportunity to come home.

For the past three days, outfielder Charles Thomas, a former Asheville High and Western Carolina standout, has been blessed with the chance to play in front of the home fans as a member of the Macon Braves. The Braves and Thomas end the four-game series with a 2 p.m. game today at McCormick Field.

Not only did Thomas play at McCormick in the American Legion and as a Catamount, but he also worked for the Tourists while in high school. He first sold popcorn before moving up to the Tourists’ batboy spot for two years.

Thomas showed a love for the game then and nothing has changed. Even if he never steps foot on a major-league field, he wants to somehow be involved in baseball.

"We’d have to try and find something for him,’’ joked Asheville General Manager Ron McKee, who traveled a similar path as a former Tourist bat boy, Lee Edwards High School (now Asheville High) and WCU graduate.

Thomas liked the idea, but joked back it would not be as a batboy.

Thomas, a former All-Southern Conference outfielder, studied sports management at WCU and plans to get his degree at some point. He wants to eventually work in the front office of a professional baseball team.

Those thoughts are all on the shelf right now, though, because he would like to continue his promising career. Ironically, a slow start this spring landed the 6-0, 190-pound Thomas in Macon and the chance to play against Asheville.

Until Monday, Thomas was a member of the Braves’ Myrtle Beach Class A farm team, a step above Macon. He struggled at the plate, hitting .159 in 12 games with the Pelicans.

Thomas seems to have taken the demotion in stride.

"I don’t blame them,’’ said Thomas, who throws and bats left-handed. "I was struggling some, so I understand it. I’m really happy to be here.’’

Thomas went 1-for-4 in his first game in Asheville on Thursday, while batting third and playing right field. Batting third and playing left field on Friday, he also went 1-for-4, striking out twice.

Thomas is mature beyond his years. He played three years at WCU before leaving when he was drafted in the 19th round. Last year – his first in professional baseball – was a success. He batted .303 in 68 games for Jamestown of the New York-Penn League.

His coaches have nothing but praise for him – even though he’s been with Macon less than a week. "He’s a good person,’’ said Macon manager Randy Ingle, a native of Forest City. "He plays extremely hard. It sure pleases a manager to know he’s giving every ounce of energy.’’

Macon hitting coach Bobby Moore said Thomas has the speed and power to excel from first through fifth in the batting order.

Although Ingle hasn’t seen much of him, there really isn’t anything he dislikes about his game. "I like the way he swings the bat,’’ said Ingle. "He has above-average speed. He’s also got power.’’

Ingle was hard-pressed to find any weaknesses in his game, but thought his throwing could improve.

Moore saw what Thomas could do in spring training and relishes the reunion with a guy he said is like, "a younger brother.’’ Moore, who played briefly in the majors with the Kansas City Royals, before finishing his career with the Class AAA Richmond Braves, steered clear of a prediction, but said Thomas has the work ethic and the tools to get a shot at the major leagues.

"There’s a lot of young talent in this organization,’’ said Moore. "We have players who can play this game. But he does have the determination and the will to get better. He’s just a guy you love and admire. Everything he does, he wants to be the best at it. He’s one of the best that I’ve had to work with.’’

Thomas didn’t grow up a Braves fan. He was born in California and attended San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics games. He moved to Asheville in 1989 at the age of 10, shortly before the Bay Area earthquake that disrupted the Bay Series. Had he still been living there, he might have even been at Candlestick Park before the game started.

With no major-league games to attend after moving to the mountains, his interest didn’t wane. The job with the Tourists helped him keep his love for the game. "I fill really blessed,’’ he said. ‘I thank God for the opportunity everyday for doing something I love. I really want to be in Atlanta. But I’m very happy. I’m where I want to be. There’s no timetable. If I ever get there, it will be amazing to me.’’

Not that he doesn’t believe in himself. He just wants to keep everything in perspective.

"I think there’s a lot of things that have to happen right," Thomas said. "Just about everybody in minor-league baseball has the ability. There are a lot of tangibles. The mental aspect is a big part of it.’’

Minor-league baseball can be a grind, but Thomas knows he is doing something most only dream of.

"It’s tough and tiresome,’’ he said of the routine. "Just about everybody that goes through it, appreciates the opportunity. I think everybody gets down. It’s how quickly you can move forward. The great thing about this game is there’s always a game the next day.’’

Thomas likes to pattern his game after Atlanta shortstop Rafael Furcal, who isn’t brash, but just goes about his business in a determined fashion. 

"Being consistent,’’ Thomas said. ‘That’s basically what they’re looking for. There are things I need to work on in every aspect. There’s always something to learn and improve on. I’ll have weaknesses as long as I play this game.’’

Thomas said former Atlanta Brave great Dale Murphy, who struggled as a catcher before finally proving himself as a center fielder, gave an inspiring speech to the Braves during spring training. "Not to take anything for granted’’ are the words that left the biggest imprint on Thomas.

He does not intend to.
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