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From Ontario's Intercounty Baseball League to World Series

Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson, who lives near Stratford, has advice for aspiring leaders: 'You have to stay calm, you have to stay poised, so you can make the proper decisions'
Rob Thomson, middle, poses for a photo with some fans.

When asked for advice on management, legendary New York Yankee Joe Torre had a simple piece of advice for Rob Thomson.

"I have one thing for you, just be yourself and everything will work out," the legendary Yankees manager said. 

Thomson's calm demeanour, and thoughtful and patient approach to life, has served him well among the egos, personalities and larger-than-life types he encounters as a professional baseball manager, including 28 years in various roles for the Yankees, a storied sports franchise. 

A Sebringiville resident originally from Corunna, near Sarnia, Thomson was the guest speaker at a breakfast hosted Thursday morning by Community Living Stratford and Area. Thomson asked for help for his autistic niece several years ago, the beginning of a years-long relationship with the local Community Living. 

John Kastner, general manager of the Stratford-Perth Museum, and the former Sports Editor and Managing Editor of the Stratford Beacon Herald, moderated a breakfast chat. A few hundred guests were on hand for the fundraiser at the Best Western Plus The Arden Park Hotel to gain insight into Thomson's life. 

Kastner said those that know the manager know he has a certain set of values and principles that have not changed over the years. 

"I have always believed that if you want to lead people and you want to be successful in sports, you have to stay calm, you have to stay poised so you can make the proper decisions and keep your mind on the task at hand," said Thomson. " My father was like that, my brothers are like that."

Thomson's local ties go back to his playing days for Stratford's former Intercounty Baseball League team. He was recruited to Stratford for summer baseball at National Stadium while attending St. Clair Community College in Michigan. After the baseball program was dropped due to local tax cuts, he transferred to the University of Kansas. The school needed a catcher and two of his Intercounty teammates were already playing college baseball there. 

Thomson was drafted and played catcher and third base for the Detroit Tigers until 1988. After coaching in Detroit for two years, he started a nearly three decade run in New York, first in the minors and then with the big league club, that included a World Series win in 2009. 

Torre took the Yankees to the playoffs in all 12 of his years managing the club, winning four World Series titles.

He was a big inspiration for Thomson and he nicknamed him "Topper" because he was always on top of everything. 

"Just watching Joe Torre and this stoic manner, how he went about things really helped me, really guided me and proved to me that the way I thought about running a team, running a business, running an organization, was the right way to do it, that is the way he did it," Thomson told guests. 

Thomson also worked with legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who called him "the Canadian".

In addition to on-field success, the Yankees were known for their traditions and professionalism away from the stadium, including wearing suits on their travels, a tradition that stayed after Steinbrenner died in 2010. There was talk of changing the dress code. Thomson recalled asking some of the Yankees stars - Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez - to ensure the players were on board with keeping the tradition alive, and they were gracious enough to do so.

Rodriguez went so far as to hire a tailor in downtown New York. "Any player that came up from the minor leagues, they would get five suits on Alex's dime, the ties, belts, shoes that they wanted, to make sure they had suits for the flights."

Thomson joined the Philadelphia Phillies as a bench coach in 2018, a stint which included a couple of years with his former Yankees colleague and friend Joe Girardi. The Phillies fired Girardi after the manager's poor start to the 2022 season and ended up offering Thomson the interim manager position, his first in baseball. 

As Thomson recalled, the team had brought in some talent and expected to compete but the team got off to a slow start, and were "trending in the wrong direction".  May was the toughest part of the schedule, with series against the San Diego Padres, L.A. Dodgers and the New York Mets, and after a terrible month, Thomas was offered the interim managerial position.

With his mind going in a thousand different directions after the offer, he was walking in downtown Philadelphia, and realized no one knew who he was. 

"At that moment I thought my life is going to completely change."

The Phillies won the National League under Thomson but lost to the Houston Astros in last year's World Series. Ironically, Thomson admitted he had thought about retirement before the 2022 season and before being offered the managerial role. He took the managerial role on a permanent basis in October. 

Thomson said it takes a community, a bunch of parts, to win. He told the players when they were 12 games back of a playoff spot - before a sensational turnaround that got to them to the playoffs - if they didn't think they could win the division, they should leave. 

"It's just a group effort and everyone was pulling in the same direction. It was a fantastic time." 

With the success of reaching the World Series, Thomson said there is added pressure on the Phillies heading into the new season. 

Good pressure is high expectations and you are a good team, he said, bad pressure is high expectations and a bad team.

"I am as excited going into spring training as I have been in a long, long time." 

Thomson said he's worked hard throughout his career, listened hard and he has been fortunate to be around fascinating people, and smart people. 

The pressure on a big league manager can be daunting, but he can always return home to a peaceful existence in Sebringville. 

"No one bothers me, other than my brothers-in-law," Thomson said with a laugh. 

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Paul Cluff

About the Author: Paul Cluff

Paul has worked at media outlets in St. Thomas, Goderich, Woodstock and Stratford, where he has lived since 2002. The Editor of enjoys coaching Special Olympics basketball and soccer in his spare time, and playing golf.
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