Sebringville resident has had long coaching career in Major League baseball
By Pat Payton
Canadian-born Rob Thomson admits that the game of baseball has been very good to him.
How many people can say that they’ve sat in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse and listened to baseball stories told by the likes of Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Craig Nettles and Goose Gossage?
Thomson did just that as he collected five World Series rings as a coach with the Yankees. Over 28 seasons in the Bombers’ organization, the Sarnia native evolved into one of the most respected coaches in the professional ranks. He also worked for Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner for several years.
Thomson joined the Yankees’ big league staff as a special assignment instructor in 2004. Four years later, he was hired as the 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 in New York winning the World Series title in 2009.
The Sebringville resident, 56, was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum last summer.
“Being a kid from Corunna, Ontario, a town of 2,000 people, and to sit in the Yankees clubhouse and listen to stories from men like Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Craig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Goose Gossage and Ron Guidry . . . the chances of doing that are overwhelming, they really are,” Thomson told the Independent in a recent interview. “I grew up watching these guys on TV.
“Again, the chances are overwhelming to work for a guy like George Steinbrenner for as long as I did, and as closely as I did. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I’ve experienced in baseball.”
Since 2017, Thomson has been a bench coach with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Special memories of Jeter
In his early years with the Yankees, starting in 1990, he served in several coaching areas — minor league coach, manager, field coordinator and director of player development.
“The biggest memories I think I will ever have are with (Yankees shortstop, now retired) Derek Jeter,” he says. “I had Derek in the minor leagues and then hooked up with him again when he was a star in the Big Leagues.”
Thomson will always remember Jeter’s final at-bat at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 25, 2014 and his “walk-off” base hit in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Baltimore Orioles 6-5. “From a baseball standpoint, it’s one thing I will never forget in my life,” Thomson says.
He recalls that New York was up 5-2 on Baltimore that night, going into the top of the ninth, but closer David Robertson gave up a two-run homer and then a solo shot and the game was suddenly tied 5-5.
“As a third-base coach, I was always thinking about the next inning,” Thomson says. “Once Baltimore tied it, I noticed that Derek was batting third in the bottom half of the ninth. Jose Pirela was hitting first and I told him to get on first base, and we’d get Brett Gardner to bunt him over to second.
“I said (to Pirela), when you get to second and Jeter gets a base hit, don’t even look for my signal (as third-base coach). I don’t care where the ball is, I’m sending you (home) . . . I won’t stop you.”
The plan unfolded perfectly. Pirela led off with a base hit, Gardner laid down a sacrifice bunt, and then the Yankees brought in Antoan Richardson as a pinch-runner. As hoped, Jeter emerged the hero with a game-winning single to the opposite field, driving in Richardson as coach Thomson waved him around.
“It was a magical night, and a magical night for Derek, but it was just an honour to be there,” Thomson remembers. Jeter, who also won five World Series rings in his storied career, spent all 20 of his Major League seasons with the Yankees.
Two titles extra special
For Thomson, two of his five World Series titles with the Yankees are extra special, he points out.
In 2009, it was his first season as third-base coach with the Yankees, who met Philadelphia in the Fall Classic. Yanks lost the first game 6-1 to the Phillies, but won the series 4-2.
“It was really amazing,” he recalled. “We really had a great team, with pitchers like CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. It was a lot of fun.
“The other World Series title that stands out for me was 1998. That was the first year I was in contact with a Major League team. I had become the Minor League field coordinator and I ran spring training for (Yankees manager) Joe Torre that year. It was my first time interacting with a Major League club. That was also the year that my father passed away, so it was kind of a special time for me.”
Steinbrenner tough, but disciplined
Thomson also fondly remembers working for Steinbrenner, the long-time Yankees’ owner who died in 2010 at the age of 80.
“The guy that I knew was very tough, but very disciplined, and wanted to win,” he said thoughtfully. “George would do anything within the legal boundaries to help you win, and he was willing to spend money. If you needed a machine that cost $10,000 and you presented the idea to him and it made sense to him . . . then you got it. That’s just who he was.”
Thomson says he learned a lot under Steinbrenner’s leadership.
“I worked very closely with George for three or four years and I learned a lot from him. He taught me a lot about discipline and how to put teams together, and he also taught me things not to do.”
Thomson tells an interesting story about preparing for the Yankees’ spring training in Tampa, Florida.
“Before spring training, George and I would walk through our spring training complex with a maintenance guy,” he says. “This was George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, but we would turn on every facet and flush every toilet in the ball park, including the visitors’ locker room and the umpires’ locker room. The maintenance guy would write everything down that needed attention. George would tell him to replace carpets and paint the walls if necessary.”
One day, Thomson asked Steinbrenner why those things were important to him.
“When our players come in here for spring training, I want them to know that they’re Yankees and we’re the best,” he replied. “And when other teams come in here to play, I want them to know that we’re the best. I want them to want to play for us. That’s why I want this facility to be spotless.
“That told me a lot about George and how he thought about things.”
(Look for Part 2 of the Rob Thomson baseball interview in next week’s Independent)