Back in the majors, and back in Dodger Blue, Trayce Thompson is where he belongs

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Trayce Thompson (25) during the third inning of a baseball game Monday, June 27, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Trayce Thompson experienced the peak of his career six years ago with the Dodgers. Several valleys later, Thompson is back in L.A. and making the most of his return to the majors. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Bat bags and an extra-large suitcase.

In many ways, they’ve been the defining mementos of Trayce Thompson’s transient career path.

Over 13 years in professional baseball, the journeyman outfielder has been with nine franchises; played for 19 major and minor league teams; been traded, purchased or claimed six times.

At the end of each revolving stint, two things usually happen:

He packs up his suitcase to move to a new city, a new clubhouse, a new organization.

And he stows the old bat bag in his family’s storage unit, adding to a collection that now feels like a kaleidoscope of discarded baseball relics.

“It’s a little daunting,” he said, “to see all the different colors.”

Indeed, the spectrum ranges from Chicago White Sox black to Oakland Athletic green, Arizona Diamondback red to San Diego Padre brown.

Reflecting back on all the change recently, Thompson couldn’t help but sigh.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Trayce Thompson, right, hits a solo home run in front of Washington Nationals catcher Keibert Ruiz
Trayce Thompson is batting .295 with three home runs and 15 RBIs in 29 games during his current stint with the Dodgers. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“Coming up, you always think you’re gonna be with one team,” he conceded. “It’s been a mental grind.”

But then, he proudly noted, his collection always has featured more Dodger blue than anything else.

It's the club with which, six years ago, he experienced the peak of his career.

And the team that, over the last month, has given him a long-awaited opportunity back in the majors.

“I knew I could get to the big leagues and contribute and reestablish myself and be an impact player,” Thompson said recently, now more than a month removed from a trade that brought him back to Los Angeles, where he is emerging as a midseason surprise with a .291 batting average, four home runs and 17 RBIs in 31 games.

“But to do it here, with a lot of guys I know, a lot of people I’ve spent a lot of time with, I think the common theme is just special,” he continued. “It’s something I never really thought could happen.”

There was a time Thompson thought he’d be with the Dodgers for the long haul.

A Southland native who attended Santa Margarita High in Orange County, Thompson was drafted by the White Sox in the second round in 2009, then traded to the Dodgers after a successful MLB debut in 2015.

He immediately felt at home.

Thompson made the opening-day roster coming out of spring training in 2016. He developed quick bonds in his new clubhouse, even moving in with Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Alex Wood.

And during the first half of the ensuing campaign, he flourished as a 25-year-old rookie, posting a .796 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 13 home runs in his first 73 games while, occasionally, batting as high as third in the lineup.

“He carried us for a month or two,” manager Dave Roberts recalled.

At the time, Thompson said he “felt like I was gonna be here for a while.”

Dodgers' Trayce Thompson arrives for a spring training baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on March 19, 2016
Dodgers' Trayce Thompson arrives for a spring training baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on March 19, 2016, in Phoenix. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Instead, his career quickly unraveled.

He aggravated a back injury that July. An X-ray a few weeks later revealed two fractured vertebrae, an injury that brought his season to an end.

His time with the Dodgers was on the clock too.

After bouncing between triple A and the big leagues in 2017, batting just .122 in 27 games, Thompson was designated for assignment by the team at the end of spring training the next year, claimed off waivers by the New York Yankees, then again by the Athletics two days later.

“I didn’t play well,” Thompson said of his first Dodgers stint. “That’s what it comes down to.”

His next couple years weren't much better: A self-admitted “disaster” in 2018, when he batted just .117 in 51 games with the A’s and White Sox; a mediocre 2019 season with Cleveland’s triple-A affiliate; and a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign spent entirely at the Diamondbacks’ alternate training site.

“I just lived out of one big suitcase,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Learned to be efficient with my packing.”

Despite the setbacks, he didn’t contemplate retirement.

“I always knew I was capable,” he said, “so I always saw a light at the end of the tunnel.”

But he was also aware his career was on the brink.

“I had to dig deep,” he said. “I didn’t want to finish my career thinking that I didn’t leave it all out there.”

Trayce wasn’t the only member of the Thompson family experiencing adversity at the time.

As he toiled in the minors, trying to rediscover his game, his older brother Klay Thompson, the All-Star guard for the Golden State Warriors, was tethered to the bench with a string of serious injuries, missing all of the 2019-20 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and all of 2020-21 with a with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Trayce said Klay came to him for advice about how he had dealt with the disappointment of his back injury and how he coped with the mental struggles of a long-term rehab.

Their talks, however, were impactful for Trayce too.

“Seeing his mental strength to go through all that and see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s similar to what I’ve had to go through,” Trayce said. “Not necessarily because of injury, but just because of performance and everything that’s happened in my career.

Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson signs autographs for fans while watching the Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants
Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson signs autographs for fans while watching the Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants on July 24 at Dodger Stadium. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“I’ve certainly looked at him as inspiration. He came back from two major injuries when a lot of people counted him out and didn’t know if he was gonna be who he is or whatever. So I had no excuse but to do everything I can to get back [to the majors] and reestablish myself.”

For Trayce, that meant doing a “deep dive” on his declining performance, trying to pinpoint where he had gone astray.

There were long hours spent in front of a computer, watching and replaying videos of his swing, and others around the sport he admired. He also had many “self talks,” trying to replenish his psyche with “confidence and conviction.”

Again, Klay provided some familial motivation.

“My brother is a good example of that, a guy who never shies away from a moment, never shies away from a certain shot,” Trayce said. “He’s a guy I learn from.”

As Klay returned to the court last fall, going on to win a fourth NBA title with the Warriors, Trayce eventually got back to the majors for the first time in three years, earning a September call-up from the Chicago Cubs last season after hitting 21 home runs during the triple-A season.

“Mentally, I had to reevaluate myself … and kind of find myself again,” Thompson said. “I feel like these last couple years, really starting back in ‘19, has been a journey towards that.”

Two days before he was set to celebrate Klay’s triumphant return in the Warriors championship parade last month, Mychal Thompson sat in a Bay Area hotel room and witnessed his other son’s latest turning point unfold in real time.

After signing with the Padres this spring and getting released following just six MLB games, Trayce was back in the minors, excelling for the Detroit Tigers’ triple-A affiliate in his latest bid to revive his career.

During Father’s Day afternoon on June 19, in a game Mychal was watching live on his computer from his hotel room, Trayce hit a sixth-inning single that raised his season batting average to .299.

Mychal was delighted. Then, he was confused.

In the seventh inning, Trayce was unexpectedly pulled from the game.

Oh no, Mychal thought. Did Trayce get hurt?

Shortly after, however, Mychal’s phone rang. Trayce was on the other end of the line.

“Hey, Dad,” Trayce said. “I just got traded.”

Where?

“The Dodgers,” his son excitedly blurted out.

Dodgers' Trayce Thompson gestures toward the stands after hitting a three-run home run
Dodgers' Trayce Thompson gestures toward the stands after hitting a three-run home run against the Colorado Rockies on July 4 at Dodger Stadium. (Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Mychal immediately recognized the significance, knowing all too well the sentiments his son had with the organization — the blue keepsakes he’d saved in their storage unit for all those years.

“Every hair on my body stood up,” the former Lakers center recalled recently. “It felt like he was back home. It was his dream to put the Dodger uniform on again.”

Mychal added: “It was an answer to my prayers.”

Trayce, meanwhile, has helped answer some of the Dodgers’ midseason problems.

When they suffered some injuries in the outfield, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the team immediately targeted the right-handed slugger.

“He made a strong impression when he was here,” Friedman said. “He was someone we watched closely and always rooted for.”

And in what has since become his longest big-league stint since 2018, Trayce has flashed his trademark power — it’s a small sample size, but his .523 slugging percentage is among the best on the team — and coupled strong outfield defense with newfound consistency at the plate.

“Having Trayce comfortable, knowing his surroundings, I think that gave him the best chance to perform from the get-go,” Roberts said. “He’s a guy you can’t bet against.”

Trayce’s role for the rest of the season remains unclear.

Chris Taylor is nearing a return from a foot fracture. The Dodgers reportedly have been in the market for another bat leading up to the trade deadline Tuesday.

Still, for Trayce, there’s been no new trip to the storage unit lately; no signs he’ll need to soon pack his suitcase again.

For now, simply being back in the majors — and with the Dodgers, especially — has been a fulfilling first step.

“A lot of teams maybe didn’t see that out of me, which is fine,” he said. “But I always knew I was capable of being here.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.