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Pretty much everything about Rob Thomson said he couldn’t make it in professional baseball, least of all his Canadian passport.
He was a 32nd-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers. He was a long shot’s long shot. One year, he hit all of four home runs playing class-A ball in Gastonia, which is somewhere off a highway in North Carolina. That was as powerful as it got for Thomson and the highest level he reached as a player — as the single greatest graduate of Corunna, Ont., minor baseball. Population of the town just outside Sarnia: 5,686.
And there he was Tuesday afternoon, sitting in the dugout at Rogers Centre, trying to hide his excitement, surrounded by reporters and cameras, trying to make this story about anyone but him, answering questions about his least favourite topic, himself.
“I told him, you know what you should do today,” said David Dombrowski, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. “You should hold your pre-game and say ‘Let’s talk about me.’ He won’t do that because he’s a very proud guy. He’s so humble. He doesn’t want to talk about himself but this is quite a momentous day. And he deserves all this attention.”
Rob Thomson is the interim manager of the Phillies and probably the permanent manager — if a manager is ever permanent — when this season comes to an end. He’s been kicking around baseball really, for his entire adult life. Coaching jobs here. Coaching jobs there. Mostly with the Yankees. Rarely high-profile of any kind. Rarely household.
But all that changed on June 3 when Dombrowski fired manager Joe Girardi. Girardi is one of Thomson’s closest friends. The two worked together, side by side, for years in New York and later in Philadelphia. Dombrowski wanted Thomson to take over and manage the rest of this season. Dombrowski didn’t know then what he’ll likely determine in October — that Thomson will be his manager this year and probably next year as well.
It was one thing to watch Girardi get fired and feel like you’re letting your old friend done. It was another to agree to accept the job to replace him. That wasn’t easy.
“The transition was a little bit tough because of my relationship with Joe,” said Thomson in his pre-game media availability. “We’ve got a bond that will never be broken. Joe and I were so close and had been through so many things together. Being a bench coach, you’re kind of responsible for taking care of the manager and I felt I kind of let him down.
“But the game goes on … and I would be a fool to turn it down.”
He took the job as manager and the Phillies started winning almost immediately. They look to be in a playoff race of some kind now. Thomson doesn’t think he’s done anything special, anything different than Girardi might have done, but whatever it is has worked. “He’s been a calming influence for our club,” said Dombrowski, the former Expos GM. “He’s very knowledgeable and he communicates extremely well with our players and young staff members.
“When you’re second in command, as a bench coach, you play a certain role for so long and you play it well, but people don’t always look at you as the next step. You don’t know what that guy is going to be like. Plenty of people I thought would do well haven’t always done well.”
He thought Thomson would do well — or at least settle the team down. Thomson has become one of the unlikely stories of this National League season and it has nothing to do with the fact he’s Canadian.
It has to do with winning. You see, Canadians don’t manage baseball teams. At least not in the last 80 years or so. Somebody named Arthur Irwin managed five big league teams between 1889 and 1899. You might have missed that. After that, somebody named George Gibson managed in 1934.
And until Thomson, that was it.
Dave McKay never got a shot to manage. Jimmy Williams, not the former Jays manager, never got a shot. Stubby Clapp has yet to get a shot. They’ve coached for years in the big leagues. Thomson had interviewed on occasion for big jobs, just not gotten them. And now this is his opportunity to become somebody all of Canada knows.
And the way Thomson feels about Canada, he probably deserves that much. He’s never been shy about flexing the flag. Each trip to Toronto, either with the Yankees or the Phillies, he made certain to take in all that seemed like home. Last night, in the kind of tribute that speaks volumes about Thomson, eight members of the 1984 Canadian Olympic baseball team, of which he was a member, rented a suite and took in Tuesday’s game with the Blue Jays. In ’84, baseball was a demonstration sport at the Los Angeles Olympics. Almost 40 years later, that demonstration team came together for one of its own.
“I love coming back here,” said Thomson, admittedly emotional. “I love the ball park. A lot of family and friends are here. It means a lot.”
“It’s really quite the occasion,” said Dombrowski in his 33rd season of major league baseball. “I’m happy for him and I know a lot of people in the game are happy for him. A lot of people think the world of him.”
Our Canadian manager. Who knew?