Only a handful of high school baseball coaches can claim that several of their student-athletes had careers as major league baseball players, and Granite Hills High School skipper Gordy Thompson was one of them.
The Minnesota native coached no less than a half-dozen MLB players over 20 years — John Barnes, Tom Fordham, Brian Giles, Marcus Giles, Chris Jones and Shane Spencer — all of whom came through his program at the El Cajon school.
Gordon Russell Thompson died at Salem Health Hospital in Salem, Ore., on Dec. 31 at the age of 76, from lung cancer.
Thompson led the Eagles to eight Grossmont Conference titles during his tenure, with an overall record of 379-213 (.640). His teams won San Diego Section CIF titles in 1977, 1994 and 1998. His 1998 team was ranked No. 1 by USA Today.
As dedicated as he was to his baseball teams, Thompson was even more proud of his teaching profession. Thompson initially had planned on a career as an accountant but told an Oregon reporter in 2011 that he “didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk.”
His daughter, Dana McCray, said she and her brother, Brad, not only attended his games but she started keeping score in the dugout when she was 8. Meanwhile, her brother acted as the team’s batboy for many years.
McCray said that “Dad always thought of himself as a teacher first,” and took pride in teaching a variety of classes, including business law, accounting, typing and remedial math.
One of his proteges, John Barnes, played for Thompson’s 1994 championship squad. Barnes went on to play for two seasons with the Minnesota Twins. In 2000, playing with the Twins' Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake City, Barnes won the Pacific Coast League batting title with a .365 average.
“When I look back at my many years in professional baseball, I sometimes think the best years were in high school,” Barnes recalled. “That is true of many high school memories, because it is the in-between time of life where you are still young enough to enjoy everything, and everything is super important. You are not quite at the level where life has begun to be a worry.
“In 1994, when (Thompson) took us to the CIF Championship finals... that was the highlight of our senior year. None of us ever forgot that wonderful feeling of the victory in that final game. Likewise, none of us even thought of the worry a coach had in getting us to and accomplishing that goal. Coach battled right along with us each and every game.
“Gordy Thompson went the extra mile for us every time. Now, as adults, we better appreciate the time, effort and support he poured into all of his players during his long career at Granite Hills High School.”
One of his 1977 championship team players, Aaron Graham, said that Thompson took a keen interest in his players’ lives.
Graham recalled the night Thompson found out that Graham’s father had died. Thompson was keeping score at an evening Granite Hills High basketball game when he got the news.
“At approximately 10 p.m. that night, there was a knock on the front door,” Graham said. “I answered the door to see Coach Gordy standing there with tears in his eyes.”
Thompson not only supported and educated his players, he also was a mentor to may of those who coached with him.
Madison High School baseball coach Nick Furlong was new to coaching when Thompson brought him on board in 1994. He said that among the things that impressed him was how Thompson kept copious records and score books and that he knew how to find specific games from even 15 years earlier in an instant.
“When I first started with him, we just kind of hit it off right away,” Furlong recalled. “He was almost like a second father to me, teaching me things not only about baseball, but about life. I implement those things to this day in my coaching.
“When i was younger in my 30s and intense and uptight, one time he pulled me aside and said, ‘You gotta relax! Remember, these kids haven’t been on earth that long.’ I looked right at him and knew he was right. To this day, I love that story and I always remember that they’re still puppies, they’re kids.”
Thompson was born July 26, 1941, in Minneapolis and started coaching in 1964 in suburban Minneapolis. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.. and a master’s degree in education from the University of Montana.
After moving to California in 1975, he taught and coached at El Capitan in Lakeside for two years before moving to Granite Hills.
His coaching career ended in 2013 after more than 10 seasons as an assistant baseball coach at Corvallis High School. He and his wife, Sharon, retired to Oregon in 2003.
Thompson was honored in 2011 by the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association for his 40 years of service as a coach, even though the bulk of his coaching was done out of state. His California accolades include being the first inductee into the Granite Hills Hall of Fame as well as being inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park in 2002.
When Thompson was diagnosed with cancer this past Spring, he and his wife started a page on the “Caring Bridge” website that updated friends and family with news of his progress. Thompson had been fairly active on Facebook.
Through the summer and into the fall, Thompson’s wife and daughter took turns informing Thompson’s fans about his health. Each entry on Caring Bridge had a baseball-themed title.
The final entry was titled “The Closer.”
Thompson leaves behind his wife of 56 years, Sharon; his daughter, Dana McCray (Randy); and his son, Bradley Thompson (Christine) and grandchildren Jake and Phoebe.
Services are planned for 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10 at First United Methodist Church in Corvallis Ore.
An additional celebration of Thompson’s life is being planned for San Diego in the next several months. his daughter said.
Donations in his honor can be made to the American Lung Association and those wanting to leave notes for the family should access Thompson’s page at caringbridge.org/visit/gordythompson2