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A fire is burning in ND's Thornton

Author: Arts and Letters

By now, the mechanical checkpoints that Notre Dame lefthander Tom Thornton thinks about have become routine.

Command the two-seam fastball away to righties, the senior from Middleborough reminds himself. Keep the leg lift short. Close the front shoulder instead of rolling it forward. Make sure glove-side posture is high and firm. Deliver the ball through the catcher’s mitt.

“He’s so smart,” said Notre Dame pitching coach Terry Rooney, "that I’ve found myself many times in the bullpen saying, `Listen, let’s keep it simple. Don’t overanalyze.’ "

Thornton, who had a 3.87 grade-point average last semester, can’t help but approach baseball analytically. A day before a May 20 Thornton victory over Villanova in the pitcher’s 51st career start, he buzzed about his senior thesis on early fire use — a project that, after a summer of short-season minor league ball, could send him to Kenya for a two-month internship.

At the National Museum of Kenya, the 22-year-old plans to study a theory that few anthropologists share: that human ancestors, most likely in East Africa, controlled fire as many as 1.5 million years ago.

“Outside of language, there really isn’t anything more important than fire use,” said Thornton, who expects to be selected in next month’s major league draft. “Fire use changes everything.”

Several years ago, when Agustin Fuentes, associate professor of anthropology, was teaching an introductory course, he noticed a 6-foot-6-inch student.

An athlete, Fuentes immediately figured.

But it didn’t take long for Fuentes to learn Thornton was also a scholar.

Last fall, Thornton and Fuentes were reunited in an advanced seminar in biological anthropology in which Thornton scored in the highest portion of the class. During the seminar, Thornton pondered his thesis and discussed it with Fuentes.

The current theory is that via lightning strikes or wildfires, Homo erectus first discovered and manipulated fire in China approximately 600,000 years ago; charcoal signatures, gleaned from fire pits, confirm the date.

Thornton doesn’t agree. Through circumstantial evidence, Thornton believes fire manipulation occurred nearly a million years earlier.

Thornton has read articles about researchers discovering older oxidized sites, which may have been primitive fire pits, showing traces of burning. While there has been little evidence otherwise, Thornton looks to other indicators.

Homo erectus’s brain capacity, Thornton said, had grown to a size that would have required extra energy, which might have been gleaned by cooking food instead of eating it raw.

Population exploded and spread, a boom that could have been aided by fire and the gifts it gave human ancestors.

“The best evidence for it is that there would have been virtually no reason why they wouldn’t have had it,” Thornton said. “You have a species that proliferated more rapidly than any other prior species. But I can’t go any further than that. I have to finish reviewing dissertations and get more evidence. Right now, I can’t go beyond that hypothesis. I’m not at an expertise level to speak with massive authority about that.”

This fall, if the team that drafts him — in 2005, he nearly signed with the Chicago White Sox but elected to return for his senior season — allows Thornton to travel to Kenya, he acknowledges he won’t have a eureka moment discovering fire’s origin. Instead, Thornton could meet researchers and read their material, study evidence at the National Museum, and perhaps assist in fieldwork.

“It runs the whole gamut — protection, clearing land, repelling insects,” Thornton said. “There’s the campfire effect. It extends the daytime hours into night and allows the fire to be the gathering point of the community. It’s a way to facilitate language and things like myth and stories. It brings a whole new social dimension.”

Thornton’s internship, however, hinges upon the wishes of his future ball club. Thornton, who believes the Fighting Irish could advance to Omaha for the College World Series, most likely would head to short-season ball this summer. From there, his organization could send him to fall ball, which would cancel the internship he has established.

“Priority No. 1 is baseball,” said Thornton. “That’s my dream, my goal, my life. I’ll throw myself into my passion with baseball and do the best I can. When that wraps up [this summer], I’ll talk to the organization and see what’s best. Hopefully, at that point, I’ll have a little time off, go to Africa, do my research, and be back in November.”

Thornton, who has worked out with Boston University strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle and plans to run and lift in Kenya, might be too valuable for a team to let go. He’s the eighth-winningest pitcher in Notre Dame history and a three-pitch, strike-throwing lefty.

“I think he has the ability to be a starting pitcher in pro baseball,” Rooney said. “He has command of the strike zone with three pitches.”

At Middleborough High, Thornton’s dream destination was Stanford. That was dashed, however, when the 17-year-old pitched poorly at a Stanford camp and was never recruited. Thornton considered Harvard, Air Force, and Wake Forest, but after visiting Notre Dame, he knew South Bend, with the school’s academic reputation and coach Paul Mainieri’s intention of competing every season, would be home.

When Rooney started working with Thornton, the pitcher didn’t require major overhauls in his delivery. Just a tweak here, like lowering his leg lift with runners on to keep them close.

“Tommy’s always been a pitchability guy,” Rooney said. “He’s not an overpowering pitcher, but he’ll be around the strike zone and command three pitches. He’s the consummate guy who forces action. He throws to contact and he’ll put the ball in play. The No. 1 thing is that he throws strikes.”

As a freshman, he made his debut as a reliever but transitioned into a starter, posting a 1.81 ERA. The following season, he led the staff with nine wins, striking out 77 in 99 2/3 innings. His ERA took a hit last season, climbing to 4.69 as he went 6-6. But Thornton became Mainieri’s first Notre Dame pitcher to throw three straight complete games, drawing Chicago’s attention and coming close to turning pro.

“I gave it very serious thought,” Thornton said. “I was close to signing. My adviser, family, and coaches all talked about it on draft day last year, but I felt my best option was to go back to school, get my degree right away, and find ways to make myself better.”

Mainieri and his staff couldn’t agree more.

While Thornton missed time earlier this season after a line drive caromed off his knee, he has recovered to post a 7-2 record, allowing only five walks in 78 1/3 innings. He beat St. John’s, 5-3, Friday in a Big East tourney semifinal game, allowing just two earned runs in seven innings.

Thornton’s best pitch is his 86-mile-per-hour two-seam fastball that he locates low and away to righthanders. He’s also developed his curveball and changeup, which Rooney pegged at 74 m.p.h.

The Irish, who recently featured Houston’s Brad Lidge and New York’s Aaron Heilman, won the Big East Tournament Saturday with a 7-0 victory over Louisville.

In two weeks, Thornton will be drafted. In about a month, he hopes to be in Omaha. In September, he’s planning to be in Kenya.

His professor, however, is looking even farther down the road.

“Whenever we see this kind of thing — a great athlete and a great mind for scholarly engagement — we think it’s important that they try and do both,” Fuentes said.

“If he did make it to the majors, he’d have the money to go do it. He could be a baseball player and publish in paleontological journals. He could do it.”

Originally published by Fluto Shinzawa (in The Boston Globe) at on May 29, 2006.