PGAAC hails Chicago's Thomas

Photo: Perfect Game

Jeff Dahn
Published: Friday, August 4, 2017

The Chicago Metropolitan Area annually produces many of the most elite high school athletes in the country. These phenoms can emerge from any number of athletic pursuits, including the traditional baseball, basketball, football and hockey to a vast array of the more non-traditional Olympic sports.

In the class of 2018, there are not many Chicagoland athletes that are as gifted or, possibly, as blessed as Alek Thomas, a game-changing, three-sport standout with a 4.0 grade-point average at academically and athletically prestigious Mount Carmel High School on Chicago’s South Side.

Thomas, in fact, is the personification of a true “student-athlete” – the type of kid who represents the ideal the term was created to describe – and one who looks to continue both his burgeoning baseball (center fielder) and football (quarterback) careers at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

That is unless the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft plays out to his liking and he decides to sign a professional baseball contract; it would be foolish to dismiss that possibility.

The Perfect Game scouting department certainly took note of Thomas’ exploits on the baseball field, and the speedy, 5-foot-11, 175-pound left-handed hitter has risen to No. 25 in PG’s 2018 national prospect rankings. And, on Aug. 13, he will suit-up for the West Team at the 15th annual PG All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego.

His selection as a PG All-American is just another badge of honor Thomas can wear with pride. He’s been an all-state caliber performer in baseball, football and basketball at Mount Carmel, and has been able to reach his goal of becoming a two-sport athlete at the NCAA Division I level behind the tremendous support of his coaches and especially his parents, Allen and Marcella Thomas.

Allen Thomas played college baseball at Wingate (N.C.) University in the early 1990s. The Chicago White Sox selected him in the 45th-round of the 1996 MLB June Amateur Draft, and he signed and played in 101 games in the minor leagues over two seasons (1996-97). He is now the White Sox’s director of strength and conditioning, and Alek Thomas has thrived in his dad’s workplace environment.

“Everything I do with (my dad) is all functional training,” Thomas told PG during a telephone conversation earlier this week. “But the most important thing he helps me with is the mental part, the mindset you’ve got to have with all the (different) sports. He’s been a great mentor on the mental side as well as the physical side.”

When Thomas took the time to discuss his busy, multi-faceted life with PG several days ago, he was speaking from inside the weight room at the Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field; he spends as much time at the South Side ballpark as he possibly can. He isn’t idle while he’s there, either, lifting weights, shagging balls during BP and even getting in some work of his own in the batting cages.

Thomas knows he’s fortunate to have a dad who is filling a position like the one Allen occupies, and he tries to take advantage of all the different tools at his disposal. He not only has access to the major league facilities, but he has access to the White Sox’s coaches and players, who will come up and talk to him on their time, not at his insistence.

“They’ll tell me how it is up here (in the big leagues) and how it is in the minor leagues and how people go about their business,” he said. “I’ll talk to the players when we’re in the outfield shagging and I try to pick up as much from them as I can.”

Todd Frazier was the White Sox player Thomas became especially close with – Frazier was traded to the Yankees on July 18 – and, in fact, he spent a lot of time watching film with the former All-Star. There are several other players he likes to visit with too – especially the guys recently called up from the minor leagues – just to get their take on playing professional baseball.

Allen Thomas tries to be straight-forward with his son as well: “I don’t lie to him at all,” Allen told Scott Merkin from MLB.com last year. “It’s hard in this industry, so you need to understand that you are going to fail. … It’s a life lesson that will help him as well.”

When Thomas wasn’t at Guaranteed Rate Park this summer, he’s managed to keep himself very busy. He has been splitting his time between baseball activities and various football camps, while also still striving to “just be a kid, too.”

“I’m just trying to have fun and not take anything too, too serious,” he told PG. “I’m trying to stay positive and if there is anything that I need to critique I’ll go back and work on it with my dad.”

On the baseball side of things, Thomas started the summer off by attending the PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., where he received a perfect 10.0 PG Grade and was named to the Top Prospect List; he ran a personal-best 6.63-second 60-yard dash at the event.

His scouting report from the PG National noted his “square-shouldered athletic build” and “good present strength for his size” while also calling Thomas a “quick-twitch athlete in all his actions (who) plays faster than his 60 time on the baseball field.” It also noted the “big coil to start his swing, deep hands, loose swing with plus bat speed, lots of torque, very good barrel skills,” a player who “can drive the ball hard to all fields; sees the ball very well.”

That showing came one year after he had a 6.64-second 60 and impressed with his bat and outfield play during a TPL performance at the 2016 PG Junior National Showcase. Because of that experience, Thomas returned to jetBlue Park this past summer much more prepared and relaxed, but things do change from year-to-year.

As an example, at the PG National he couldn’t help but notice how many new faces he was seeing, those belonging to other top prospects he hadn’t crossed paths with before (his summer travel ball experiences have been limited). And he soon realized that as he climbed the national prospect rankings, he was going to continually encounter age-group peers who never stopped working at getting better.

It was becoming more important than ever that he developed the mindset that there was always going to be somebody out there that was playing at a higher level than he was, and only through extended effort would he be able to first match and then surpass that fellow prospect. And, he’s learned, it never hurts to borrow some valuable trade secrets.

“There are always some little things that you can pick up from (the other prospects),” Thomas said. “I’ve asked some of the other guys how they work on their throwing and how they work on building up their arm strength, and I try to pick their brain about how they react during different situations. But I also do my part in the outfield and with hitting, so it goes both ways.”

Thomas will play at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., in the days before the PGAAC, and quite fittingly will be a member of the White Sox team at the event. That White Sox roster also includes PG All-Americans Ian Bedell (Davenport, Iowa), Seth Halvorsen (Maple Grove, Minn.), Jarred Kelenic (Waukesha, Wis.), John Malcom (West Bloomfield Township, Mich.) and Nicholas Schnell (Indianapolis, Ind.).

He was also named to the USA Baseball 18u National Team 40-man roster earlier this summer and will take part in the Team Trials in Minneapolis beginning Aug. 19, with the final 20-man roster being announced on Aug. 24.

Thomas’ prowess on the baseball field was recognized during the earliest days of his high school career. In 2015, Mount Carmel head coach Brian Hurry decided to promote the freshman to the Caravan’s varsity unit, unusual because the Caravan was returning eight veteran starters from the 2014 team.

But Thomas became an immediate contributor playing alongside guys that were three and four years older than he was and, in fact, he helped the team reach the IHSA Class 4A state championship game that year.

It was a memorable season for the freshman Thomas, one in which he played alongside about a half-dozen future NCAA Division I players; they included Ako Thomas (Michigan), Josh Stowers (Louisville), Jeremy Houston (Indiana) and A.J. Lewis (Missouri).

“It was a learning experience and I just grew from that point on,” he said. “I learned from Coach Hurry how to play the game right, play the game hard all the time and not be too flashy because the game is not about flash; it’s about doing all the little things right.”

Hurry was certainly impressed with his young freshman: “This is my 20th year coaching at Mount Carmel and I never had a player that had all the tools that Alek possesses,” he told the Chicago Tribune in February. “He can run, he has a great arm, can hit for power and (he has) good baseball instincts.”

At the same Thomas was getting his baseball career off the ground, he was an up-and-comer for the Caravan on both the football field and the basketball court. It was his prominence in baseball and football that made him want to pursue both at the collegiate level, and TCU coaches Jim Schlossnagle (baseball) and Gary Patterson (football) were more than willing to accommodate him.

The Trib reported in that February article that Thomas went on an official visit to the Fort Worth school in late January, and after touring the baseball and football facilities he decided to go to a Horned Frogs’ basketball game: “But I don’t plan on playing basketball,” he told the Trib with a laugh.

“I’ve always wanted to play football and baseball at the next level since I was a little kid,” Thomas told PG, adding that he does not plan on playing basketball during the 2017-18 season.  “At first it was kind of like I wanted to be like Bo Jackson and do that deal, but as I grew older I realized that I probably didn’t want to go that far into it. I love football as well as baseball, but baseball a little bit more right now.”

And now the PG All-American Classic awaits. Over the past several years, Thomas has watched as older players he had befriended were selected for the all-star event, and it became something he wanted to experience, as well. He considers receiving the invitation a great honor, a great opportunity and a great accomplishment.

He will arrive in San Diego late next week with an open mind as far as his expectations, and will be carrying only a deep appreciation for the unique opportunity that lies before him. Thomas has embraced the most important aspect of the experience, the one that involves fund-raising for Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego’s pediatric cancer research and treatment center; he expects the players’ visit to Rady to be the highlight of the weekend.

Alek Thomas has certainly been blessed with amazing mentors who have helped guide him on a path that has enabled him to become an upstanding student, athlete and young man. If he doesn’t become a professional baseball player next June, he’ll be heading to a university that has a reputation for excellence both on various fields of play and in the classroom.

He gives a lot of credit for his development to his experiences at Mount Carmel, and while much of his public recognition has come through athletics, he knows there is more to this important game of life than sports.

“Mount Carmel has been a great help to me, challenging me to work hard in the classroom, as well,” Thomas said. “They don’t take it easy on us over there, that’s for sure.”

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