Las Vegas Sun

June 17, 2019

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sun standout awards:

Lifetime achievement: Baseball coach Sam Thomas, ‘I am the lucky one. I get to go on this ride’

Coach Sam Thomas

Sun File

Hank Greenspun Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Las Vegas baseball Coach Sam Thomas

It’s one hour before the Las Vegas High baseball team is about to start practice, and coach Sam Thomas is feverishly at work. He appears to be in his element.

The veteran coach is climbing a ladder with a tool belt strapped around his waist. It’s almost comical because Thomas also sports his baseball pants, a coach pullover and turf shoes. Thomas is installing new speakers at the stadium in another upgrade at the east Las Vegas program he’s meticulously managed since the late 1990s.

“If something breaks at your house, do you wait around for someone to come fix it?,” Thomas asks.

The retiring Thomas is the recipient of this year’s Hank Greenspun Lifetime Achievement Award, which is the top honor at the Sun Standout Awards and named after the Las Vegas Sun founder.

Many know Thomas as Greg Maddux’s catcher at Valley High School, Bryce Harper’s coach at Las Vegas and one of the baseball community’s most-beloved figures. He accepts little credit, especially when it comes to Harper, who arguably was the best prep baseball player in Las Vegas history.

“What did I do, though? I didn’t hit for him. Sometimes you just have to stay out of the way,” Thomas said. “You try to guide them in the right direction. In Bryce’s case, you throw a batting practice pitch and say good job. That’s how easy it is.”

Thomas, of course, is being humble. Harper’s two years at Las Vegas were a success because Thomas treated him just like the other players in the program, said Derek Stafford, the school’s assistant principal in charge of athletics.

“Any coach who can do 20 years at one school and in one program is doing something right,” Stafford said. “He truly cares about the kids and not just the game. The game is a medium for him to teach and coach.”

What many don’t see is Thomas on Sundays. That’s when he throws batting practice to players — anyone who shows up, regardless of school — and also manicures the grass at the Las Vegas High field. It’s one of the greenest in town; so beautiful that he also takes the lead on maintaining the school’s softball and football fields. He estimates spending three hours daily about 330 days a year working on the stadium.

“He puts so much pride into this field, and it shows,” said Leonel Anaya, the Las Vegas catcher. “We love coming here and playing on this beautiful field that he spends so much time on.”

A reporter earlier this spring asked Thomas what his lifetime coaching record was. “We won today. I’m 1-0,” he said.

That, again, is Thomas being humble — even though he doesn’t keep track.

Thomas is rarely at a loss for words, and most of the time is vocal in sharing his opinions on how local baseball should look and feel. Yet, when he found out he was winning the lifetime achievement award, he was speechless. Thomas’ first job in the Clark County School District was a physical education teacher at Barbara and Hank Greenspun Junior High School.

“I didn’t know what to say, just ‘wow,’” he said. “What an honor.”

Thomas is quick to give credit to others for his accolades, listing the principals he’s worked with and other coaches at the school. And there’s his mentor — Rodger Fairless. Thomas played for Fairless, who won 12 state championships in his celebrated career, and later broke into coaching on his staff at Green Valley High. The two talk daily.

“I am lucky. If I am going to boast, it’s I’m lucky,” he said. “I have got two great parents, I have what I consider the best wife in the world who allows me to do this every day. I have got two great kids who I am so proud of. If you look at my life when it comes to baseball, I got to play for Rodger Fairless and coach for Rodger Fairless, get my own program and coach around some of the best kids on campus.”

Thomas, like Fairless, is considered old-school in his approach. But, players say, he’s also the first to lift their spirits when they are down and never hesitates spending time after practice to mentor athletes.

“If you are going to tell a kid what he is doing wrong, you have to tell him what he is doing right. That’s only fair,” Thomas said.

Las Vegas was a perennial Northeast League champion for most of his tenure. However, the Wildcats never made the state tournament until this season because their opponents in the Northeast mostly struggled and couldn’t prepare them for the postseason. Thomas noticed a similar trend on the other side of town, where a quality team or two would miss the postseason because the opposite region had one league with many quality teams, and another with just a few.

He advocated for the region’s two leagues to be combined into one super league, paving the way for programs like his to face higher-caliber opponents, and others to not miss the playoffs while teams with a losing record from the opposite league advanced.

That change helped Las Vegas win the Mountain Region championship this season. It seemed only fitting that in Thomas’ last year of teaching, his Wildcats had their most storied season. Thomas, though, isn’t finished coaching baseball or throwing Sunday batting practice.

Before he transitions to another life — he’d like to be a golf-course gardener — he still has one or two seasons of baseball left. All the sweat-equity over the years, even in the offseason, will be hard to give up.

There’s a speaker to install and batting practice to throw, and that way of life is all Thomas knows.

“Coaches don’t win games, players win games,” Thomas said. “I am the lucky one. I get to go on this ride.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21