CARY, N.C.--Alek Thomas has thrived against older competition longer than he can remember.
As a 12-year-old at the White Sox's spring training facility in Glendale, Ariz., Thomas, the son of White Sox strength and conditioning coach and former minor leaguer Allen Thomas, entered the batting box, stared down then-White Sox pitcher Hector Santiago and persisted that the 6-foot southpaw hold nothing back.
First Santiago dealt Thomas a screwball that left the seventh-grader overmatched. But then, Santiago hung a changeup, and Thomas cranked an opposite-field shot that one-hopped the left field wall.
"This little dude just almost took me deep," Santiago said.
Five years later at the 2017 Tournament of Stars, Thomas--who just turned 17 in late April, and is 11 months younger than some of his class of 2018 counterparts--looks more than comfortable at the plate. The 5-foot-10 outfielder is compact and muscular, as his shoulders seemingly burst through his navy blue Pride jersey. The Chicago native kicks the dirt off of his black and white retro Air Jordan 10 cleats--a color scheme Michael Jordan first implemented in his shoes following his stint with the Double-A Birmingham Barons.
Thomas looks natural and fluid at the plate and in the field, partly because he was born into the world of baseball.
Allen Thomas played in the White Sox organization for two years before transitioning to a role in the strength and conditioning department. His involvement with pro baseball has allowed Alek opportunities that other players his age don't receive, from facing major league pitching in middle school, to getting to know all-time greats at a young age.
"Alek's also been in a place that not too many others have," Allen Thomas said. "He was born on the diamond of a major league field."
Alek Thomas has met and learned from some of the best--Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Juan Pierre, Ken Griffey Jr. and others. But he added that relationships with fringe major leaguers who fight day in and day out for a spot on the roster were the most fruitful.
"Hearing them like, 'Hey man, you've got to keep on working, because it might end one day, you might get released or something like that. You've just got to keep your head right and keep pushing forward,'" Thomas said.
That mindset has worked on Thomas. He knows what his weaknesses are and what he has to improve on to be the best player possible. He knows that he has to make strong impressions at national showcases, and he did just that at TOS.
Leading off for the Pride team, Thomas laced a double off of Vanderbilt commit Ryan Weathers just three pitches into his first at-bat of the tournament. He followed that up with a hard-hit single as well as a walk.
"I came out fired up," Thomas said. He attended last year's Tournament of Stars as a rising junior, but didn't have the performance he had hoped for. "Since these showcases, I've been batting first for a while. I guess I'm used to batting first now and being used to all these scouts here. So I just take a deep breath before I go up to bat every time, and just let it happen."
Thomas played like a complete ballplayer in front of a host of scouts. He hit to both sides of the field, worked deep into counts and flashed plus speed on the basepaths--all things that make him an attractive leadoff hitter.
"Just his athleticism alone, he's going to be able to use his speed, and put pressure on the defense, swing gap to gap," Pride coach and former big leaguer Royce Clayton said. "Especially the way he handled lefthanded pitching the way he did; he's not affected by a lefthanded motion or something like that. He's a great athlete, just his ability to have a demeanor about him, he has a presence, and can be someone that could help out a ballclub for sure."
Thomas describes himself as an energetic guy that can spark an offense. Part of that energy is derived from his pure athleticism. A two-sport star in both football and baseball, Thomas is committed to play both at TCU.
While the two sports have their vast differences, Thomas has gained a mental edge in football that he's brought over to the diamond.
"The fire from football really, really gets me going. I just love playing football. Just taking football out of baseball has really helped my mindset," Thomas said. "You're going to fail in baseball--you're not going to fail too much in football. My mind is pretty right when I play football."
His natural position on the football field is at slot receiver. The shifty, quick-footed Thomas uses excellent speed to terrorize defenses. But he transitioned to quarterback this fall to help his Mount Carmel High team in Chicago, and quickly saw similarities between that and center field, his natural position in baseball.
"The vocal part is a big thing. Being a quarterback, you've got to talk to all of your players, offense and defense," he explained. "Here, as a center fielder, I'm taking control of the outfield and letting my guys know where to go, and calling people off."
Thomas' athleticism is genetic. His father was a multi-sport star in high school, and played both football and baseball at Wingate College before quitting both to focus on sports medicine and exercise science studies. Allen's father was a star on the football field as well, and his brothers were too.
"The mindset," Thomas said in regards to what he's learned most from his dad. “You might go 0-for-16 but you've still gotta keep that smile on your face. Always have to keep that mindset."
Allen has also worked with Alek a tremendous amount in the weight room. Both have identified his arm strength as one of his weaknesses. The work Alek has done with his dad has already shown positive changes.
"We do stuff to work on it all the time, and he critiques me all the time," Thomas said. "'Keep your head up, keep that arm where it needs to be, that front arm needs to be up.' He's really on me about that, and it's made me progress this year."
But it's not an overnight job, even for a star athlete. Development from a strength standpoint and a baseball standpoint takes time, and Allen has stressed that to Alek.
"Physically, I'm just trying to get better every day is what I've tried to do since last year," Alek said. "Just my approach to the game, and my at bats and everything. Taking it one day at a time."