Nobody had a more interesting and conflicting perspective than Rob Thomson this month as the Phillies went through the long process of firing one manager and hiring another.
The Phillies bench coach and baseball lifer watched from his home in Ontario, Canada as the team first fired Gabe Kapler, the manager who hired Thomson to be his bench coach after he found himself out of work following 27 seasons in the New York Yankees’ organization.
“I came over here with Kap and I love Kap,” Thomson said. “I learned so many great things from him, especially about the analytics side of the game. As you know, he’s into it big time. He taught me a lot about how to think analytically and how to deal with people. I think Kap is a fantastic person. I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. I really liked watching him deal with people and how good he was with people.”
As much as Thomson, 56, loved working for Kapler, he will openly admit that the Phillies’ search for a new manager created a sense of excitement he could have never imagined when he joined the organization two years ago.
Suddenly, the Phillies were considering Joe Girardi, his former boss of a decade with the New York Yankees, as their manager. In addition, the Phillies were also interviewing Buck Showalter and Dusty Baker, both of whom rank among the top 25 in all-time managerial victories.
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“You knew whoever we hired we were going to get a good one,” Thomson said. “I sort of tried to stay out of things because I know both Buck and Joe really well. I don’t know Dusty Baker, but I’ve heard so many great things about him.”
Truth be told, however, Girardi is the guy Thomson wanted because he believes he is the perfect fit for what the Phillies and Philadelphia need.
“He’s got a winning pedigree,” Thomson said. “He had it as a player, a coach and a manager. Winning follows him around.”
Thomson first met Girardi in the mid-90s shortly after the veteran catcher signed with the Yankees as a free agent. The Yankees won a World Series in Girardi’s first season and they’d win two more before he rejoined the Chicago Cubs in 2000.
“I was the minor-league field coordinator and I also ran the major-league camp for Joe Torre,” Thomson said. “From the moment we met, we had a connection. We thought the same way and we had the same kind of discipline. I just remember him asking a lot of questions.”
Thomson also remembers immediately thinking that Girardi had a future in baseball even after his playing career was over.
“Even if he didn’t admit it at the time, you could see it in the way he played, the way he prepared and the way he ran the game as a catcher. You saw a leadership quality that you don’t see in many guys.”
By 2004, it was crystal clear that Girardi was headed for a career in the dugout. He had returned to the Yankees as a free agent, but Thomson said Girardi knew he was not going to make the ballclub.
“He went to work for the YES Network at the time, but I knew from talking to him that he was itching to get back in uniform," Thomson said. "The next year he was (Torre’s) bench coach and then he went to the Marlins and became manager of the year.”
Girardi took a Marlins team with a payroll under $15 million – Alex Rodriguez made $21.6 million that season – and won 78 games in 2006, but his turbulent relationship with Jeffrey Loria, one of the worst owners in baseball history, led to his firing after the season.
Two years later, he was back in New York and Thomson was his bench coach. A year after that, the Yankees won another World Series at the expense of the Phillies.
“I have so much respect for the way he treats people and the success he has had in the past,” Thomson said. “He’s going to bring a discipline that is going to be good for us. That’s just who Joe is. When he walks into a room people straighten up. He’s not going to beat anybody over the head, but there are going to be parameters that the players will be expected to stay in. I think every player wants them. They want to know what is expected of them and what they need to do and they will know that with Joe.”
The Phillies were looking for a happy medium between an old-school manager and someone willing to tap into the vast analytics department that has been constructed at One Citizens Bank Way in recent years.
Again, Thomson thinks Girardi is that manager.
“Joe has a balance to him,” Thomson said. “He will look at the numbers and the video and he will come to a conclusion about what needs to be done. But he will also rely on what he sees and hears and smells. He will use all his senses and strike a balance.”
Most of all, Thomson believes Philadelphia is going to love Joe Girardi.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “Joe is smart and he tells it like it is. You’re going to see some things on the field that will show how passionate Joe is about the game of baseball and how much he cares about the players and team. He is going to lose his temper sometimes, but just like this city, he is passionate and that’s the way it should be.”
How much difference will Girardi make in terms of wins and losses remains to be seen, especially with the Phillies in perhaps the most difficult division in baseball.
“I think we’re really close,” Thomson said. “We’ve got high-end position players. We ran into struggles here and there all season long. One day it was pitching, the next day it was defense and the next day it was offense. I think Joe can help us put all that together.”
That, of course, is why Joe Girardi was hired.