Yankees bench coach Rob Thomson returns to the Canadian town where his passion for baseball was born
By Nathan Maciborski
Yankees Magazine |
On a winter's night in Canada, tucked into the corner of a cozy, warmly lit restaurant, a lifelong baseball man sits contentedly next to his loving wife. He puts on his reading glasses and takes them off intermittently, perusing the menu and chatting with his family, occasionally pausing to wave hello to a friend or neighbor across the room.
In a few weeks, Rob Thomson will be in sunny Tampa, Fla., starting his 27th season as a vital member of the Yankees organization. Yet on this January evening in Stratford, Ontario, with temperatures below freezing and snow covering the ground outside, baseball remains at the forefront of his thoughts.
Thomson will never complain about the "grind" of a long baseball season. For him, each year is an experience to be cherished, an opportunity to be around the game he loves and add to his encyclopedia of knowledge. It's an adventure that still excites him after more than three decades in the sport.
Michele Thomson first met her husband when he was starring for an Ontario semipro team called the Stratford Hillers in the early 1980s. She's been in his corner ever since. Although the former catcher and third baseman never advanced past Single-A, Michele never doubted Rob's future in baseball.
"I thought he'd still be playing!" she said as the pair, who will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary next year, laugh at the thought.
Whether it's a marriage or working for the Yankees, relationships don't just last three decades without a few key ingredients. Having a sense of humor is certainly one of them.
"She's been a great support," said Thomson. He casts a sideways glance at Michele and adds with a wry smile, "Not the best talent evaluator."
Back to Where It All Began
Throughout his career, Thomson has had the fortune of being around a lot of good baseball men. Joe Girardi tabbed him as his bench coach in 2008, a position he returned to in 2015 after serving as third base coach from 2009 to 2014. After coaching in the Yankees' Minor League system from 1990 to 1997, he moved into the front office in 1998. By 2003, he had risen to vice president of Minor League development, picking up everything he could along the way from guys such as Mark Newman, Brian Butterfield, Gary Denbo and Trey Hillman, among others.
Dick Groch was one of the first people to see something special in Thomson. Roughly a decade before Groch emphatically told his bosses that a 17-year-old high school shortstop named Derek Jeter was headed for Cooperstown, not college, Groch was the head baseball coach at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, Mich. After seeing Thomson play as a high school senior in Sarnia, Ontario, Groch offered him a roster spot. He became a lifelong supporter.
"At every turn in my career, Dick would be there, and he was an influence in my next step," Thomson said. "Whether it was going to college or making the Olympic team in 1984 or coming to the Yankees, it seemed like he was always a part of it."
What Groch saw in Thomson was a work ethic that has become legendary -- he rises at 2:30 each morning during Spring Training and is at George M. Steinbrenner Field by 3:30 -- and a reputation for honesty and integrity. Those core traits, along with an unwavering passion for baseball, took shape on the banks of the St. Clair River in Corunna, Ontario.
Just a few square miles in size, Corunna sits about 12 miles south of the Blue Water Bridge border crossing that links Port Huron and Point Edward, Ontario. Lyndoch Street, which runs north-south parallel to the river, is the main thoroughfare, and at 9 a.m. on a Thursday in January, the line for the drive-thru at Tim Hortons snakes out of the parking lot.
Corunna is blanketed in snow, but the sky is clear at the moment, and the temperature is a quite-bearable 28 degrees. Thomson, dressed in a blue sweater, black scarf and black leather jacket and gloves, leaves his Team Canada knit cap on the back seat of his SUV and enters the coffee shop. He orders a hot cup of joe and sits down in front of a faux fireplace beneath a TV screen showing hockey highlights and Tim Hortons promos on loop.
As a kid, Thomson honed his swing just a few doors down, smacking rocks with a broken-off hockey stick in the driveway of his Lyndoch Street home. The house he grew up in burnt down long after he left -- it's now the site of Antonio's Pizza -- but the memories that come flooding back as he revisits the area are all happy ones. Corunna was the type of neighborhood where everyone knew everyone, where kids didn't need a chaperone to walk to school, where doors were left unlocked at night.
"It was just a good, blue-collar town full of good people who put in an honest day's work," Thomson said.
Most Canadian towns are mad about hockey, and Corunna was no different. But once the weather got warm, baseball fever took hold. There were several people in the community -- Thomson's father, Jack, among them -- who loved the game and nurtured it, taking the time not just to coach their kids' teams, but to hold instructional clinics and to manicure ballfields, as well.
On the corner of Baird and Hill, Thomson gazes out at the pee wee diamond and, behind it, the squirt diamond, where he played his first games. Across the street, young Rob served as the bat boy for his older brothers' team on the senior diamond, now named Duggan Field after Wib Duggan, an older resident who Thomson recalls seeing hand-pick stones from the infield by the wheelbarrow-full. On summer nights, it seemed like the entire town converged on these fields.
"There were so many good players in this area," Thomson said. "At one point, every guy on my brothers' team either played college ball in the U.S. or was a pro in Canada."
Thomson was 40 years old when he reached the Big Leagues. Prior to the start of the 2004 season, Yankees Manager Joe Torre named him special assignment instructor. Putting on the uniform again for a team that would win more than 100 games for a third year in a row was another great experience. It ended miserably, though, with the Yankees squandering a 3-games-to-none lead against Boston in the American League Championship Series.
"I went into Joe's office a couple hours after Game 7 and said, 'Hey, Skip, everything all right?'" Thomson recalled.
"Joe looks up from his phone and says, 'Yeah, Robbie, I'm fine. You're the one who should be worried.'
"So I say, 'Why's that, Joe?'
"He says, 'Because we've never done this until you got here.'"
Thomson's ability to take a joke and keep a clubhouse light is one reason why he remains such an integral member of the Yankees' coaching staff. His baseball acumen, however, is the biggest reason.
As bench coach, Thomson's duties are many, from serving as Girardi's top in-game lieutenant to the delicate, nuanced art of disseminating information to players. The mountain of data made available to Thomson on a daily basis is staggering. It's up to him to take the statistical and analytical figures that the Yankees baseball operations staff provides him with and determine if that jibes with what he is seeing on the field through his own eyes. Then, he must decide which pieces of information to pass on.
Each player has a different capacity for absorption. Give a guy too much info, and it might crowd his head, negatively impacting his focus and performance. Other guys, such as Alex Rodriguez, can hardly get enough.
But before all that, Thomson has the enormous task of serving as the chief architect of the Yankees' Spring Training plans, a role he took on when he was named Minor League field coordinator in 1998 and has filled ever since. It involves coordinating the schedules of every player in camp down to the minute, determining who needs to be where and doing what with whom, every day, for six weeks.
At the end of each season, the Yankees coaching staff holds a post-mortem to discuss where improvements could be made the following year. With those conversations in mind, Thomson starts mapping out the Yankees' training season in January.
Simply opening up last year's Excel spreadsheets and rolling out the same program isn't an option. Each spring provides a host of new players, a new schedule of Grapefruit League ballgames to account for, and another season's worth of experience to draw from. It's an immense job, but just as the Yankees' annual year-end goal stays the same -- to win a world championship -- the goals for Spring Training remain the same, too.
"One, we want to get everybody in shape and ready to play," Thomson said. "And two, we want everybody to be healthy come Opening Day."
Thomson's impressive resume has not gone unnoticed. The 52-year-old has heard his name rumored as a potential skipper -- reporters deemed him a plausible fit in Toronto during the Blue Jays' last two managerial searches -- but he tries to avoid such distractions.
"Sure, the dream is to manage some day," Thomson said. "But I can't think about that now. If I did, I think it would take away from what I need to be focused on."
A Father's Influence
Thomson guesses that Corunna's present-day population is probably double the 2,000 people that lived here in 1973, when he was 10 years old. Despite its small size, Corunna has been something of a crossroads throughout history. French farmers are believed to have settled here in the early 19th century, renting land from the Chippewa, whose Sarnia 45 Indian Reserve now sits along the St. Clair between Sarnia and Corunna. The English, for whom most of Corunna's streets are named, reportedly wanted to make it a capital at one point.
The discovery of oil just north of Corunna in the mid-1800s led to a boom in petrochemical operations here. The resulting industrial complex, known locally as "Chemical Valley," provided thousands of jobs, attracting workers from all over the region. Jack Thomson was one of them.
In 1963, Jack and his wife, Betty, moved to Corunna from St. Thomas, about an hour and a half east. While Jack oversaw a maintenance crew at Cabot Carbon in Chemical Valley, Betty stayed at home and raised their three boys, Tom, Rick and Rob.
Jack showed his sons what it meant to work hard. He also passed along his love for baseball. Both of those things remain embedded in Rob's DNA.
"He was always around, talking the game, teaching the game, and he was very big into analytics, even when analytics weren't part of the game so to speak," Thomson said. "He'd do spray charts, and he'd look at numbers, and he tried to figure out the best way to get somebody out through numbers and stuff like that. He was a very, very smart guy, kind of ahead of his time."
Jack spent more than three decades at Cabot Carbon, but always found time to be involved in his sons' athletic pursuits. Rob spent a summer and one Christmas break during college working alongside his dad, putting in long days that left him covered in black carbon residue. Rob knew he needed to take his own aspirations seriously if he wanted to carve out a different future for himself, but the example his father set still resonates.
"He was very supportive, but very tough at the same time -- a lot of tough love," Thomson said. "But a very good, honest man who knew that the best way to do things is through an honest day's work and not to try to cheat or get ahead by doing something illegal. He taught me a lot of good lessons, gave me a lot of good traits and good ways to live your life."
When he wasn't playing ball as a kid, Thomson and his friends often hung out down by the river, which back then was so polluted he couldn't see the bottom even in the shallows near the shore. He points to Stag Island, a community of summer vacation cottages accessible only by boat, and describes how he and his buddies would swim out there to have fun and meet girls.
As they walked upstream toward Chemical Valley, they'd check for ship traffic. (Little did Thomson know that the man who owned some of those tankers would one day be both his boss and The Boss.) Then they'd jump in and let the current aid them as they swam toward the island's north shore.
"It wasn't uncommon to feel the water get warm all of a sudden," Thomson said.
Fortunately, environmental regulations have come a long way, and Thomson is no worse for the wear.
Childhood memories of home came rushing back in 1998, when Thomson got word that Jack had passed away. Having just been named Minor League field coordinator, Thomson tried to remain focused on his job. But it was a difficult time. He was burning the midnight oil in his Tampa office one night when George Steinbrenner walked in.
"He said, 'I know it can be tough, losing your dad,'" Thomson recalled, "'but you've got to move forward. That's what he would want.'
"It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment."
The late Yankees owner remains one of the baseball men that Thomson considers himself fortunate to have been around, learning about the importance of accountability, organization and attention to detail, among other things, from Steinbrenner.
"He was a tough boss, but he was a great boss," Thomson said. "I loved him."
True to His Roots
Having grown up listening to Ernie Harwell call Tigers games and watching mostly American broadcasts on local TV, Thomson, like most Corunna natives, does not have a Canadian accent. The United States, to him, wasn't a foreign country; it was just the other side of the river.
Still, he is unequivocally proud of his Canadian roots. He moved his family to Tampa for 13 years, yet never considered becoming a U.S. citizen -- he knew he'd return north some day.
Driving east along the 402, through the flat, frozen farmland of southern Ontario, Thomson points to where, as a kid, he attended longtime New York Rangers center Walt Tkaczuk's hockey school. He speaks fondly of representing Canada in the 1984 Summer Olympics, when he caught three games at Dodger Stadium. Baseball was still a demonstration sport then, and Canada went 1-2, but Thomson recalls in vivid detail their lone win: a 6-4 victory over eventual champion Japan.
Thomson arrives at his present-day home in Stratford -- Michele's hometown, as well as Justin Bieber's -- where, from his office overlooking the snow-covered evergreens beyond his back porch, he begins plotting the route to the Yankees' next world championship.
There isn't a ton of memorabilia inside Thomson's house. There are a few signed bats tucked away in his office and several reminders of the five championships he has helped the Yankees win. He proudly displays a framed photo autographed by nine former team captains of his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs -- a gift from one of them, Dave Keon.
In Thomson's family room, there is a small framed photo of the coach with his arms around the shoulders of Mick Kelleher and Kevin Long, all dressed casually and smiling widely. Kelleher and Long were let go by the Yankees in October 2014 after 16 years and 11 years, respectively, in the organization.
"When you lose guys like that," Thomson said, "it hurts."
But the newer members of the staff -- hitting coach Alan Cockrell and third base coach Joe Espada -- have been a great fit, Thomson says, and he's looking forward to again working with bullpen coach Mike Harkey, as well as the addition of assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames, this season.
Thomson remembers what it was like to be a young coach working his way up. The day that his playing career ended in 1988, the Tigers -- who selected him out of the University of Kansas in the 32nd round of the 1985 Draft -- offered him a coaching job in their Minor League system. He started out making about $6,000 a year; Michele, who was waiting tables in Stratford, was the breadwinner in their family.
In 1989, Thomson traveled to Russia for a coaching clinic that also featured several Yankees employees, including Stump Merrill, David Hays, Kevin Rand and Groch, who was then in the team's scouting department. Before re-upping with the Tigers the following year, Thomson reached out to Groch to see if there might be a place for him with the Yankees. Mark Newman hired Thomson to coach third base for Single-A Fort Lauderdale in 1990. The rest, as they say, is history.
On the Road Again
Summer is when Stratford comes alive. The annual Stratford Festival draws thousands of Shakespeare enthusiasts from around the world -- this year especially, as 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the great playwright's death. Couples young and old walk hand in hand along picturesque Lake Victoria or stroll along Stratford's bustling downtown.
Thomson rarely sees it.
From February through October, he's gone. So he savors moments like this, sitting alongside his wife and across the table from his 25-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. The dinner conversation veers toward technology, and the women feign outrage at how the Thomsons' youngest daughter, Christina -- who is at college about five hours away in North Bay, Ontario -- has been sucking up all the data in their family plan. Thomson just smiles.
Soon, Rob and Michele will pack up their belongings and begin their annual sojourn south. Michele recalls the excitement of hitting the road this time of year back when Rob was still a young prospect in the Tigers organization, when the destination was some low-level outpost in rural Virginia or North Carolina. Even then, as it is now for the Yankees' bench coach, it was destined to be a great experience. They all are when it's the game you love.
You just need the right person in your corner.
Nathan Maciborski is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.