Today, he’s a bench coach with the Major League’s Philadelphia Phillies
By Pat Payton
Rob Thomson’s road to a long Major League baseball career went through Stratford.
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 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.
Thomson, a catcher-third baseman, came to Stratford to play baseball in 1982. The Corunna resident was 19-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. Stratford is also where he met Michelle (Wilker).
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, but after being selected by Detroit in the 32nd round of the MLB draft he went on to play pro ball in the Tigers’ minor league system.
Focus shifted to coaching
As a player, Thomson advanced as high as the class ‘A’ level.
“I remember the first game I ever played in the minor leagues,” he recalled. “I was a catcher, but the coach asked me if I ever played third base. I told him, ‘yes, I play third base all the time; I just want to play.’
“That night, I made three errors and struck out three times. That’s how I started my Minor League career. After the game, I thought there was no way I was going to last in this game. But 35 years later, I’m still doing it.”
Thomson shifted 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, Thomson 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 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 on the Bombers’ 2009 World Series-winning club. He collected 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, a position he still holds today.
A fine line in sports
In addition to talent, Thomson says there are other reasons why some players make it to the Major League level and some don’t.
“There are a few different factors,” he says. “Yes, you have to have talent, but you also have to work at it. You have to be diligent at what you do . . . on a daily basis. You have to have a routine and stick to your routine.
“Players have to understand what they’re good at and what they have to get better at. But you also have to deal with failure because baseball is a game based on failure. You have to learn from it and bounce back from it. The two things that stand out the most for me are talent and perseverance.”
Sometimes, it’s also timing that elevates a player’s or coach’s career. Thomson didn’t make it as a professional player, but the coaching door swung open for him early in his career.
“Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “A lot of my career was like that. All of a sudden, I had a new job description. It’s the same way with players, somebody gets hurt and you’re down in Triple ‘A’ and you get an opportunity in the Big Leagues. But you also have to take advantage of it.”
Bench coach with Phillies
Today, Thomson is the bench coach with the Phillies. It’s the same role he had in his final years with the Yankees.
“I like the job,” he says. “There’s a lot of organization and a lot of prep (preparation) for the players. I like that sort of role. And there’s a lot of in-game stuff and giving ideas to the manager.
“Being on the bench, you’re engaged in what’s going on, whether it’s tactically or you see that a player has possibly lost his confidence. You get a really good gauge in the dugout of what’s going on and a good feel for the game.”
Thomson also reflected back to six years coaching at third base with the Yankees. He says it’s a high-pressure job that keeps you on your toes.
“It’s a tough job,” he quickly pointed out. “You have to make a lot of decisions, and you’re constantly overlooking the field and trying to anticipate what could happen. You’re like an umpire, but you don’t want to be noticed. If you’re getting noticed, you’re probably not doing a very good job or you’ve made some mistakes. And you have to answer for those mistakes.
“There’s a lot of responsibility coaching third base.”
What’s left to achieve?
Thomson has coached professionally for over 30 years with three Big League organizations. It’s a career that most people can only dream of. What’s left for him to achieve in his career, he was asked.
“I think just more winning,” he replied. “I’m not looking to manage. If somebody asked me to manage, I’d think about it, but I’m not pursuing that.
“The game is a young man’s game. I’ve done a lot of work . . . a lot of physical work and I know I’m getting towards the end. I just want to win, and that’s what it’s all about for me.”
Does Thomson think there will be a Major League season in 2020, he was asked.
“I’m still optimistic, I really am,” he said. “There’s a lot of chatter out there and I’m very optimistic. I think baseball fans want a season . . . as long as everybody can stay healthy. It would be great to have fans in the ball parks, but if that’s not a do-able thing because of the pandemic, then we move on.
“Baseball is a game of adjustments, and it’s another adjustment that we all have to make.”
Rob Thomson was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum last summer.