Corunna, Ontario native is about to coach third base in his first World Series
St. Marys – It was Game 1 of the American League Division Series. The hot Minnesota Twins were playing in New York against the Yankees. In the fourth inning, with the Yankees’ Robinson Cano on first base, Nick Swisher drove a liner down the left field line. The third base coach’s job is to know what the score is (tied 2-2), how many are out (2), who is coming to bat next (Melky Cabrera, the ninth hitter in the Yankees’ batting order), what the field conditions are like at the moment (dry), how fast Cano is (very), what hand the Twins’ left fielder Delmon Young throws with (right), how strong and accurate his arm is, and what type of carum the ball is likely going to take off the wall when a left-handed hitter slices it into the corner of the new Yankee Stadium. And by the way, all of this must all be processed in less than about three seconds!
If the coach chooses to send Cano in to score (which he did), he’s got to position himself about half-way between third base and home plate, in foul territory, so that Cano can easily see him as he bolts towards third base. The coach must be waving his left-arm clock-wise rapidly and repeatedly in hula hoop-sized circles to indicate to Cano that he has a green light. As soon as Cano commits to the coach’s direction, the coach can’t afford to take even a moment to evaluate the result of his decision, because he has to immediately hustle back towards third base and pick up Swisher, who would now be rounding second base, and guide him accordingly. The relay throw turns out to be slightly off target towards the first base side of home plate, drawing Twins’ catcher Joe Mauer just far enough away for Cano to safely slide in. “Safe,” calls the umpire, as his hands separate and extend to signal the call. It turned out to be the game’s winning run, putting the Yankees ahead 3-2, a lead they never relinquished.
Welcome to the life of Corunna, Ontario’s Rob Thomson.
“The one thing about Robbie is that he’s a really good baserunner,” Thomson said of the risky but aggressive decision a couple of weeks later, from his office at Yankee Stadium yesterday.
“He got a great jump off that ball, and he really runs the bases in a small circle. I felt that he should be able to score on that ball down in the corner. There were two outs and so you take a little chance. Sometimes you get burnt, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be more agressive.”
And when you’re wrong?
“In the Yankees organization, everybody is accountable, and it is no different at third base,” said Thomson, who is in his 20th year with the Yankees organization.
“Believe me, the fans let me know it when I make a mistake, but they’ll also acknowledge when I get it right, and that is what makes them great. And they act this way consistently from May through October. They are the best fans.”
“Also, if you go a whole season as third base coach without having a few runners thrown out at home plate, then the chances are good that your team didn’t score nearly as many runs as they could have,” Thomson added.
Having grown up in Corunna and attending school in Sarnia, the catcher/third baseman played a year of baseball at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, Michigan. In the summer, he toiled with the Stratford Hillers of the Intercounty Baseball League. Another pair of imports with the Hillers who were attending the University of Kansas liked what they saw and told their coach, which redirected Thomson to join the JayHawks program, where he was eventually drafted in the 32nd round by the Detroit Tigers in 1985.
Another good fortune from Thomson’s days in Stratford was meeting his wife Michelle of 22 years. They have two daughters, Jacqueline and Christina.
“Rob was a student of the game from the get-go,” said his former coach Dick Groch, now special assistant to Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
“Look at Girardi, Scoiscia, Torre, and others. Some of the most successful Major League managers were catchers, like Rob was. Whenever he wasn’t behind the plate, he’d pump me with questions about why we did this or that defensively, or why we called a certain pitch. We talked on and on about the game and why things within the game are done. It is no surprise to me that he has had such an amazing career.”
After a stint in the Tigers’ minor league system as a coach, Thomson joined the Yankees in 1990 as a third base coach for their Class-A affiliate in Fort Lauderdale. He remained a coach and manager in their minor league system until moving to the front office in 1998 as a field coordinator. He was promoted to director of player development in 2000, and named vice president of minor league development in 2003. He became a member of the Yankees Major League coaching staff in November of that same year.
Thus, 2009 not only represents Thomson’s 20th year with the Yankees organization, but his first trip to World Series as a coach.
“What can I say? It is fantastic. Beyond exciting,” Thomson described the opportunity.
Thomson, 46, made history on April 4, 2008 when, due to an illness to Yankees manager Joe Girardi, he became the first Canadian to manage a Major League game since London, Ontario’s George “Moonie” Gibson managed the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1934. Thomson managed two more games that year as a result of a pair of Girardi ejections.
“I am a very proud Canadian, but I also remind myself that I am a representative of my family, my hometown, and the New York Yankees organization,” added Thomson.
Like Dave McKay, the Canadian first base coach with the St. Louis Cardinals, Thomson has heavy responsibilities during Spring Training, and thus has not been available to assist with Team Canada in events such as the World Baseball Classic.
“I would absolutely love to be involved with Team Canada, but with my current job description, I don’t know how it could ever happen,” explained Thomson.
“Because one of my primary functions with the Yankees is to run Spring Training, there is simply no way around that. As much as I admire the national team and the program, my loyalty has to be to my job responsibilities here first.”
When questioned about some baseball personalities, Thomson had the following responses:
Matt Stairs – “I love the guy! A gamer. Big bat. Not afraid of anything or anybody”
Alex Rodriguez – “Misread by so many. People have no idea how hard he works, how much he cares about the game, and how much he cares about his teammates. Alex’s futility in previous playoffs was not due to pressure or anything like that – he simply wasn’t hitting. And this year, there certainly has not been a sudden decrease in pressure put on us – he’s simply locked in right now. I think the world of him both as a player and as a friend.”
Derek Jeter – “The ultimate professional, in every respect. The highest compliment I can pay “Jeet” is that he hasn’t changed one bit since he was 17. An awesome guy, still a lot of kid in him, and has always respected his teammates, the organization, and the sport itself. He plays the game the way it was meant to be played.”
A.J. Burnett – “He came in and loosened up the clubhouse, and that was needed to a degree. He loves New York and New York loves him right back. When he’s on, he can carry the club on his back.”
C.C. Sabathia – “The best pitcher in the American League. I’ve only met CC for the first time this year. He’s a gentle giant off the field, but between the lines there is a fire in him.”
Twenty years into his career with the Yankees, and looking back at what Thomson has already accomplished, it is impossible to imagine there is anything he can’t do in the future. When asked about his aspirations, he referenced his father Jack, who died ten years ago.
“The truth is, I’ve always followed my dad’s advice, which was to not try to get too far ahead of yourself,” Thomson recalled.
“If you’re thinking about your next job, you probably aren’t doing your current job as well as you can. I just believe in taking care of my responsibilities and letting the rest take care of itself.”
It sounds like sending Robinson Cano home in Game 1 of the ALDS is just one of many good decisions that future Canadian Baseball Hall-of-Famer Rob Thomson has chalked up in his life.
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St. Marys, ON