By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
At some point prior to this weekend’s series against the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi will have hunkered down for a strategy session with his right-hand man, bench coach Rob Thomson.
It’s a routine that has served the Yankees well ever since Thomson, who hails from tiny Corunna, Ont., became Girardi’s bench coach in 2008, a position he returned to in 2015.
“I’m kind of an organizer for Joe,” Thomson said.
“What I try to do is throw ideas at him. He’s going to take certain things and he’s not going to take certain things. We just bounce ideas off each other and try to come up with something that seems good for that particular situation.”
As bench coach, Thomson helps his manager think through the many in-game decisions that have to be made.
“It might be how we should play our outfield on a certain player, how we should play our infield, whether we should hit and run, or how we’re going to use our bullpen – things like that,” Thomson explained.
“Just constantly communicating back and forth, trying to help him in any way I can to make the best choice he can make during the course of a game.”
Girardi, who prior to becoming manager was a catcher with the Yankees while Thomson was field co-ordinator, appreciates Thomson’s wise counsel.
“He really knows the game – infield, outfield, everywhere,” Girardi said.
“We talk about everything. We talk about strategy, how to use guys. He’s also probably as good as anyone I’ve ever been around about making sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be and prepared. He has so much to offer on a daily basis. Love having him.”
A MENTOR AT HEART
As a minor league coach, field co-ordinator, director of player development and now a major league coach, Thomson said he loves to work with young players and see them excel.
“At the minor league level you’re doing a lot more development, a lot more teaching, so I feel I’ve got that hat I can wear when I need to,” he said. “Really, for me, it’s about seeing a player get better. Having energy and a positive attitude is going to help him get better.”
He cites former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as the perfect example of a winning attitude.
“To watch him rise through the organization and become the star that he became is really something that I’ll think about the rest of my life,” Thomson said of the future hall of famer.
“The biggest thing about Jete was, as big a star as he got, he never changed as a man, as a human being. From the time he was 17, his respect for other people, for the game, never changed.”
Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird are among a new crop of young players who have Yankees fans – and coaches – excited for the future.
“This year we got a much younger group than we’ve had, so there’s a lot more teaching going on,” Thomson said.
“It’s really kind of exciting, because these young kids bring a lot of energy, a lot of passion. They’re always asking questions. They’re just a sponge for information. And that makes it really fun for us.”
Thomson still organizes the Yankees spring training complex in Tampa – a feat of scheduling involving 70 players at four fields – which makes him a familiar face for the new kids in the Bronx. Whether dealing with nervous rookies or slumping stars, the bench coach strives to keep players on an even keel, and earns their respect with a firm but fair approach.
“Around us there’s enough outside pressure, so we try to keep it as light as we can and have a lot of fun. We’re still teaching along the way, just trying to get them better every day,” Thomson said.
“And be honest with them. When they make mistakes, you’re got to tell them. But do it in a tactful way. You want to let a guy know where he’s at and what he needs to do to get to the next level.”
Girardi has appreciated Thomson’s baseball acumen and his personal touch with players since day one.
“Very organized. Knew what he was doing. Very confident,” the skipper said. “Understood players. Had good relationships with players, good rapport. Players would come talk to him about anything. And that’s important.”
Thomson’s approachable nature might have something to do with his blue-collar roots. The kid from Corunna – a factory town just south of Sarnia – joined the Yankees in 1990 as a class-A third base coach and has felt at home in pinstripes ever since.
“It’s unbelievable,” Thomson said of donning the same uniform as Mantle, Ruth and DiMaggio. “Just tradition. Years of winning. I mean, I’m blessed every day just to be here.”
The Bronx Zoo can feel worlds away from small-town Ontario. And the public scrutiny that comes with belonging to baseball’s most storied franchise – in arguably the game’s toughest media market – hasn’t escaped Thomson personally, especially during his six years as Yankees third base coach.
He credits his Canadian upbringing for helping him take criticism in stride and allowing him to thrive in the Big Apple for nearly three decades.
“I can’t control what other people think or how other people react. All I can do is what I can do,” he said. “And although I come from a small town, it’s a very blue-collar town. A lot of people around there have thick skin, and I think I grew that.”
FROM THE MAPLE LEAF TO PINSTRIPES
Thomson first played ball in Corunna, moving to Sarnia after peewee. Dennis Schooley, manager of the Intercounty Baseball League’s Stratford Hillers, came to town one day to scout future major league pitcher Mike Gardiner, but he also liked what he saw of the Sarnia team’s young catcher.
While at school, Thomson played for the Hillers, holding his own against older competitors and learning from his more experienced teammates.
(Thomson formed off-field ties in Stratford, too; he and his wife, Michele, raised their two daughters there and still call the picturesque town home.)
Things were looking up in 1985 when the University of Kansas product – he transferred after one year at St. Clair County Community College in Michigan – was drafted in the 32nd round by his childhood favourite team, the Detroit Tigers.
Thomson had experienced the thrill of playing for Team Canada at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and now hoped to ascend the minor league ladder. But after a few lacklustre offensive seasons, his route to the show stalled at class-A. Sensing that he had hit his ceiling as a player, he approached the Tigers brass shortly after the start of the 1988 season and told them he’d like to try coaching.
“Detroit was kind enough to offer me a coaching position to keep me in the game,” Thomson said.
That offer from Tigers farm director Joe McDonald hinged on the 24-year-old being well and truly over his playing days, and ready to focus on helping others as a coach.
“And I always have,” Thomson said.
He took to coaching right away, advancing to double-A the following season and even representing the Tigers at an international MLB coaching clinic in Russia that winter. It was there he ran into his old St. Clair coach Dick Groch, now with the Yankees.
“Dick Groch has been a big part of my life all the way through,” Thomson said of the former Team Canada coach and renowned scout, who is most famous for signing fellow Michigan native Derek Jeter.
Groch mentioned to his former catcher that New York was looking for coaches, and the Tigers granted Thomson permission to interview for a job. He was with his new team for a full month before breaking the news to his father, a devoted Tigers fan.
“When I got up the nerve to tell him, he said, ‘This is the best decision you’ll ever make in your life.’ So that made me feel good,” Thomson recalled.
Twenty-seven years and five World Series rings later, the Canadian coach has become a fixture with the Yankees, exhibiting the work ethic, flexibility and consistent excellence so prized by the organization.
Thomson has on occasion filled in for Girardi as manager and wouldn’t mind a shot at running an MLB team full-time, should the baseball gods decree it.
“I’d like to manage, but having said that, I have a job right here. I always feel that if you start thinking or looking at other things, then you won’t take care of what you need to today. So that’s all I do,” Thomson said.
“It’s a smart game, smart people in it. If the game tells me I’m ready to manage, then it’ll tell me.”
In the meantime, he focuses on mentoring the stars of tomorrow and helping his manager make the right moves game after game.
“I’m grateful to be in the big leagues, and every day I have there is really special to me,” Thomson said.
“I’m from a small town in Canada, and really, the chances of me being here right now are probably pretty slim. But I’m here, so I appreciate it. Never a day goes by that I don’t.”