Spotlight finally shines on baseball lifer Rob Thomson as World Series looms

TORONTO — Labels are easy to get and difficult to shed in baseball’s small, insular world, which is why year after year, as manager jobs opened up around the game, Rob Thomson kept getting passed over, if not overlooked entirely.

At different points in the last decade the 59-year-old from Corunna, Ont., who on Friday night will become the first Canadian to manage in the World Series when he leads the Philadelphia Phillies against the Houston Astros, seemed poised to make the jump from bench coach.

Regularly, he was a candidate for vacancies around the game, including for the Toronto Blue Jays in the fall of 2010 when John Farrell ended up getting the job. Perhaps no opportunity was a better fit than one in 2017, when after nearly three decades in the New York Yankees organization, he interviewed him to replace his close friend, the fired Joe Girardi.

Aaron Boone got the job instead.

Hence, it wasn’t until June 3, with the Phillies 22-29 and in need of a jumpstart, that he finally got an opportunity to run a team after he was promoted to replace Girardi, where he’d once again been serving as bench coach. All Thomson, seemingly pigeon-holed in a supportive role, did was lead the Phillies to a 65-46 finish, clinching the final National League wild-card spot before wins against San Diego, St. Louis and Atlanta to reach the World Series.

Having long waited for his chance, he’s certainly making the most of it.

“If maybe this opportunity didn’t come, then I don’t know if he would have had a chance (to manage) because a lot of times you’re in a position where, he’s been in the game such a long time, very well respected I think anywhere you turn, but sometimes you get branded in a certain way, that you’re a No. 2 guy,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters earlier this month after removing the interim tag from Thomson and handing him a two-year deal. “But I will also say you never know until somebody gets in that job, when they’re a No. 2 person, how they’ll respond until they are a No. 1. You just don’t know that. You think, but you see hirings all the time where somebody comes up and is an outstanding co-ordinator in any sport, and then you put them in that role and it’s not quite the same.

“(Thomson) was not overmatched whatsoever,” Dombrowski continued. “He stepped in right away, dealt with everything, dealt with issues. Felt very comfortable in communication in that regard. So that quickly became a back thought because that really was not an accurate – it would not be an accurate assessment about him.”

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A more accurate assessment of Thomson, perhaps, is that as someone who fully invested in the job he had and didn’t politic for a promotion, he got lost in the big-ego machinations of an industry always on the hunt for the next hot thing.

Maybe he became unfairly tied to Girardi, as well, joining his staff with the Yankees in 2008 as bench coach after one year as Joe Torre’s field co-ordinator, and joined the Phillies as bench coach to Gabe Kapler after New York went for Boone. He was reunited with Girardi when the Phillies installed him as manager for the 2020 season, again left in the shadows until the team’s 2022 season was on the brink.

“It’s been in the back of my mind for a lot of years,” Thomson told reporters of getting a chance to manage after his extension was announced. “But the last three, four, five years, I really have never thought about it. And then it just happened. It’s funny how life is sometimes.”

Funny, sure, but sometimes it’s also a matter of timing.

In recent years, the industry trend of hiring young, inexperienced newer-age, high IQ coaches as managers has shifted back toward experienced, high emotional quotient or EQ coaches. The dugout matchup in the World Series in Thomson versus Dusty Baker of the Astros is reflective of that and has been the case in the Fall Classic for several years now.

Last year, it was Baker against Atlanta’s Brian Snitker, another baseball lifer promoted after an in-season firing. In 2020 it was Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers against Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays, both former players who came up in the game before the information revolution and then adjusted to it as data rewired the sport. Davey Martinez of the Washington Nationals fit a similar mould in 2019 against the Astros’ A.J. Hinch, who came into the role with a newer school lens after working in front-office roles before returning to the dugout.

The Blue Jays, in removing John Schneider’s interim tag last week, bet on his EQ as much as his high in-game IQ acumen, while the Texas Rangers went to a more traditional managerial mould in hiring Bruce Bochy.

In some ways, that all may represent a bit of a correction from some of the technocrat-first hirings in recent years, something Baker believes is overdue in the game.

“It ain’t that easy to coach,” he said during an April interview. “I don’t mind some of the (new-school coaches), but there are a lot of guys that gave life, limb, bones, joints buried on that field out there that deserve a job and to be a coach because they know what it feels like. Somebody can tell you, ‘I think I know what it feels like.’ But the game is still played by people. I believe in stats. I believe in Sabermetrics. You’ve got to combine the two because nothing is more important than the human element. …

“The coach that’s been up there, he can tell you what it’s like to be up there,” Baker continued. “He can tell you what it’s like to fail in the ninth inning and above all, a lot of people that are telling you what to do — and what not to do — have never failed a test. Baseball is a game of how you deal with failure, not how you deal with success.”

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Thomson has dealt with most anything the game will throw his way.

A 32nd-round pick by the Detroit Tigers in 1985, Thomson played four seasons in the minors, topping out in A-ball, before he transitioned into coaching in 1988 when he also represented Canada at the Seoul Olympics. He began working in the Yankees system in 1990 as the third-base coach at single-A Fort Lauderdale, by 1998 was the club’s minor-league field co-ordinator, became director of player development in 2000 and had vice-president added to his title in 2003. After three seasons a special assignment instructor, he joined the major-league staff, enjoying an 11-year run in one of the game’s most volatile settings.

That’s a lot of baseball, a lot of life to draw from and helps explain the steady hand with which he led the Phillies, a trait that Dombrowski and his players repeatedly praise.

“Earlier in my career I was not as even-keeled as I am now,” said Thomson. “It’s just you kind of learn these moments and know that you can’t control things and so why worry about certain things. I think just the experience of going through all these different moments throughout 30-some-year career just kind of teaches you to be even-keeled.”

Even-keeled enough to save a Phillies season gone desperately awry and guide them to the World Series.