Jaycob Brugman lined a ball into the gap sometime last Monday afternoon at the Oakland A's spring training facility during the A's extended spring training game against the Cubs. He rounded first base hard, but the outfielder cut the ball off and he thought better of going for second and made his way back.
He started taking off his batting gloves to hand them to the first-base coach, a short guy about 5'9" and maybe 160 pounds. The coach had shaggy brown hair and a goatee that didn't quite connect, which made him look a little like a pirate. Captain Morgan, the guys called him, or The Count of Monte Cristo.
"So," Casey Thomas said, giving Brugman a stern look but taking on an exaggerated laid-back surfer drawl, "you really did get slower since high school, huh?"
Then Thomas, a rookie shortstop playing the role of first-base coach with full commitment, grinned, and Brugman threw his batting gloves at him. Thomas called Brugman a jive turkey, and they both laughed.
A few hours later, when everyone was going home, Casey was tired; they all were tired. It had been a long day: They'd gotten to the park at close to 6 a.m. and now it was creeping on 4 p.m., and much of that time was spent outside in the Phoenix heat. But Casey was still making people laugh, smiling and happy to be a baseball player and looking healthy as ever.
Later that night, Brugman got a phone call.
Casey was dead.
CASEY THOMAS WAS 24 years old and just starting his pro baseball career, a shortstop in his first full year in the Oakland A's farm system.
What happened, exactly, nobody will know until the autopsy results come in a few weeks. From what people who know the family have heard, it doesn't sound like drugs or foul play or anything of the sort—almost worse, it seems like a random stroke of horrific chance.
Thomas lived in Phoenix with his parents. He'd grown up there. When he left the facility, he went to his mom, Kristy's, house to go swimming. They spoke on the phone that afternoon; she was on her way home from California with his stepdad.
When she arrived home early that evening, Casey was on the floor of their bathroom. It looked like he'd just passed out. He was still wet from swimming.
Best guess anyone has so far is an unknown medical condition, or maybe something to do with the searing temperature.
"Just a weird natural thing," says Mitch Sokol, a veteran scout and a close Thomas family friend, echoing what several folks told B/R Mag. "Maybe an aneurysm, maybe a heart thing, maybe it's heat related. Some of these young kids have to sit there and work in this heat and play all summer long, and it gets really tough. But to be honest, I don't know. Nobody knows."
Teammates say he seemed fine all day at the field and even when he left. Brugman says, "I don't remember what it was exactly now, but he had us going—I was laughing really hard."
The A's declined to comment beyond a brief statement in which Oakland executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane said all the appropriate and expected things, that they were "devastated" and calling Thomas "a wonderful young man and teammate" who "will be missed by all in the A's organization."
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Our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Casey Thomas, who recently passed away. https://t.co/qnrjKpW5PQ2017-5-2 18:00:24
This sucks for all the obvious reasons—because he was so young; because there's no clear reason yet; because if it truly was a random act of death, then what does that mean for everyone else?—but for those who knew Thomas, there's a clear level or two of extra heartache.
Casey was the kid you weren't sure could make it but were thrilled when he did. The underdog who gives everyone else hope.
And by all accounts, Casey Thomas was the kind of ballplayer who, from his first days playing baseball to his last day on Earth, reminded people what baseball is all about—what sports are all about, and maybe even what life is all about.
ONE OF CASEY'S FAVORITE mottos was "own your flow," inspired by the long hair his coaches were always trying to make him cut—and a good way to sum up his general approach to life.
Thomas' back-and-forth with Brugman while coaching first base on the last day of his life was how he spent most of his days, or at least his favorite ones: on a baseball field, doing baseball things, making teammates laugh. "Everyone in the Oakland A's organization loved him," Brugman says. "He created laughter every day, and brought nothing but smiles to everyone's faces. He kept it loose on the field, and made everyone around him better."
He wasn't in the lineup that day, and for most guys that means taking pains to stay in the dugout and the shade—it was 95 degrees, an average Arizona spring day—but Casey coached first, even rolling his pants halfway up his calves to rock the "dirty mids" look for his socks and "taking coaching way too seriously," Brugman says.
"That's the stuff that could turn around a bad day, and that's exactly what Casey would do to people—make a silly joke just for a laugh. He would say things kinda like in a sluggish, kinda stoner voice—he was always joking."
Brugman was thrilled to see him this spring. They'd played together in Little League and high school, and Brugman loved him back then, but they went their own ways and lost touch. Then Brugman strained his calf in spring training, so he was assigned to extended spring for a month—and there Casey was.
They reconnected "like there was no time lost," Brugman says, adding, "My injury was a blessing in disguise."
Beyond that, Brugman was just happy his old friend had made it to pro ball. "I didn't know he was drafted," Brugman says. "I guess I just assumed he stopped playing. He didn't play for a top-tier college, and usually those guys just weed out and stop working hard. When I saw him—it was just a true testament to his work ethic because it's not easy to get drafted and it's not easy to be in pro ball."
CASEY'S FATHER, TOM THOMAS, is a scout for Oakland, but one of Tom's best friends, Washington Nationals scout Mitch Sokol, says that even without that connection, if Oakland hadn't taken Casey in the 34th round last year, then someone else would have. His only weakness was the one thing he couldn't control: He was small.
Sokol says Casey reminded him a bit of Dustin Pedroia. "People tried to replace Dustin," Sokol says. "Nobody thought he was big enough, they didn't think he threw enough, they didn't think he ran enough, but you look at him today. And that's the kind of player Casey was. He's a competitor, you know? And I think that's the best thing you can say. Good day or bad day or somewhere in between, that's the best compliment you can give a player. 'That guy competes.' And he did. He got the very most out of what God gave him."
Casey grew up around the game, going to clubhouses and hanging around big leaguers since he was a kid thanks to his father's profession, but he had to grow into the ballplayer he became.
And that path wasn't easy.
After getting cut from the team at Yavapai Community College (in Prescott, Arizona), Casey transferred to GateWay Community College in Phoenix, where coach Rob Shabansky says he "gave him a chance" because he knew Casey's dad. Casey's grades weren't good—he was nearly ineligible, by Shabansky's recollection. He told Casey, "Look, you want to stay in this program, you better get it done in the classroom. You're smarter than what you're doing, and you're going at it pretty lazy right now."
His grades were good after that. "He liked to be challenged," Shabansky says. "And at the same time, he wanted to prove you wrong."
He also won the starting shortstop job , and in time, became their leader.
"He was like another coach for us," Shabansky says. "Not only on the baseball field but academically. He would get on guys for their grades. That's pretty rare."
He stood up for the team, too, sometimes so much that Shabansky had to tell him to leave the umpires alone because he wasn't the coach, and he was going to get himself ejected.
"I still remember playing in South Mountain…" Shabansky says, telling another story of how, in the bottom of the ninth, South Mountain scored the game-winning run on a fly ball—but the runner at first didn't tag up, so Shabansky told the guys to stay on the field. Casey took the ball and stepped on first and told the umpire they were appealing.
The umpires conferred and said they weren't changing the call. Casey didn't move and told the umpires they didn't know what they were talking about. South Mountain players came and tried to take the ball from Casey and tell him to get off their field. Casey did not oblige. "Almost caused a bit of a skirmish," says Shabansky. "He was awesome to be around."
"He was a leader," former GateWay player Ryan Tomita says. "But he didn't use the position he was in as an excuse not to do work—he viewed his leadership role as an excuse to do more work than expected."
AFTER GATEWAY, CASEY WENT to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi—filling coach Scott Malone's need for a shortstop. As much as his baseball ability, Malone remembers something else, too: "He wasn't the best-looking guy on the team, but he carried himself like he was. I remember him talking to girls way too good-looking for him. He had that quiet confidence. He didn't have a problem going up and talking to the best-looking girl, and that probably made him the baseball player that he is."
After his junior season, Casey's career almost took a downturn again going into his senior year when Malone called Casey into his office. "I told him," Malone says, "I was bringing in a shortstop, bigger, stronger, faster. I told him he could work out at short all fall, but I'm bringing [someone] in to take your job and moving you to second."
Casey said, "No, coach. I'm your shortstop. That's my position."
"OK, hotshot," Malone said. "You can try, but I'm bringing this guy in with every intention of him taking your position."
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That 3-6 double play to close out tonight's @IslandersBSB win over the Longhorns! #GoDers https://t.co/0QA4Sa07bH2016-4-6 03:18:58
Malone laughs. "Casey was our shortstop. He just outplayed him."
When Malone got the call from Casey's father, Tom, on Tuesday morning, he went looking for the school's athletic director to tell him the terrible news. But first, he saw the school's compliance officer and told him. The man broke down, pulling off his glasses and crying, and then spending the rest of the morning wandering in and out of Malone's office to talk about Casey.
Malone says everyone around the school has been like that, the most random people you would never think Casey knew breaking down over the news.
The Islanders had a road game that day. A lot of the guys had played with Casey, who graduated in 2016. Malone told them on the bus. He doesn't remember exactly what he said, but it was something like: "Casey wasn't fake tough. He was real. To sound like that old coach—kids these days, there's a lot of fake tough right now. Everybody's got Twitter and Snapchat and they want to give off a persona that's fake tough. And I've been telling these guys, Man, don't let that be important to you. If you haven't started saying I love you to your mom or dad or siblings, it's time. This is just a game. The relationships you make, that's what we all take away."
IN HIS FINAL DAYS, Casey was experiencing an emotion somewhat foreign to him: Worry.
Casey's professional baseball career got off to a somewhat lackluster start, but it was a start. Drafted last summer in the 34th round, Casey hit .258 with 18 RBI in 37 games for Oakland's rookie league team in Arizona.
After spring training ended this year, the A's didn't given him a minor league assignment, leaving him stuck in Phoenix in extended spring training.
Brugman felt for him and said that Casey worked hard, and coaches saw that and they liked that, and that he'd for sure at least go to Oakland's short-season team in Burlington, Vermont, like Brugman had a few years earlier. He told Casey that he heard the coaches saying good things about him, about Casey's amazing hands, about how "he always got hits—line drives all the time." And how after most of those hits, coaches shook their heads, unsurprised, saying, "There's Casey finding holes again."
But still, Casey worried. Not a lot, just some.
It's a natural and common emotion for minor leaguers, especially ones on the bubble. Many worry that they might be wasting their time, that maybe they should pursue another career rather than invest such important career years into a dream that begins feeling more like a trick. Minor league baseball life is a poverty-stricken grind. The working conditions are brutal, the hours long, the pay (mostly) terrible.
They don't get paid at all, in fact, to be at spring training or extended spring training, only getting a per diem and a little extra if they don't live in team housing.
Many minor leaguers' lives are spent, as Brugman puts it, in "some random little city" and "going from town to town on a crappy bus" usually for long rides on endless roads in between.
In fact, some 2,000 former Minor League Baseball players have joined a class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball and its organizations over it all.
But that wasn’t Casey's worry. Brugman remembers Casey saying, "Minor League Baseball—you grow up hearing stories about how it was a grind, and they all say it sucks, but when you look back, they have amazing stories, and that makes you who you are."
Casey was thrilled that over the last couple months, playing baseball had helped him make a "wad of cash," Brugman says—which was really maybe a few hundred bucks from squirreling away his per diem and the housing stipend.
"He was living his dream, really," Brugman says.
Brugman and Sokol and Shabansky and Malone are but a few of dozens of others like them who have had much to say about Casey over the last few days. Casey Thomas lived like he knew he was lucky to be where he was—on that field, afforded the luxury of being able to dream of playing a game as a career.
Casey also knew the odds against him having a long and illustrious baseball career. He told Brugman that whenever it did end, he'd be fine. He'd own his flow, maybe go to scout school, take after his father.
"He had his priorities straight," Sokol says. "It comes God, family, education, then sports. And I'm not saying it has to be a distant fourth. It can be a close fourth. But you can't get them turned around, or you're going to have some problems in your life. And I think Casey understood that."
So no, Casey wasn't worried about life the way a lot of other minor leaguers sometimes are. What Casey was worried about, rather, was that the A's would assign him to their rookie team in the Arizona league again—that, Brugman says, he "would not be able to leave."
Before baseball ended, Casey wanted more than anything else to truly know that terrible, great minor league life, to play in some random little city for next to nothing, to ride from town to town on a crappy bus, because it’s the games you remember, and it’s the relationships you make that you take away—not the long, rough road in between.
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.