NC State baseball's Tommy White has the look, the nickname and the game to back it up

TOMMY WHITE SAYS he has two types of swings. This is an important point when dissecting his torrid start to his NC State career, which included nine home runs in his first eight games.

The first is his "game swing." It's malleable. On his first swing of an at-bat, it's pure muscle, attacking the center-field wall. With one strike, he's thinking situationally, happy to hit to all fields. Check out his high school spray charts, and it's a study in symmetry.

With two strikes, he gets wider -- his dad, Tom Sr., compares it to Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell's approach -- just looking to put the ball in play. If most big league power hitters have embraced the swing-and-miss as the cost of doing business, White absolutely abhors strikeouts.

Each approach is some variation on the same "game swing," aiming for clean, hard contact. He's a power hitter who wants to hit for average, he said.

The second swing is his "home run derby swing." That one is just for showing off.

All of that is to say that, when White hit those nine home runs, including three in his first game as a college player, he wasn't swinging for power. That was just the normal game swing, and his dominant debut was something of a happy accident -- good swings at the right time, and the ball just happened to fly out of the park. No showing off.

"I was just focused on getting a couple hits that first weekend," White said. "I only had five home runs my entire senior year [of high school]."

Still, with Major League Baseball working through the final stages of a tumultuous lockout, college ball was the only game going, and White's hot start, combined with a quirky image complete with dangling jewelry and a scraggly beard, instantly made him a cult hero. Within days, he had a classic nickname (Tommy Tanks), a merchandise line from Barstool Sports courtesy of an NIL deal, and a legion of fans who show up to home games with mullet wigs, fake beards, reflective sunglasses and gold chains.

But the thing White wants you to remember is that this was abnormal -- the far end of his admittedly intimidating bell curve. It was never going to be sustainable. The game is too fickle.

So, yeah, White was bound to cool off, and as the Wolfpack prepared to play Florida State for a series in mid-March, White had gone eight games without a homer and was just 8-for-37 (.216) during that stretch.

Against FSU, however, he hit two more out of the park. He added another against Georgia Tech a week later. He's had a hit in 11 straight games entering this weekend's series against Virginia Tech, and after striking out four times in an extra-innings affair in the finale of the series against the Seminoles, he's whiffed just three times in 29 at-bats since. For the season, White's hitting .356 with 12 homers and a 1.132 OPS.

And yet, he's also quick to underscore that the start of the Tommy Tanks era at NC State was no fluke. The second act just might not look exactly like the first.

"He's an incredible player," NC State coach Elliott Avent said. "The home runs are what created the craze, but he's more than that. He's a baseball player -- a really good baseball player."

EVEN WITHOUT HIS uniform, it's easy to peg White as a ball player. He's got the look. Not just any baseball look, either. Think mid-1990s Jason Giambi -- barrel-chested, a couple of loose-fitting gold chains around his neck, scraggly beard and a glorious mane of long, dirty blond hair.

"You could put his face on this article and people will be drawn into it," said Kason Gabbard, White's high school coach at IMG Academy in Florida.

The hair -- well, that's a natural look for him.

"He's the perfect guy for a mullet," NC State second baseman J.J. Jarrett said. "There's an image in your head of a guy with a mullet. That's him."

If White is straight out of baseball's central casting, however, he was late in realizing his destiny. In fact, when White was 13, he quit baseball altogether.

When he was 13, White switched travel ball teams. He was playing on the bigger fields, and the team was built for speed. He was brought in to hit the long ball -- only, he didn't hit many. He wasn't exactly scrawny, but he hadn't filled out yet, and the power numbers he posted on smaller fields as a kid didn't translate. He found himself on the bench or relegated to DH, and he simply wasn't enjoying the game much. He was ready to move on.

Baseball had always been more of a hobby. White liked basketball and loved fishing, and that was enough to assuage his competitive fire. He started working out, though, lifting weights and gaining strength, and when a friend invited him to play in a baseball tournament after about a year away from the game, he figured, why not?

"I saw balls start jumping off my bat," White said. "I was hitting balls to the warning track. I thought, OK, maybe I can do this."

His dad had seen enough to think there was a real future in baseball for his boy. Tom Sr. figured maybe a Division II or mid-level Division I scholarship was possible. He urged his son to stick with the sport.

"I could see his hand-eye coordination," Tom Sr. said. "He took my advice and worked his tail off."

White blossomed into a star, first at Calvary Christian in Tampa, Florida, then as a senior at IMG Academy. If his first eight games at NC State represent a high-water mark to his career so far, a close second might have been his sophomore season in high school, when he had a hit in every game but one.

That summer, White made his first trip to Raleigh. He took a round of batting practice with the team. He saw 18 total pitches. He hit 12 of them out of the park.

White had always told his father the first school that offered him a scholarship and also a chance to make the College World Series would be his landing spot. The power show during BP only solidified the decision.

"I just thought, 'Wow, I could really do some damage here,'" White said.

WHITE MIGHT BE the only guy in Raleigh wearing a Tampa Bay Lightning ski cap nearly everywhere he goes, and he often supplements it with a face mask and sunglasses, escaping the attention of campus-wide stardom by covering his most recognizable features.

Tommy Tanks might be an obvious celebrity, but this is new territory for Tommy White.

By the end of his senior year, it was clear White, a third baseman in high school, had pro prospects, but the MLB draft hadn't been particularly kind to power-hitting corner infielders in recent years (in the past five MLB drafts, only five high school corner infielders were drafted in the first round). White wasn't ready to skip college for the first decent offer.

He huddled with his dad and came up with a number -- he won't say specifically, but it was a big one -- and told teams that if they couldn't hit that mark, he was headed to NC State, one of the few schools open to playing him at third base long term. He currently plays first base, where the Wolfpack had more of a need.

"It was very hard for Tommy to see friends getting drafted, and he's still sitting there without anybody calling," Tom Sr. said. "But I told him everyone has their path. Your path is just going to go through Raleigh."

The biggest problem with that plan so far has been the lack of fishing options.

At home in Florida, White spends the bulk of his free time deep-sea fishing, and is as proud of a trophy marlin as he is of his three-home run game. All the fame his fast start at NC State has offered are anathema to White. He loves fishing because it's quiet, devoid of expectations. That's his comfort zone.

"He's pretty low-key," his dad said. "He's never been one to soak up the limelight, so I think he's a little overwhelmed."

While Tommy Tanks became a trending topic on Twitter, White had no idea how to use the social media app. He's just now starting to get the hang of it -- he said "a lot of people post me stuff and repost me," clearly unfamiliar with the Twitter lingo -- and he's only gradually begun to shift his Instagram photos from chronicling fishing expeditions to baseball shots.

In the batter's box, there has always been pressure. White remembers his legs shaking as he walked to the plate for his first college at-bat -- the one that turned into a home run to dead center. The game has become a job, for better or worse. He's not complaining, mind you. This is what he wanted when he set that high bar for MLB teams, then chose NC State as home for the next three years. It's a proving grounds, a place to learn and refine his skill set. If it's not a job yet, it's certainly an internship.

But then came that magnificent start and something approaching true stardom, a rare college baseball player who, for a week or two at least, became part of the cultural zeitgeist. And it all happened before he'd even played a conference game. How's a guy supposed to reckon with that?

"Everybody's expecting him to have those games [all the time], and it's just not going to happen," Tom Sr. said.

Avent had his concerns, too. He has coached some big-time prospects in his time at NC State, but the Tommy Tanks Show is something utterly new.

"Never seen something like it before," Avent said. "Never even heard of it."

The more he talked to White, however, the more comfortable he was that his freshman could weather the storm. At BP, White's still laughing and talking with teammates, calm and confident as ever. Around campus, he dons a mask and hoodie -- or that Lightning ski cap -- doing his best to keep a low profile.

Before the season, NC State played a scrimmage against Duke at the Durham Bulls stadium. There's a warehouse outside the left-field wall, and it made an inviting target.

"He was letting it eat during BP," Jarrett said, referring to White's mammoth swings. "I could tell he was trying to put balls on top of the building. I just thought, OK, that's different."

Since then, however, the Wolfpack haven't seen much of the home run-derby swing. No showing off. Tommy Tanks is all business.

White still wants that call from a major league team with an offer far beyond the number he set as a high school senior. When that time comes, he hopes the start to the Tommy Tanks era will be little more than a postscript on a career that includes far more than a few weeks of viral celebrity status.

The Tommy Tanks Show isn't over, he said. He's just scripting a plot for something even better.

"I don't really have to prove anything to anybody right now," White said. "I'm still a freshman, and I'm just trying to help the team win."