Thomson’s path to Canadian honor
In June 2019, the honored guests came from near and far. Former Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash made the two-hour drive from Toronto to St. Marys, Ontario, home of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Former All-Star outfielder Jason Bay made the five-hour flight from Seattle to Toronto, while All-Star right-hander Ryan Dempster made the 90-minute flight from Chicago.
And Rob Thomson, the fourth inductee? He made the 26-minute drive from Sebringville, Ont. to St. Marys.
Too many years after it was supposed to occur, Thomson was finally home.
In four seasons playing in the Detroit Tigers system, Thomson had 149 hits -- a little more than 37 per season. But he was not one of Canada’s favorite Hall of Famers because of his time playing under the bright lights in Bristol, Va., Gastonia, N.C., and Lakeland, Fla.
Thomson was the starting catcher when Canada made its Olympic debut in Los Angeles in 1984, where it defeated eventual gold medalist Japan in a preliminary round game. Then, there was that other matter of his five World Series rings won with the Yankees. He earned his rings as a coach with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers in 1996, as well serving as the Minor League field coordinator in 1998-1999. He was also the director of player development in 2000 and acted as Joe Girardi’s third base coach in 2009.
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As a proud Canadian, I pride myself on keeping track of Canadians in the Majors, Minors, college, Draft and even ones signing letters of intent -- it’s why I have the Canadian Baseball Network. But coaches?
Well, it was E-Elliott on Thomson until spring 2001, when someone mentioned that the man running Spring Training for the Yankees was a Canuck. I called George King of the New York Post to ask what would be a good time to see Thomson the next day. Phillies' fans know King from his days covering the Phillies and manager Jim Fregosi.
King told Thomson I was coming and tried to explain to him my purpose for coming.
“He really wants his readers to know what happens when the ‘L’ screen breaks on Field I,” King said. “Do you get a new screen out of the shed or move the screen from Field II to Field I and then move the screen from Field III to Field II.”
Of course, he was joking.
After talking with Thomson and some Yankees Minor League executives, I ended up writing about Thomson’s long standing influence. I wrote about how when the Yankees were worried about second baseman Chuck Knoblauch’s wild throws to first, they sent Knoblauch to Tampa to see Thomson. Or when a Minor Leaguer was moved from Double-A Norwich to Triple-A Columbus, Thomson made the call. And when manager Joe Girardi sat in his chair outside the dugout for spring games, Thomson was never far away.
Thomson was born in the border town of Sarnia, Ontario and grew up in Corunna, Ontario. But how did the road from Corunna lead to Tampa? He attended St. Clair Community College at St. Clair, Mich. in 1982 to play for Dick Groch, who later became a Yankees scout (Groch later signed a kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., named Derek Jeter). From 1983-85, Thomson played for the Stratford Hillers in the Ontario-based Intercounty League.
“I was lucky,” Thomson said. “Stratford had players from the University of Kansas.”
Kansas players asked their coach, former Major Leaguer Marty Pattin, to fly in for a look. Soon, Thomson was off to Kansas. He was drafted in the 32nd round in 1985 by the Detroit Tigers and scout George Bradley, given a signing bonus of 1,500 US dollars.
It was an OK story, but that was certainly not the end of it.
George King approached Thomson the next day with the writer’s tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“Hey you didn’t talk to that guy from Toronto did you,” he asked Thomson. “No one talks to him ... he’s a bad guy. Have you read what he wrote? How you wanted to manage this team? This year? How you ...”
King remarked that before he could finish his sentence, Thomson bolted from the conversation and sprinted for the internet. King had pushed another button. After all, Fregosi and he learned from each other.
A few days later, a Minor League executive with the Blue Jays wanted me to ask Thomson if he would come and work with Toronto when the Yankees visited Dunedin a few days later.
“Sure, no problem,” I thought to myself.
Then, I had a long drive home from Fort Myers and did some thinking. I called the Toronto executive back and said I had changed my mind. Why?
“Because I don’t want George Steinbrenner ripping my butt for tampering in the New York papers,” I said.
Thomson and I attended the annual Baseball Canada fundraiser together one year. Or was it two?
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After Cito Gaston was let go after the 2010 season, the Jays interviewed Thomson for the manager’s job. He was armed with the experience of managing parts of two seasons in the Minors, notching a 35-43 record in 78 games. Instead, general manager Alex Anthopoulos gave John Farrell his first managerial job. Farrell headed for Boston after two seasons, admitting he asked out after one.
After leaving the Yankees, Thomson moved to Sebringville -- close to Stratford where he played as an amateur and where his wife Michele grew up.
Home, we should point out, is not Corunna, Toronto or New York. For him, home is the manager’s office and success.
Thomson has found a home in Philadelphia.