When the St. Louis Cardinals selected outfielder Nick Thompson with their eighth-round pick in the 2014 Draft, he was a 21-year-old college graduate. That in and of itself is not unusual. But what is unusual is that, at the time he was drafted, he was already working toward his master's degree.
Thompson, currently patrolling the outfield as a member of the Class A Peoria Chiefs, is a rarity within the diverse ecosystem that is the Minor League clubhouse: the scholar-athlete. Thanks to college credits earned while still in high school, it took Thompson just two and a half years to graduate from East Carolina University (with a degree in biochemistry). He then transferred to the College of William and Mary, where he began to work toward a master's degree in molecular biology. Baseball remained a constant throughout these academic pursuits. In 2014 he recorded a 1.050 OPS with William and Mary; this led to his being drafted by the Cardinals and a subsequent professional debut as a member of the Class A Advanced State College Spikes last summer.
Once he turned pro, Thompson was quickly identified as a clubhouse "nerd."
"Especially last year, coming into the season, everyone knew where people went to school," said Thompson, speaking before Tuesday's ballgame at Peoria's Dozer Park. "So guys like myself, in a master's program, or someone like Danny Diekroeger, who went to Stanford, definitely tend to get singled out. It's nothing major, but there are some holes that can be poked in people."
Thompson is used to being a clubhouse anomaly as a result of his diligent academic pursuit.
"At East Carolina, [my teammates] all thought I was the nerdy one. It wasn't necessarily known for its academics," he said. "Then when I got to William and Mary, pretty much everybody there is pretty brilliant, so I didn't stand out too much. But once you get to pro ball, you can definitely tell the difference between guys who came out of high school, guys who went to college and guys who finished college. You can see somewhat of a difference in demeanor and..."
Here he laughs and then pauses, trying to find the right words.
"Overall thought process, I guess."
It works both ways. As Thompson is a nerd in the baseball world, so is he a jock in the academic world.
• Read more about Ben Hill's Midwest trip »
"All of my friends [at the College of William and Mary] finished this May, actually, so they're all kind of wondering what I'm doing," he said. "I think they have a misperception of what playing Minor League Baseball is like. They think of all the glitz and glam. They want to know when I'm going to be on TV, when's my game coming on. I don't think most people understand in that aspect. They're all going to med school or getting jobs. ... So I'm definitely an oddball in that world as well."
Thompson's goal, as a Minor Leaguer, is the same as that of all his teammates: to make it to the Major Leagues. As for what career path he wants to take outside of baseball, that's a work in progress.
"For the longest time, I did want to be a doctor," he said. "It's still on the horizon, whether it's two years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. It's a long commitment -- four years of med school plus residencies and specialties and whatnot. ... And it's expensive, not to mention."
But won't his earnings as a Peoria Chief help with this lofty goal?
"No, no. I can't afford med school on a Minor League Baseball salary," he said. "Note that."
Thompson has two semesters left before obtaining his master's degree. He cannot pursue it in the offseason, however, as the semesters need to be done consecutively for research purposes. In the meantime, he's heading down a different path.
"I'm about to start reading some trust and estate books because law school might be on the horizon," he said. "It's kind of a nicer path. It's three years of schooling, it's cheaper than med school and it's still a pretty good career option. Both of my parents are attorneys, so I think growing up I swore I'd never be an attorney. That's why I wanted to go to med school, and I like math and science. But I'm looking more and more into what my mother does. She does trust and estates, it's definitely a lot of math. It could be fun."
Though reading legal analysis might not seem like a good way to unwind, Thompson said that its crucial to engage in activities during the season that have nothing to do with baseball.
"I try to occupy my mind with something other than baseball, because it'll eat you up if you continue to think about it after the game," he said. "The next day becomes the next day becomes the next day, so if you don't give yourself something to think about other than baseball, it'll wear on you."
That said, baseball will remain the primary focus so long as the Chiefs have games left to play. Thompson led State College with 42 RBIs in 2014, and that squad went on to win the New York-Penn League championship. The goal now is to win a Midwest League title as a member of the Chiefs, for whom he's second with five home runs in 34 games this season.
"We're looking at it as 140 games and then a postseason," he said. "Hopefully we'll get another ring this year, be able to celebrate and go into the offseason on a high note."
Med school can wait.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.