By Gabriel Fidler, @extrainnings_bb
BROOKLYN, New York – Great Britain entered the recent World Baseball Classic Qualifier as a serious underdog, but upset Brazil and defeated Pakistan on its way to the qualifier final against Israel. While Israel claimed the championship and qualification to the WBC with a 9-1 victory, the impressive showing was Team GB’s best and showed just how far the programme has come.
Britain competed in the European Championship only a fortnight prior to the WBC qualifying tournament, and finished a disappointing ninth, but a number of players used the experience to tune up for the qualifier. Only 10 players were on both rosters, and one of those was Nateshon Thomas, an infielder and pitcher from the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
Extra Innings spoke with the affable Thomas in between reps in the batting cage before Great Britain’s game against Pakistan. The qualifier and the Euros were the first two tournaments the 28-year old had played on the national team.
“Before last year, I had a four-year layoff. While in college [Bluefield State College, W.V.] I had to leave for financial reasons,” explained Thomas, every inch of his six-foot frame showing off lean muscle. “I was being scouted by several teams at the time.”
“I took it upon myself to put myself in a position to get back into baseball. Ever since I found out about GB Baseball, I’ve been trying to stay healthy and showcase what I have to offer in the hope of making the team.”
After working back into baseball shape, Thomas was signed by the Bad Homburg Hornets of the German Bundesliga, the top level for baseball in the country. In 2015, he hit .319 with 14 stolen bases in 20 games, also appearing in nine games as a pitcher. This year, he led the team in almost all offensive statistics, hitting at .304 with 21 stolen bases in 28 games, appearing in eight games as a pitcher.
Those performances attracted Great Britain Head Coach Liam Carroll, who added Thomas to his roster for the Euros, and Thomas started at shortstop in six games and was the starting pitcher against Russia. In that game, the righthander went five scoreless innings, striking out five and working around four hits and four walks, though the team would lose the game in the later innings. Thomas was just as impressive at the plate, hitting .348 with a .696 slugging percentage in the tournament, including an inside-the-park home run against Greece. He added two stolen bases and a team-leading seven RBIs to the scoresheet.
“I tried to make adjustments as I saw better baseball being played,” replied Thomas as to what he learned at the European tourney. “In Germany, you don’t see consistent good pitches.”
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can while I’m here,” added the friendly but focused Thomas. “The coaches here are so experienced.”
Thomas took his swings in the cage and when he returned, I asked him what he thought about swinging against future Hall-of-Famer Trevor Hoffman.
“I knew he coming, but I see him walk in [on the first day] and I’m speechless,” confided Thomas, looking over at Hoffman on the mound. “He’s throwing BP, he’s giving you pointers—what an opportunity.”
As the conversation moved from pure baseball to the greater personal meaning behind what he was doing, Thomas spoke passionately and deeply about his background.
“It feels great to wear ‘Great Britain’ on my chest. Even though I’ve only been to Britain once, I’m really British—I met the Queen when I was younger. She came to my school and all the children lined up with flags. Having a chance to represent your country, your queen, your nationality, it’s much bigger than me—it’s for the kids back home. It’s something to show them-you can get a lot out of baseball. I hope this will help get more kids in baseball.
Thomas was the outlier on a roster that in addition to the homegrown British players, featured talent that hailed mostly from areas of baseball prominence, like the United States and Cuba, as well as the Bahamas and Australia. In fact, he is the first player from the British Overseas Territory to don the uniform of Great Britain.
BVI has its own six-team Little League, but does not have a dedicated baseball field in the territory, unlike the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has produced 13 major leaguers and dozens of other players. Three players from the British side of the island group have been drafted, though Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Jharel Cotton grew up on the same island as Thomas after being born in the USVI.
“In the British Virgin Islands, baseball is not that big,” noted Thomas. “I didn’t even know there was a Great Britain baseball team until I was in Germany. Softball is more popular, and I’ve played for the British Virgin Islands team.”
Indeed, the versatile Thomas, who in a 2015 interview mentioned that he played six sports, was named ‘Batting Champion’ and ‘Best Third Baseman’ in April softball tournament in which the BVI squad competed. Another writer stated that he was “arguably considered to be the BVI’s best all-around player today.” It could have turned out very differently, though.
“Without baseball, I’d probably be on the streets. A lot of kids back home get into drugs, and that’s probably where I’d be,” asserted Thomas. “It’s everything to me. I try not to feel accomplished, because then I will stop working for it. I also want to show kids back home what baseball can do for them.”
After a standout performance in the Euros, Thomas garnered only one plate appearance in the qualifier, but made it count. Pinch hitting in the sixth inning against Pakistan a few hours after the interview, Thomas ripped a two-out double to drive in a run, and then raced home all the way from second on an infield hit by Champ Stuart to score.
Thomas is hoping to play winter ball before assessing his options for next year.
All images copyright Gabriel Fidler, 2016.