“Joe must go!“
The call has been ringing out across Philadelphia Phillies social media for weeks as the disappointing local nine continued to struggle through a horrendous 10-18 month of May.
Well, those who wanted manager Joe Girardi to pay with his head, or at least his job, finally got their wish. On Friday, the Phillies announced that Girardi had been let go. His replacement, at least on an interim basis, is bench coach Rob Thomson.
So, who is Thomson, and why is he deserving of this opportunity to manage a big-league team in crisis?
Thomson is a 58-year-old baseball lifer, and one from the Great White North at that. A Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer, he was born in the town of Sarnia in Ontario, on the banks of Lake Huron just across from Michigan.
Thomson played four seasons of minor league ball back in the 1980’s after the Detroit Tigers had made him their 32nd round pick in the 1985 MLB Draft out of the University of Kansas. A catcher and third baseman, Thomson had played with Team Canada at the Olympics in 1984.
Never rising above the ‘A’ level as a ballplayer, Thomson was nevertheless recognized as having a bright mind for the game, and the Tigers moved him into their minor league coaching ranks at just age 25 following the 1988 campaign.
In 1990, Thompson was hired by the New York Yankees to coach third base for one of their minor league affiliates. That began a quarter-century career with the Bronx Bombers in which Thompson would fill a number of roles both in uniform and in the front office. When the Yankees defeated the Phillies in the 2009 World Series with Girardi as their manager, Thomson was serving as the bench coach.
Early in the 2008 season, Girardi had come down with a respiratory infection that would sideline him for two games. Thompson filled in as the manager for what turned out to be a pair of losses to Tampa Bay. He thus became the first native Canadian to manage a game in Major League Baseball in 74 years.
Thompson stayed on the staff in New York as the third base coach through most of the next decade until Girardi was fired following the 2017 season. He then was hired by the Phillies to serve as the bench coach under manager Gabe Kapler for the 2018 season.
When Girardi was hired to replace Kapler for 2019, it brought about a reunion with his good friend Thomson, who would choose to stay on as Girardi’s bench coach here in Philly. Thomson was continuing in that role this year.
The Phillies have hung the “interim” title on Thomson at this point. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a mere placeholder skipper until the club hires some bigger name. General manager Dave Dombrowski noted during today’s press conference that MLB regulations require any in-season managerial change be accompanied by that “interim” tag, as the league requires a formal interviewing process for candidates to include minorities.
It’s difficult to say whether Thomson will have that tag removed and eventually be hired as the longer-term manager with the Phillies. He will almost certainly continue to guide the team for the balance of the 2022 season.
Thomson takes over a Phillies ball club that sports a 22-29 record. They sit in third place in the National League East Division, a distant 12 games behind the first place New York Mets. The team is now six games back in the loss column in the race for the final NL Wildcard spot.
Dombrowski stated today that he still believes the Phillies can make the postseason this year. “While all of us share the responsibility for the shortcomings, I felt that a change was needed and that a new voice in the clubhouse would give us the best chance to turn things around,” said the GM. “I believe we have a talented group that can get back on track, and I am confident that Rob, with his experience and familiarity with our club, is the right man to lead us going forward.“
Thomson believes that there is winning talent here. “We’ve played good for short periods of time, but we need to play good for a long period of time and I think we have the pieces to do that.”
For his part, Girardi apparently left the organization with class. “I just pray that they get better,” said the now ex-skipper on his way out the door. Girardi hugged his friend Thomson and wished him well.
Rob Thomson has certainly paid his dues. He earned and deserves this chance to manage a big-league ball club. But those bigger, more well-known names, experienced managers like Mike Scioscia, Ron Washington, and Brad Ausmus, may still be available this fall. Whether Thomson can get more than a four-month interim opportunity will likely be determined by how well those pieces actually play under him for the rest of this season.