From Penguin to pro

Justin Thomas_4-26-12
Justin Thomas pitches in his home debut at Fenway Park on April 16 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Thomas played baseball for three seasons at YSU and made the Red Sox Opening Day roster. Photo courtesy of Michael Ivins/ The Boston Red Sox.

Since Major League Baseball’s inception in 1869, 17,769 men have been deemed good enough to play baseball at the highest level.

One of those men is Youngstown State University alumnus Justin Thomas, who will don the same Boston Red Sox uniform worn by all-time greats Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski this season.

Justin Thomas came to YSU in the fall of 2003, after receiving offers from Eastern Michigan University, the University of Cincinnati and Western Kentucky University.

What drew Justin Thomas to YSU, he said, was former YSU head baseball coach Mike Florak and the team that would surround him, which included Clay High School teammate and friend Jim Phillips.

“It was totally his decision,” said Justin Thomas’ father, Steven Thomas. “And it turned out to be a great decision.”

Another contributing factor, Steven Thomas said, was YSU’s mid-major status.

“Choosing a mid-major gave him the chance to start his freshman year and mature quicker,” Steven Thomas said.

Florak recruited Justin Thomas.

“We’ve always tried to have a family-type atmosphere here, and I think Justin gravitated toward that,” Florak said.

Florak said he immediately knew that Justin Thomas had potential.

“When we were recruiting him, I looked at his body type, looked at his left arm, how loose and how well it worked, looked at his competitiveness … then I started thinking, you know, ‘I think we’re sitting on a major leaguer here,’” Florak said.

Florak recalled the exact moment he knew that Justin Thomas had the potential to pitch professionally.

It was during the first game of the 2004 season at the University of Missouri.

“So, he’s going up against the Big 12. He’s going against that caliber competition and really just, you know, beat them soundly,” Florak said.

Justin Thomas said that game against Missouri is one of YSU’s best wins and most memorable moments — other than winning the Horizon League tournament in 2004.

“[It was] the best win we had as a team as long as I was at [YSU],” Justin Thomas said.

During his three years of coaching Justin Thomas, Florak said times came when he had to discipline him, but that he was always a complete team guy.

Following his junior year, Justin Thomas left to enter the 2005 MLB draft. The Seattle Mariners took him in the fifth round with the 113th pick.

“I was totally elated for him,” his father said. “It’s always the dream, but, along the way, it’s hard to critique your own [son].”

Florak said he had no doubt in his mind that Justin Thomas would one day make it to the major leagues.

Justin Thomas, however, was a little more wary of his trip to the professional stage.

“When I played high school, I knew I was good enough to play at college, but you never really know where that’s gonna take you,” Justin Thomas said. “I didn’t really realize that I had a chance to play professionally until probably the end of my sophomore year to the start of my junior year.”

After he was drafted in June 2005, Justin Thomas spent the remainder of the season with the Everett AquaSox, the Class A short season affiliate of the Mariners.

The following year, Justin Thomas spent time with two of the Mariners’ Low A affiliate Wisconsin Timber Rattlers before being called up to play with the High A Inland Empire 66ers.

In 2007 and 2008, Justin Thomas played for the Mariners AAA affiliate West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx before making his major league debut against the Texas Rangers, where he didn’t allow a hit or walk and struck out Marlon Byrd in one inning of work.

In 2009, Justin Thomas signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent and spent time alternating between the AAA Indianapolis Indians and the Pirates.

The latest leg of Justin Thomas’ career has brought him to one of MLB’s most historic franchises: the Boston Red Sox.

“He was certainly a long shot at best going into spring training,” Steven Thomas said. “But injuries to some of Boston’s major relievers landed Justin a spot on the opening day roster.”

“He’s a great guy. You could always count on him,” said Justin Banks, who played with Justin Thomas for three years. “That’s just awesome. … I’m just proud of him.”

“I just hope the Red Sox give him a legitimate chance because he was always at his best in clutch situations,” Florak said.

On April 16, the Boston Red Sox played their home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, and Justin Thomas played his first game at Fenway Park.

“The Green Monster was covered in an American flag for the national anthem; we had a flyover. I mean, it’s just everything you can imagine,” Justin Thomas said.

While no one knows what the future holds for Justin Thomas, his father said that at the least it’s been a fun ride.

“It’s a unique career — you never what’ll happen next. As a parent, you can’t sit back and relax. … You just have to stay in the moment,” Steven Thomas said.

Justin Thomas said his goal is to keep playing baseball.

“Hopefully, I find a home in the major leagues, and I pitch well enough to stay and accumulate some service time and become somebody who is a mainstay in the major leagues,” Justin Thomas said.

As with any career, rough patches always occur, and it’s no different for Justin Thomas.

When the going gets tough, he turns to his wife and YSU alumna, Theresa. The couple married during the 2008 offseason in Massillon and have a 6-month-old daughter, Ella Marie.

“My wife has always been by my side. She keeps me humble, and that’s been something that I’ve been able to use throughout my career to help me take my mind off the game. … No matter what I did on the field, she was always there for me,” he said.

Whatever the future holds for Justin Thomas, those who have spent time around him already consider him to be a success.

“He’s a hard-nosed kid who always worked hard to get where he is now,” Banks said.

“As a parent, I couldn’t be prouder. He’s a good player and a better kid,” Steven Thomas said.

“He’s never changed one bit. He’s the kind of guy that could win five Cy Young [Awards] and still be the same. He’s a hell of a good person,” Florak said.

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