It was a sunny May afternoon when Ralph Thompson found an empty seat behind home plate in Sacramento and focused his camera on the outfield. With the crack of the bat, he panned to find River Cats center fielder Shane Peterson sprinting in.
"I could see the ball being hit to him, I was tracking him, and as soon as I saw him leave his feet, I shot the whole dive at 14 frames-per-second," he said.
One of those images turned out to be a MiLBY Award winner as fans voted Thompson's snap the 2014 Photo of the Year. The photograph of Peterson's mid-air grab narrowly edged Brent Asay's stunning sunset frame from Salt Lake for top honors.
"It's pretty cool," Thompson said. "Like they say, it's an honor to be nominated, and to actually win one is nice, to know your work is being recognized and appreciated."
Thompson, 58, is a full-time sports photographer in California after retiring as a probation officer in 2011. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel, teaching at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in between deployments before retiring from service in 2008.
His focus is on photography, from youth athletes up to Triple-A baseball -- he served as Sacramento's team photographer in 2014 and said he knew instantly that his photo of Peterson's diving catch was a keeper.
"I knew it was a special photograph as soon as I took it," he said. "Everybody in the front office had it as the background picture on their computer, so I knew it was pretty special. And as a sports photographer, I knew I pretty much nailed it. So that was pretty cool."
Thompson took the image on May 11 using a Canon 1DX digital camera and a Canon 400mm f/2.8 L lens. To reach the outfield, he attached a teleconverter to his lens, which magnified the focal length to 800mm. Peterson made the play to end the top of the fourth inning when he raced in and caught a blooper off the bat of Salt Lake's J.B. Shuck in Sacramento's 6-5 walk-off win.
"When I lined up and took that photo, I took more than one frame, but often we get one frame just before and just after peak action, we very rarely get the picture," he said. "Sometimes it's out of focus or something, so to nail it for once was pretty special."
Thompson's image, which shows Peterson suspended above the ground, arms outstretched, with the ball just settling into his glove, edged a group of worthy nominees. Jim Redman's photo of Round Rock infielder Brent Lillibridge's diving play looked similar, visually, and ended up finishing fourth, ahead of a failed diving catch by Connecticut outfielder Derek Hill in a photograph taken by Kevin Pataky. A touching moment between Erie catcher Craig Albernaz and a young fan finished third in voting, ahead of unusual shots that included a monkey, a dinosaur and a shattered bat.
Thompson's action photo ends the trend of MiLBY Awards going to scenic ballpark photos. Last year's winner was a sunset over Clinton's Ashford University Field, while 2012 honors went to a lightning strike at Rochester's Frontier Field.
Thompson said he spread the word to friends and family once he noticed his photo was a finalist. His son helped campaign for votes on Facebook, while colleagues also joined the cause.
"With a sports action shot, you have literally a fraction of a second to get that shot, those are one in a million," Thompson said. "I don't think I caught another one like that the rest of the season. I shot over 100 baseball games this year. I shot a gazillion images, and that's the one that people look at. I shot some other plays, some really nice hit-by-pitches and plays at second -- I even have a bat on ball where the bat is breaking, and that one was pretty cool. To have this one recognized by the public and players and front office as the Picture of the Year is pretty cool."
Thompson said the photo was his favorite outfield shot from the 2014 season. A moment after taking it, he checked his camera and showed it to a fan nearby.
"I didn't know if I'd gotten the shot or not. I went back and looked and thought, 'Oh, my God, I nailed it,'" Thompson said, "[The fan] goes, 'Wow, Ralph, that's really good.'"
The photo was posted to the River Cats' social media accounts and became a favorite of the front-office staff, leading to the MiLBY nomination.
"I've gotta give Shane credit for actually catching it," he laughed.