The man Rob Thomson replaced is his biggest fan

June 3rd, 2024

It’s been two years since Rob Thomson took over for Joe Girardi as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. And what a ride it’s been.

The 2022 Phillies made it all the way to the World Series, losing to the Astros in six games. The 2023 Phillies came up one win short of a return trip to the Series, losing to Arizona in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. This year, the Phillies have the best record in baseball and are on track for a third straight postseason run.

When Girardi was fired on June 3, 2022, the Phillies were 22-29, 12 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East. Their roster was highly paid, but underachieving, and Girardi paid the price. Since Thomson became interim manager -- and then given the full–time job later that year -- he has the best winning percentage (.590) of any skipper in Phillies history (minimum 300 games).

And you know who is among the most delighted for Thomson? The man he replaced.

“I am very happy for him,” Girardi said recently. “Rob Thomson dedicated his life to improving players, and I’m really glad he’s finally gotten a chance to show what he can do. I thought he should have had a chance a long time ago. He truly cares about the players.”

Thomson and Girardi were together for a decade with the Yankees and won a World Series together in 2009. After Girardi was let go by the Yankees after the 2017 season, Thomson interviewed for the job, but lost out to Aaron Boone. Thomson turned to Philadelphia and a chance to be new manager Gabe Kapler’s bench coach, and he got a ringing endorsement from Girardi.

“I said, ‘Gabe, if you want everything done right and you want to make sure players are always prepared, hire Rob Thomson,'” Girardi said.

Kapler did. And when Girardi took over for Kapler in 2020, he inherited Thomson as his bench coach again.

Rob Thomson (right) became interim manager on June 3, 2022, after Joe Girardi was dismissed.

Perhaps the 2022 Phillies could have turned things around and become this same NL powerhouse under Girardi, who was the 2006 NL Manager of the Year with the Marlins and then averaged 91 wins per season in 10 years with the Yankees. Now, with no sign of bitterness, he says he enjoys watching their success from afar.

“I think they’re as talented as any team in baseball,” Girardi said. “I’d stack up their rotation, bullpen and lineup against anyone.”

Girardi is particularly happy for the success of the young players, some of whom he watched struggle when they first came up with the Phillies.

“Alec Bohm had a really good freshman year, then struggled in his sophomore year, which happens a lot,” Girardi says. “[Pitchers] made some adjustments, then he made the adjustments. Give a lot of credit to the kid, because that second year wasn’t easy, but he fought through it and became a much better player.”

This season, Bohm is among the Major League leaders in both doubles and RBIs and is a potential All-Star.

“Look at Bryson Stott,” Girardi continued. “He came up and struggled mightily in the beginning, made swing adjustments with [hitting coach] Kevin Long, and people rallied around him and he’s doing really, really well.

“Brandon Marsh was a fairly young player who made an impact. Johan Rojas made an impact. It was young guys who got around veterans, and the older players made them feel like they fit in and were important. Then they took off.”

This is the culture that has been established in Philadelphia. Young players growing into confident Major Leaguers, urged on by veteran players and coaches who have the best interests of players and team at heart.

Thomson is the one who sets the tone now and he’s reaped the greatest benefits, but Girardi helped build that, too. It’s actually something that goes all the way back to their first Spring Training together in 2008.

One of the main things Girardi and Thomson set out to do that year was change the tenor of the Yankees' clubhouse and build more camaraderie. Girardi’s idea was to find ways to blend rookies and veterans right from the outset. It felt unusual, because those Yankees teams didn’t usually have much positional competition in Spring Training.

“We tended to put the 25-man roster guys working out pretty much together and then the rest of the guys working out separately,” Thomson recalls.

But they recognized that it led to some problems once the regular season began.

“We always had trouble with guys coming up [from the Minors] during the season and not performing well. And Joe said, ‘Why don’t we mix these guys in during Spring Training just so they get to know each other a little. Maybe they’ll be more comfortable when they come up. And sure as hell, that’s what happened.’”

Whether it was during infield drills or a team-bonding billiards tournament, the new groupings allowed young players to be less in awe of their veteran teammates.

In Year 2, it worked almost exactly like Girardi and Thomson drew it up as a varied cast helped the old Yankees core win another World Series title. When it was Thomson’s turn to take the reins from Girardi in Philadelphia, he drew on those lessons.

“Since that time, I’ve always kept that in mind, and we do that here in Philadelphia. We have a group here that I think is very mature. They have a lot of fun and they mess around, but they’re serious when they need to be. They understand the dynamic and how important those guys are, to come up and be comfortable so they can contribute. So our guys are always, always welcoming. There’s no hazing, nothing like that.”

Thomson says that Bryce Harper leads the charge in the Phillies' clubhouse and is extremely welcoming. J.T. Realmuto, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos have also been leaders in that area.

“It just sort of happened naturally,” Thomson said. “They understand that it’s not a whole lot of fun coming up and not knowing your teammates, you’re nervous, first time in the big leagues, all that stuff, so I think they realize how important it is to make those kids feel as comfortable as they can.”

For both Thomson and Girardi, the need to help young players acclimate quicker to their big league surroundings comes from their own personal experiences.

Thomson, who never played in the Majors, spent many years as a Minor League coach and manager and as a farm director. He has spent a large part of his career working with Minor League players, making them better players and readying them for the next level. He saw firsthand how players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera thrived, while others fell short.

Meanwhile, Girardi drew on his own personal experience as a wide-eyed rookie. When he made his debut with the Cubs in 1989, Girardi had gone straight from Double-A to the Majors and suddenly found himself in a clubhouse with future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg.

“I was intimidated,” Girardi said. “ And I didn’t want our young players to feel that. I want them to feel comfortable when they walk into that clubhouse. I want them to have respect for the people that have gone before them and played the game … but I don’t want them to be intimidated.”

Girardi’s experiences as a young player forever shaped his view on how to lead. Only a former Major Leaguer can generate that emotion when he sits in the manager’s seat. Even though Thomson never played in the Majors, he sees the game in much the same way Girardi sees it. He sees the humanity underneath the player. That level of care and respect is what Girardi seems to admire most about his former bench coach.

“He’s a fantastic baseball person -- he’s prepared, he cares, he understands the game, he understands people.”

Girardi and Thomson once helped lay the foundation for a championship team in New York. Even if they aren’t seeing it through together now, they may have done the same thing in Philadelphia.