Las Vegas Aviators infielders Eric Thames (4) and Marty Bechina (7) cheer as their teammates re ...

Eric Thames, ex-Korea import, hoping to flex muscles for A’s

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It’s a good thing for those BTS kids who played Allegiant Stadium last weekend that Eric Thames was in Salt Lake City belting baseballs. Or the Aviators’ first baseman might have taught the popular boy band a thing or two about singing a happy tune.

BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, have surpassed the Kia Forte as South Korea’s chief U.S. export.

Thames, the slugger with the bulging biceps, flowing beard and beaucoup batting armor, was once the East Asian nation’s chief American import.

After venturing overseas to prolong his career, the former Las Vegas 51 hit 37 home runs and drove in 121 runs in 125 games for the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization in 2014. The next season, he hit 47 and drove in 140 in 142 games. The season after that, he hit 40 and drove in another 121 in 123 games.

Thames was so popular that a jingle sung to the “Colonel Bogey March” — the catchy ditty from the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” — was written for him. They sang it not as he walked up to home plate, but during every one of his at-bats at Changwon DC Park, which is how they do it in baseball-mad Korea.

And then, during the offseason, he appeared on the TV show “King of Mask Singer” where he regaled the studio audience with a melodious take on Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.”

Hitting the high notes

“I went to a voice coach for about six weeks to prepare, just so I wouldn’t embarrass myself,” said Thames, whose mild tone and manner belie his menacing appearance in the batter’s box.

The 35-year-old, who is trying to make it back to the big leagues with the A’s — he went 1-for-4 Thursday in a 6-5 loss to El Paso and is batting .261 with two homers and eight RBIs in 46 at-bats — used one word to describe swinging for the fences in Korea.

“Awesome,” he said of the experience that he parlayed into a full-time gig with the Milwaukee Brewers for whom he also became a fan favorite. He hit 31 homers in 138 games in 2017 before adding 16 during a 2018 season cut short by a thumb injury.

Although Thames would regain his spot in the starting lineup during a 2019 season in which he hit 25 homers, the Brewers declined an option to re-sign him for 2020.

He struggled during the COVID-shortened season after signing with the Washington Nationals and found himself back in the Far East last year. Thames ruptured his Achilles while trying to catch a fly ball for the Yomiuri Giants on opening night of the Japanese season, underwent surgery and was released.

“The goal was always to come back and see if I could still play,” he said about finding himself back at the baseball crossroads.

No place like home

Noted for his intense weight training regimen, work ethic and physique (he has shaved the flowing facial hair for aerodynamic chin whiskers), the Aviators’ carefree elder statesman has a long connection to Las Vegas.

Thames played for Valley High grad Steve Rodriguez at Pepperdine. After being drafted by Toronto in the seventh round in 2008, he batted .352 and .330 during two 50-plus-game stints in Las Vegas when the 51s were affiliated with the Blue Jays.

“Cashman was bad even then,” Thames said of the team’s substandard digs at Cashman Field downtown.

After the success he enjoyed in Korea and money he made in Milwaukee, he moved to Henderson where the tax laws would make it last longer.

So when it came to signing a minor-league contract, the A’s always were in the back of his mind — not because he had grown up a fan of the green and gold in Santa Clara, California, or that Oakland would trade away Matt Olson creating an opening at first base, but because the A’s Triple-A club played in a beautiful ballpark not far from home.

“The A’s kind of stood out because if I didn’t make the team, at least I’d able to sleep in my own bed,” Thames said with a smile even broader than his shoulders.

Contact Ron Kantowski at [email protected] or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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