Sarnia native one of four Canadians inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame Saturday
By Pat Payton
As a baseball player in his early 20s, playing for the Stratford Hillers organization and living in the Festival City had a big impact on Rob Thomson. It had such an influence on his life that the Major League Baseball coach has made his home in the Stratford area for almost 30 years. Today, he and wife Michelle live in Sebringville in the off-season.
The Sarnia native was one of four men inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday. Former slugger Jason Bay (Trail, B.C.), versatile ex-pitcher Ryan Dempster (Sechelt, B.C.), and long-time executive Gord Ash (Toronto, Ont.) are the other members of the 2019 CBHFM induction class.
Thomson, a catcher-third baseman, came to Stratford to play baseball in 1982. He was 20-years-old at the time, and he went on to play three full seasons as a member of both the Junior Overholts and Senior Hillers.
“It was good for me because I got to play baseball almost every day of the week,” Thomson told the Independent. “It was almost like a professional season, and I had good coaching with Dennis Schooley and Bill McLaughlin. I caught for the Hillers and played third and a little bit of first for the Overholts. Between the two teams, I was playing five or six times a week; it was great. I was billeted (in Stratford) and kind of on my own and I had to grow up a little bit.”
Stratford is also where he met Michelle. They have two girls, Jacquie and Christina.
In 1984, Thomson was part of the Canadian squad that competed in the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles when baseball was a demonstration sport. In 1985, he started the season with the Hillers. After being selected by Detroit in the 32nd round of the MLB draft he went on to play pro ball in the Tigers’ minor system.
In Stratford, Thomson was a member of a Junior championship team, but didn’t win a league title with the Hillers.
Treated very well in Stratford
“I think the special memory for me was the way I was treated in Stratford,” Thomson, 56, said. “I was always treated well by the organization and Dennis Schooley. I lived with Jim and Brenda Kitching and they treated me like gold.
“I loved the town and the people; everybody was just really nice. It was really a special time in my life, and that’s why I live here in the Stratford area today. I just love the area. It’s a beautiful area, with great people, and they’ve always treated me well.”
Thomson recalled some of his Hillers’ teammates. They included: Denis Flanagan, Dennis Schooley, Bill McLaughlin, Alan Gates, Doug and Larry Landreth, and Ron Musselman. Musselman is one of Thomson’s “best friends in the world.”
Flanagan, Musselman and Doug Landreth were recently named to the list of the top 100 players in Intercounty Baseball League history.
“A special memory for me was catching Larry Landreth when we were playing a big game against the London Majors or St. Thomas Elgins,” Thomson remembers. “It was those big games. Those are the nights when you knew Larry was a big league pitcher because he turned it up a notch. He could do things on the mound that other guys couldn’t.”
Focus shifted to coaching
In pro ball, Thomson advanced as high as the class-A level before shifting his focus to coaching in 1988. He served as a minor league coach in the Tigers’ system for two seasons before joining the New York Yankees in 1990. Over the next 28 seasons, the hard-working Canadian evolved into one of the most respected coaches in the professional ranks. After serving in several capacities in the Bombers’ organization, including minor league coach, manager, field coordinator and director of player development, Thomson joined the Yankees’ big league staff as a special assignment instructor in 2004.
Four years later, he was hired as Yankees bench coach, and that season he managed three games in Joe Girardi’s absence to become the first Canadian to manage a Major League contest since George Gibson with Pittsburgh Pirates in 1934.
From 2009 to 2014, Thomson was the Yankees’ third-base coach, and played an important role on the Bombers’ 2009 World Series-winning club. He secured five World Series rings during his lengthy tenure with the storied franchise.
In 2017, Thomson was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies to be their bench coach and he is now in his second season in that role.
Thomson said it is “the highlight of my life” to be inducted into the Canadian Hall. “It’s an honour, a privilege and very humbling. We’re all proud Canadians. Going into the Hall with these three fellow Canadians is exciting for me.”