Tommy Pham turns on his recorder first.
The Mets clubhouse is fairly quiet and fairly empty. It opened minutes earlier. Pham is one of the few players present, watching as I approach his locker. He questions what I want to discuss, suspicious of what I will write. The Mets’ hottest hitter claims he’s been burned before by reporters. He doesn’t trust me, either, which is fair. We met for the first time about 60 seconds earlier.
Pham, 35, takes out his phone and presses record, becoming the first athlete in my 16-plus years at The Post to join me in documenting an interview. He will not be misquoted. He will not be taken out of context.
His words are potent and unpredictable. No major leaguer can match his greatest hits.
He is a self-proclaimed “big dog in Vegas [and] a high roller at many casinos.” The first trade of his career — from St. Louis to Tampa — prompted him to declare: “It sucks going from playing in front of a great fan base to a team with really no fan base at all.” As a frustrated minor leaguer, he told the Cardinals farm director: “I’m the best motherf—– on this team and you guys don’t even know it.” While discussing an injury in a post-game press conference, he once casually noted: “I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been through a lot, let’s just say that.”
He informed hecklers: “I’m a very good fighter. I don’t do Muay Thai, kung fu and box for no reason.” Last year, he challenged former teammate Luke Voit to a fight (“If Luke wants to settle it, I get down really well. Anything. Muay Thai, whatever … I got an owner who will let me use his facility”) over what Pham deemed a dirty slide. One month later, Pham kept his promise to “pimp slap the s— out of” Joc Pederson over a high-stakes fantasy football dispute.
“I’ve always taught my kids to be 100 percent, to keep it real,” said Pham’s mother, Tawana Polk. “At this stage, why lie? Tell the truth. Be 100. A lot of people take that the wrong way and make their own decisions about him based on that, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
Despite his distrust, Pham is professional. He grants 25 minutes of his time, crafting short stories filled with candor and color and conviction.
He could have kept every answer short. He could have declined to speak at all.
But the message is more important than the messenger.
“I always had to defy odds,” Pham said. “I’m a welfare baby turned millionaire. My father’s been in prison for a lot of my life. … When you look at the odds of a Black man in America coming from that situation, the numbers aren’t good.
“My mom kept it real with me. She told me to beat the system, beat the odds. She said, ‘Look, I didn’t graduate [high school]. I had you at a young age. Your father’s in prison. … This is what the numbers say. Don’t be a statistic.’ … The numbers say I was gonna end up in prison, maybe end up selling drugs. … The numbers say I was gonna end up in prison or dead.
“She was telling me: ‘Defy the numbers. Be something different.’
Pham didn’t want to come to New York.
He had been a regular starter since solidifying his place in the majors in 2017. He was an everyday player with the Cardinals, Rays, Padres, Reds and Red Sox.
The prospect of serving as the Mets’ fourth outfielder and part-time DH wasn’t attractive. But options were limited for a 35-year-old coming off what he believes was the worst season of his career.
“I felt like there were other teams that were willing to give me a better opportunity that I was willing to sign with and wait,” said Pham, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Mets. “My agency, they liked this opportunity more than me.”
A baseball is tattooed on his left bicep. It reads: “Believe in Yourself.” The mantra has been needed time and again.
Pham spent 810 games and parts of 12 seasons in the minor leagues. He was demoted to Triple-A five times. He was traded three times in the past five years. He finished last season with a career-worst .686 OPS.
As a part-time player with the Mets — he started 19 of the first 44 games this season — Pham’s concerns of finding his rhythm with sporadic at-bats proved prescient. On May 16, he was hitting .188. Buck Showalter would pull him for pinch-hitters. Fans would boo. Pham openly wondered whether the Mets would want him much longer.
Over the past five-plus weeks, he’s been the team’s best hitter, providing rare moments of celebration during a disastrous slide. With regular playing time, Pham hit .349 in June with six home runs, 18 RBIs and a 1.027 OPS. He enters this weekend with a team-best .283 average and .850 OPS.
In the midst of this surge, Pham speaks with sincere disappointment that he hasn’t done more, that he “hasn’t touched the surface” of his potential. His words mirror his play, infused with intensity and purpose.
“The only thing that changed was an opening,” Pham said. “I always felt like I could’ve helped the team more and I still feel that way. I’m still working on some things that I could be better at to help the team in all aspects of the game. … I could expect to play better just because you’re getting the reps.”
In a lineup featuring four multi-time All-Stars and last year’s top prospect in baseball, no player currently inspires more confidence than the journeyman who was living below the Mendoza Line less than two months ago.
“The thing that Tommy understands as well as anybody is that he controls it,” Showalter said. “Tommy’s all about earning stuff. We’ve had many conversations this year. He knew his time was coming. When it happened, he ran with it.
“Tommy’s a strong guy. He likes someone telling him that he might not be able to do something and proving them wrong.”
Brittney Pham was born first. Tommy arrived two minutes later. Tawana was 17. Tommy’s father, Anhtuan, was a football standout turned 19-year-old inmate whose drug dealing led to multiple stints in prison.
“He’s been incarcerated ever since I was three weeks pregnant,” Polk said. “I took the twins to see him when they were 6 months old and I said, ‘I’m never coming back here.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘No, I see little kids running around and there’s murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and to them, the kids thought this was an everyday thing, that this is acceptable. I never want my kids to be raised to think that sort of lifestyle is acceptable.’ So I said, ‘I will never bring them back to see you.’ I had to choose my kids over everything.
“He was mad. But I said, ‘If you want to see them, you’ll get out.’ And he chose not to.”
Anhtuan, who was born to a Vietnamese mother and Black American father, attempted to escape confinement in 2002, and in the process was shot twice by a corrections officer. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree child sex abuse. In 2016, he was taken to intensive care after being shot nine times by an off-duty cop, who found Anhtuan attempting to shoplift two bags of crab legs (worth $76.54) and pull a replica handgun on the officer. Numerous other arrests fill a rap sheet that’s been updated continuously during Pham’s life.
Brittney, who now works as a flight attendant, told her brother that their father was released from prison earlier this year.
Pham has never had a relationship with him. He never plans to.
“When he was 12 years old, we met [Anhtuan] with his mom outside of a Walmart,” Polk said. “He was sitting on a bench, and Tommy’s like, ‘It’s a wrap,’ basically, and that was it. He went back [to prison], but I never talked bad about him. I didn’t have to. I was too focused on raising them and working.”
Polk, whose parents helped raise the twins in Las Vegas, worked two jobs throughout Pham’s childhood. A bakery employee and casino waitress, Polk was always upfront about the family’s finances, telling her children that money for birthday and Christmas presents needed to be used for bills.
“She’s a hard worker,” said Pham, whose mother remarried when he was a child. “She did everything she could to make sure we had a roof over our head, food on the table. I love her to death.
“I saw my mom struggle. I thought she struggled financially because she didn’t graduate. She didn’t do what everything said she should do. I always looked at it like, I need to go to college. In order for me to go to college I need to get good grades because my mom doesn’t have the money to put me through college. I looked at school as an opportunity to get money for college. I chose to do well in high school, middle school, so I could have that opportunity.”
Pham idolized Deion Sanders, Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter. He was a quarterback, playing youth football with future pros such as former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Without his father at home, he played catch with a brick wall and tossed Wiffle ball pitches to himself. He became a star shortstop and pitcher at Durango High School, hitting .581 with 10 home runs and 28 stolen bases as a senior.
Polk, who rarely attended her son’s youth games due to work conflicts, is a “kid in a candy store” speaking recently from Minute Maid Park, where the Mets played a three-game set in Houston.
Her son lives his dream.
“I never wanted him to have a chance to be tired because I felt if he stopped playing a sport, he would have the time to do bad,” Polk said. “When basketball season would end, he would start with football. When football would end, he would have baseball. …
“He was so focused. He always had that drive. He didn’t go to his first dance until his senior year, while his twin sister would go to every Sadie Hawkins and homecoming. My son wasn’t doing that. He was playing sports.”
Still, his mother would return from late-night work shifts to find her son — who boasts of a 4.5 high school GPA and near-valedictorian status — studying.
Sports couldn’t be his only way out.
“I was always strict on them to get good grades because I didn’t graduate,” Polk said. “They’d come home and say, ‘Mom, I don’t know how to do this,’ so I called the school and told the teachers my kid needs help. They said, ‘If he’s determined and he wants to learn, tell him I’m here before school starts and I’ll help him.’ That’s how they learned. He would get up early and go to the school and the teachers would tutor him.
“I told them, ‘I’m sorry, I was strict,’ but look at where they are today … and it’s from me having structure for them. I didn’t run in the streets. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I worked two jobs, and I made them do chores. His sisters would call me and be like, ‘Well, Tommy said to do this,’ and I said, ‘He’s in charge. You have to listen. Don’t call me. I’m at work. I want the house cleaned. You guys have your chores.’ I had that structure set up at a young age. And I don’t regret it. They’re clean. He still makes his bed up.”
Pham was prepared to go to college. He had a scholarship offer from Cal State Fullerton.
Then, the St. Louis Cardinals used their 16th-round pick in the 2006 MLB Draft on Pham, who nearly turned down a life-changing bonus of $325,000.
“At the time that was like third-round money, [but] I felt like I was projected higher,” said Pham, who had spent summers working at a car wash and in construction. “[Then-Cardinals executive] Jeff Luhnow drafted me, and I remember he came to my house because I said, ‘I’m not signing. I expected way more money.’ I remember he said, ‘That’s fine. I’ll just draft you again in three years.’ He said, ‘I think you can get to the majors in four. I think you’re just gonna be wasting three years.’
“He got me like that. Very slick guy.”
Health concerns started early.
As a toddler, Pham wore leg braces due to concerns he had rickets. After hitting .204 during his first three seasons in the minors, the Cardinals suggested Pham visit an eye specialist, who discovered the outfielder had keratoconus, a rare degenerative condition that causes the cornea to become thin and irregularly shaped, affecting vision.
Pham was given glasses. Then, various contact lenses. Then, the option to undergo a brand new procedure integrating ultraviolet light.
“At the time, the procedure wasn’t FDA-approved, so I took a gamble because he explained it could get worse if you don’t do this procedure to where you won’t be able to play,” Pham said.
Experiments on his left eye still continue. In January, Pham was approved to use newly developed lenses, which are fashioned from a mold of his eye and provide a tremendously improved fit.
“I felt like these lenses could be career-changing for me,” Pham said. “With my eye condition, I’m the guinea pig for everyone in the world. All these doctors go off of what I tell them regarding these lenses … [and] they’re using that to help other athletes.”
In 2011, Pham was Rule 5 eligible. Any team could have had him. None bit.
He remained in Double-A, where his season was cut short by a torn wrist ligament. In 2012, he tore his right shoulder labrum. In 2013, he tore his left shoulder labrum.
The 18-year-old who was told he’d make the majors by 22 was 26 when he received his first two at-bats with the Cardinals. In 2015, Pham played 52 games in the bigs. In 2016, he was with St. Louis for 78 games. At the start of the 2017 season, Pham was back in Memphis with the Triple-A Redbirds.
He told friends and family he was done with baseball.
“I felt like that,” Pham said. “I talked to [friend and 17-year MLB veteran] Edwin Jackson, and he told me to give it two more weeks.”
On this day, Pham speaks of a St. Louis front office and coaching staff that was encouraging and supportive. In a 2018 Sports Illustrated article, he recounted asking for his release from St. Louis in 2014, as well as the time he was demoted and “threw numbers” at manager Mike Matheny. He recalled the frustration of watching less successful players receive opportunities (“I said, ‘They’re not gonna f–king call me up, f–k it, and I zoned out in Triple-A. Every day I was just like, f–k this.’), the frustration of being tied to a franchise who didn’t understand his value (“I’m thinking, [the Cardinals] are not gonna trade me. They won’t sell me to Japan. What the f–k? They clearly don’t believe in me. Let a motherf–ker leave.”).
“When he was in the minors, he called me one day and he sounded so sad,” Polk said. “I said, ‘You’re not a quitter. Don’t give up. You’re never gonna give up.’ And he’s like, ‘But ma…,’ and I said, ‘You’re not a quitter.’ That was the closest I ever heard him defeated. He was tired.
“When the story came out with Sports Illustrated, he spoke the truth. That was years of frustration from a player who’d been in the minors for so long. What do you expect? He felt he had been held back for so many years when he already could have been at that level.”
Less than two weeks after speaking with Jackson, Pham, then 29, found his break when former first-round pick Stephen Piscotty got injured. Pham hit a home run in his first game back with the Cardinals. He played in another 127 games during his first full season in 2017, finishing sixth in WAR in the National League and 11th in MVP voting after hitting .306 with 23 home runs and 25 stolen bases. Mike Trout and Jose Altuve were the majors’ only other players to hit .300 with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases that season.
“I haven’t done it again, and I guess that’s what keeps me driven,” Pham said. “I want to do it again to prove that I can do it. It’s one thing to do it once. If you do it twice, that’s you.”
Pham turned down a two-year contract extension with the Cardinals that offseason, believing the offer didn’t show him a “great amount of appreciation.” He didn’t receive his first seven-figure salary until he was 31.
“I won’t sell myself short,” Pham said then.
At the 2018 trade deadline, Pham was “shocked” to learn he was traded to Tampa Bay, where he performed well in parts of two seasons, hitting .273 with 21 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 2019. Pham was dealt to San Diego before the 2020 season, when a new series of injuries arose.
That October, Pham saw people arguing near his car in the parking lot outside the Pacers Showgirls International Club in San Diego. He was stabbed after he asked them to move, suffering a gruesome wound that stretched across his lower back, requiring 200 stitches.
Pham, who was also stabbed below the rib cage during an altercation with his stepfather during his minor league career, called Padres general manager A.J. Preller en route to the hospital, believing his career was over.
“[I could have been killed] or paralyzed,” said Pham, who received a hefty settlement after suing the strip club for security negligence and providing evidence he played no role in instigating the incident. “I was lucky. Everyone sees that scar on the [Mets]. This team didn’t even realize how bad that injury was. When they saw the scar, they finally realized that it was serious.
“The [San Diego] team doctor told me that was a two-year injury. I just didn’t believe her. I was like, me, ‘I’m gonna make it one year,’ and it just didn’t work like that.”
Pham hit .229 in 155 games for the Padres in the ensuing 2021 season, and was nearly 34 when he hit free agency for the first time. He signed with the Reds and was traded to the Red Sox before last season’s deadline, hitting a combined .236 in what Pham angrily cites as his first season underperforming while healthy.
He could have hit 50 home runs and Pham’s season still would have been defined by the May pregame altercation in the outfield of Great American Ball Park, where Pham slapped the Giants’ Joc Pederson
In addition to Pham’s contention that Pederson was cheating in the fantasy football league — “We had too much money on the line, so I look at it like there’s a code. You’re f–king with my money,” Pham said in the aftermath — Pham was also bothered by Pederson’s jabs in a group chat, which included mocking Pham’s Padres. Pham said Pederson didn’t know him well enough to make such jokes. He warned Pederson what would happen the next time they saw each other.
The slap earned Pham a three-game suspension. The punchlines wrote themselves, so everyone wrote them. The Mets joined the party, using the Citi Field scoreboard in the aftermath to set a faux over/under (0.5) of total fantasy football disputes.
Pham’s perspective on the incident hasn’t changed.
“I don’t live with regrets, man,” Pham said. “Can’t live like that.”
Pham says his teammates consider him a likable person. He looks at me, as if I don’t believe him. He calls over to Brett Baty, asking the rookie if it’s true.
“Yeah,” Baty replies enthusiastically.
Pham turns back to me:
Change comes quickly in Las Vegas.
A desert became known for neon. A city that outlawed wagering evolved into the gambling capital of the world. A town that boosted tourism by advertising nuclear bomb explosions is now a bucket list destination. A barren two-lane road transformed into the iconic Strip.
Pham was a child when his hometown’s reputation shifted, when the grand resorts of the Bellagio, Venetian, Mirage, Luxor, MGM Grand were built, when five-star chefs overtook $2.99 prime ribs, when kids were first invited to the adult playground made famous by the mafia.
It remained Sin City to professional sports until recent years, as the Supreme Court effectively legalized sports gambling outside Nevada, as Las Vegas became home to the NFL’s Raiders, NHL’s Golden Knights and WNBA’s Aces. A third new sparkling stadium appears set to hit the Strip when the Oakland A’s cross state lines.
“A lot has changed,” Pham said. “But that’s part of life.”
Above the baseball on his bicep is a large tattoo of the city where it all began, where he played tee-ball at the Doolittle Community Center, where he put on free baseball clinics for underprivileged youth, where his family resides and he maintains a home.
He used to spend winters in Miami. Then, he endured the worst season of his career in 2022.
“It made me go back home to Vegas, go back to my roots, go back to how I used to train,” Pham said. “I went back to the old me. … I have everything in Vegas. I have everything I need to be better. That’s my home.”
It is the constant among changes.
He is a “welfare baby turned millionaire.” The 12th-year minor leaguer who earned MVP votes. The breakout star traded in his sleep. The washed-up role player who morphed into the National League’s hottest hitter. The key to a Mets second-half turnaround or an asset moved at the deadline for the third time in six years. The veteran who says he’s been approached by teams about “coaching or possibly front office roles” when he retires. The man who can measure years by a handful of miles.
“I didn’t grow up in a good part of Vegas,” Pham said. “… I live with all the rich white people now.”
What else is there to say?