Milwaukee Brewers slugger Eric Thames transformed himself into a potent swinger by spending three years with the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization, where he learned to discipline his swing against a league of endless breaking pitches. As a bonus, Thames also became a superhero-like figure in South Korea, which embraced the affable muscle man like one of their own, doing so in all sorts of pop-culture ways. When the Brewers came through Kansas City in April, Thames took a few moments to discuss with BP’s David Brown his journey from disappointment with the Blue Jays and Mariners, to KBO home-run champ, to one of the more dangerous sluggers in the National League. In a bit of bad luck, Thames tore a tendon in his left thumb the night of the interview, and was supposed to be out until June. But we’re not holding back the Q&A any longer, mostly because Thames–a big Star Wars enthusiast–has some timely observations about Solo, which happens to hit theaters today. So let’s punch it, Chewie, and meet Eric Thames.
Baseball Prospectus: Is there a karaoke bar named for you somewhere in Korea?
Eric Thames: All I know is, it was in one of the hotels in Changwon, which was our city. But a fan sent me a picture of it. I think it’s still there. I’m not much of a singer myself, so I never really made it in there. It’s called the Thameju Singing Room.
BP: You’ve been photographed playing a keytar? You’re not in a secret band?
ET: Hah! A teammate of mine, we were in Daegu, and there was like a bar we were going into and they were closing up and the band was gone. So we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s go up and play!’ My buddy was on the drums, and I was trying to figure out the keytar. We were trying to jam, there was nobody in there and we were so loud, it was awful. Keytar’s not really my specialty.
BP: Why did you refer to Jae Gyun Hwang as “sex machine” on live TV interview that one time?
ET: It was during a home-run derby; I’ve never had an interview like that before so it was weird. She asked was asking the other player what’s good about my body, and she asked me the same about Jae Gyun. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s very handsome. He’s a sex machine.’ A figure of speech if you say it over here, but they took it very literal over there so I was trending No. 1 for a while on social media. It was fun, everybody loved it. Even to this day, people call me “Sex Machine.”
BP: What beer are we drinking when we are drinking beer?
ET: Here, I’m a big IPA drinker. Over there, with all of the fried chicken and Korean barbecue, I’ll drink a lager. Something light to wash down all that grease.
BP: What was the beer you were drinking with your image appearing on a bottle?
ET: Hite. I drink that a lot over there. They sponsored our team and made a bottle with me on it my last year, and they made one with another player as well. It was pretty cool, because I was at a restaurant and didn’t even know, and I look down and, “Ooh, it’s me!”
Q: Milwaukee seems like it could be a good place to try something like that, putting Corey Knebel‘s face on a bottle of beer as a promotion.
ET: It would be, but MLB can very very anti-alcohol and anti-drugs for obvious reasons, even with team names like the Brewers, and our biggest sponsor is Miller with the ballpark. But I’d be down for that, even if it was a little weird.
BP: Do you home brew at all?
ET: No, I’ve tried it before and botched it once, so that was pretty much it.
Q: To you, what’s the difference between having coffee and waffles in Changwon versus here?
ET: It’s funny because it was tough to find it because breakfast isn’t as big of a thing. In more of the Americanized areas, there’s a few breakfast spots, but for me in my city, which is smaller, cafes open at 10. So if you wanted coffee, it’s weird. So that was a big learning experience for me. But once they opened, a lot of the cafes would have waffles with ice cream, whipped cream and fruit. So that was ny routine, and my mom loved it too. We’d crush it.
Q: Which Korean player would make the best MLB’er? Do you think Na Seong-Beom will play in the majors?
ET: Yeah, he was running like (Shin-Soo) Choo when he was in his prime. Seong-Beom definitely has a great arm, good speed, great power. He’s still learning his body, still leaning to train with weights, but I think he’d have a very good shot.
BP: What’s the origin behind the gladiator strap you wear to protect your arm?
BP: Do you stand close to the plate?
ET: I don’t crowd or dive, it’s just that guys throw inside and they throw harder now, so it’s easier to have it. A lot of guys will dive out of the way, but I can just turn my shoulder wearing this. It’s not really that big; it covers a lot of area but it’s not some big, huge…
BP: It seems bigger than what most guys wear.
ET: Oh, yeah, it’s probably the biggest.
Q: Could you attach a shield and grab a sword and tame a bengal tiger?
ET: Ha-ha, I probably should just extend it all the way down my arm and just cover everything.
BP: Would you make a good Avenger?
ET: Yeah, definitely. I’d be half-Tony Stark. Not Iron Man. Kind of like the wisecracking, rich–hopefully–side. Having a few multi-billions would be nice. I’m trying to think of other Avenger qualities. I’m not as angry as the Hulk, but having the strength would be nice. I would be like Captain America but with the more restrained morals. I’m not over-the-top moral; I have a little bit of fun and I like to hang out but still fight crime when it comes down to it.
BP: You posted a pic from the Lucasfilm tour; is that like a VIP deal or can anyone take it?
ET: I had a connection but they do tours. I walked through the studios and saw hundreds of movie items, the animation company, it’s insane. They’d show us these props and how they’d film it in a movie and how it looks when it’s done is nothing like how it looks when someone is holding it in their hand. It’s a toy.
BP: What is your favorite Star Wars movie and character?
ET: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I watched all the originals with my parents. Even to this day, the special effects are still so cool. Favorite character is probably Han Solo. Harrison Ford kind of made that character. The same with Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr. His charisma makes that movie character. I’m actually a little upset with the new Han Solo movie. I’m going to watch it, but I’m not too excited about the actor they chose to play him. We’ll give it a shot.
BP: What if they made it a Lando movie? You’re not looking forward to it from the Lando point of view?
ET: [Sigh]. I think with Lando I’ll let it slide. But I love the Millenium Falcon. I want to see how, like, Chewie and Han met. How did Han learn to communicate with Chewie? The biggest question I have is, “How the hell did you understand that?”
BP: Can’t sell you on Lando? Not that excited?
ET: No. His character never stood out. He betrayed everybody and that’s all I know about him.
BP: But he redeems himself. Blows up the second Death Star.
ET: Yyyyyeah. I know but, you see, when you’re friends…
BP: My Twitter is, like, 80 percent baseball and 90 percent wrestling. So when someone says Braun Strowman, I can’t tell if they mean Ryan Braun hit a home run off Marcus Strowman, or it’s about wrestling. You run into this issue?
ET: Oh, definitely, ha-ha! Definitely with Braun. I’d say, “Oh, yeah, Braunie, he’s doing fine.” People would go, “Strowman almost kill you?” I’d go, “Ohhhh, THAT Braun. Nah, he didn’t kill me, what are you talking about?”
BP: What’s your 20-second review of Wrestlemania?
ET: I… honestly, I hate (Ronda) Rousey.
BP: People didn’t seem to be expecting much and then, with low expectations, people liked what she did.
ET: Yeah, she killed everybody. I’m a big fan of Stephanie McMahon. I had the biggest crush on her in, like, eighth grade. I loved Stephanie. Then when she married Triple-H, it broke my heart. I mean, I’m happy for Triple-H–I met him at an event. He’s still huge, massive. But I don’t like Rousey, I don’t like her in there, and the whole Rowdy Roddy Piper thing…
BP: That she appropriated his t-shirt?
ET: I love Rowdy, I just don’t like her. I take a lot from the UFC stuff, when she started to pursue more acting, and with her career, if she had focused on fighting and acting second, maybe it would have happened for her longer in UFC. Just going over to wrestling… I dunno.
BP: You know Bob Uecker got choked at a Wretlemania? Do you get to talk to him?
ET: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen the video of him and Andre the Giant a thousand times. He’s in the clubhouse every day, just the most personable guy, one of the most I’ve ever met. He’s the dude.
BP: You really met the Honky Tonk Man and he was wearing zubaz pants and a fanny pack, and he put you in a headlock?
ET: Yup, he came in spring training. Same hair and everything.
BP: After the headlock, were you like, “I’m never washing this neck again!”
ET: Ha-ha, pretty much, yeah. That guy’s a legend, so awesome.
BP: Is Terry Crews really your mentor, or did you just say that?
ET: I tweeted at him, this was in 2012, and he was in Toronto and we were supposed to get lunch. I wanted to know how he got into acting, coming from professional football, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be in Toronto on this date. We should get together. Oh, yeah, for sure.” And then a week before he came out, I got traded to Seattle. I’ll never forget that. I was like… bad timing! He’s funny, and the angle of the athlete going into show business after.
BP: You want to do that?
ET: Yeah, I’m up for it.
BP: What about wrestling?
ET: Wrestling? I don’t know yet. You never know.
BP: Could your beard take Charlie Blackmon‘s beard in a beard brawl?
ET: No, it’s too short now; I’m always trimming it. We’ll see by the end of the year. I usually grow it out in the summertime when it gets hot. It gets all nasty and sweaty. But he has the hair too that just adds to it.
BP: Do you ever get Marcus Thames mail?
ET: I don’t, but I do get called Marcus all the time. I think he’s the hitting coach for the Yankees, right?
BP: He is. Who pronounces “Thames” the right way? He’s closer to “Timms.”
ET: I guess there is no right way. I guess we’re just different sides of the family. All I know is, I was always told Thames since I was a baby.
BP: Your platoon disadvantage would disappear entirely if we combined the right-handed hitting skills of Marcus Thames and the lefty skills of Eric Thames.
ET: Well, I guess we’re gonna find out at some point because I’m gonna start crushing lefties. I’m working on it!
BP: No offense, Eric!
ET: No, no, no, there’s no offense. That’d be awesome if you combined Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, ha-ha. There’s that Captain America power! Let me wake up not hurting every day, and let me stay flexible enough to hit bombs every day against both sides, that’d be nice.
BP: Is MLB still “randomly” hitting you up for pee samples at the same rate as 2017?
ET: I would say it’s about the same, and that everybody gets the same amount. I dunno if it was just last year because I was the new guy and was like, “What’s going on here? Is there something fishy or whatever?” I’ve been tested a bunch, and it’s pretty much even. It’s good. I always liked getting tested a lot, as long as they keep catching guys that are cheating, and protecting guys that are playing clean, I’m all for it.
BP: How much do you lift?
ET: Not much. Off-season, I’ll lift a lot, and around May or June, when I get skinnier. You can’t really train every day. It’s all maintenance and working on small muscles. And a lot of flexibility.
BP: What’s the most you can bench?
ET: I haven’t benched in 10 years.
ET: I don’t know. I haven’t maxed out in years, just because there’s no real point. You can’t maintain. In the off-season, I could overhead press 315.
BP: Is… that good?
ET: Ha-ha-ha. It’s all right. A lot of work.
BP: What are you reading right now?
ET: Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball
BP: It seems like those two concepts are compatible, but how does he connect them?
ET: It’s talking about the racism he faced, because his father was Chinese, and it was after World War II. It was insane, the stuff you don’t necessarily think about. I like books like that, to read a different perspective; his getting through the high-school system back in the forties. Now where I’m reading, he’s facing the end of his career and retirement when he knows he’s old, and his body’s not like it used to be. As a ballplayer, you don’t think about the end until you go — ouch — my back really hurts today. A few years ago, it never hurt like this; maybe I’m towards the end of my rope. It’s good perspective; I like it so far.
BP: It seems like you got treated very well in Korea; you’ve got nothing but nice things to say. Does a black person still feel racism over there, or is it different?
ET: I never really felt any racism. I’d say you’d meet people who had never seen a person my color face to face. Babies will cry when they see you because they’re not used to seeing the facial hair or my color of skin, but that’s normal stuff to me.
BP: Did you realize that around the time the Astros released you (at your request so you could go to the Dinos), they cut J.D. Martinez too?
ET: Yeah, yeah. He was on my team in Venezuela. I actually witnessed it when J.D. hit the switch. Because he was so pissed he was getting released. “Are you serious?” Even for the next two weeks, he got four hits a game, line drives all over. It was unreal. He did so much damage with Detroit, and the rest is history. I love when teams screw guys over and the guy goes, “OK, we’ll see about that,” and boom, they flourish.
BP: Could about any North American/South American ballplayer use an excursion to Korea for a year or three?
ET: No, because it’s so different. It’s all a matter of your mindset. A lot of guys have gone over there and not made it and just fade off. It’s tough. You’re here to do a job. You have to go with open eyes, open mind. I just kind of set my sights on a goal and wouldn’t let anything get in the way of it.
BP: Do we give Rodman any credit for his diplomacy with Kim Jong Un?
ET: I don’t know. I watched the documentary they filmed and… I think he was drunk the whole time. I was watching this documentary, and this guy was drunk the entire time for every interview. I have no idea, ha-ha-ha. I mean, I learned that Kim Jong loves basketball. Beside that, maybe Rodman’s not the best U.S. ambassador?
BP: If the Brewers hadn’t called and you went to Japan like you were thinking you might, were you really ready for another different culture and language?
ET: Yeah, even though it’s a challenge because there’s only a small window for baseball.
BP: You have a white labradoodle named Zoey. Has she ever been set on a date with Hank the Brewers dog?
ET: Ha-ha, no. She would eat Hank. Hank’s tiny. Zoey would, like–pounce, stomp, nope. Domination.
BP: Last thing: Did you actually beat Dylan McDermott in a golf tournament?
ET: No! What is that? It’s on Wikipedia, right?
BP: Do you even play golf?
BP: Do you know who Dylan McDermott is?
ET: Yeah, the actor. But someone asked that before, and I was like, “golf tournament?” So, I went online and… “I won a gold jacket for this celebrity… I wish! I can barely hit a driver. I might be able to beat my date at Top Golf. Driving range, Top Golf–I can crush, but actual golf? Having to chip and putt?
Previously on Answer Man:
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And I'm now an Eric Thames fan.