How George Steinbrenner's demand for excellence shaped a Phillies manager


It was late February 1998. That's when Rob Thomson first knew he wanted to someday retire as a New York Yankee. 

He was still several years away from joining the big-league coaching staff, more than a decade away from winning a World Series ring as the team's bench coach, but on that dark February night, sitting alone, exhausted and heavy-hearted, in an office in Tampa, he realized he never wanted to be anything other than a Yankee.

"It was my first year running big-league camp, doing the daily schedule," Thomson recalled. "My dad had just died. My wife and I flew up to Toronto for three days for the funeral then it was right back to Tampa.

"We landed in Tampa. It was already dark. I told Michele, 'You go home, I'm going to the office to do tomorrow's schedule.'"

Thomson's office was at the minor-league complex, down the street from the Yankees' spring training stadium, right next to where the Tampa Bay Bucs play.

It was 9:30 at night. Thomson was in the middle of planning the Yankees' workout for the next day.

And then it just hit him.

I just buried my dad and here I am sitting in this office at 9:30 at night all by myself doing this schedule ...

Filled with grief, he spiked his pencil to the floor.

And then the moment happened. The moment that made him want to be a Yankee forever.

"How are you doing, pal?" a late-night visitor just stopping by the complex asked him.

Thomson looked up. It was George Steinbrenner.

"I'm all right," Thomson said, gathering himself.

There was a moment of quiet in the room.

Steinbrenner's eyes began to well.

"Let me tell you something," he said, looking at Thomson. "I've been where you are. I've lost my father. And I can tell you this: Your father would want you to carry on right now and do your job. You're very important to this organization. Just keep moving forward."

That was it. Steinbrenner walked out. Thomson finished the next day's schedule and it was on manager Joe Torre's desk and posted in the big-league clubhouse by sunrise because Rob Thomson always arrives at work before sunrise during spring training.

Thomson and Steinbrenner became close over the years. And though Steinbrenner died in 2010, Thomson still carries a piece of the late Yankees owner with him. That late-night meeting at the minor-league complex in February 1998 still moves him.

"That's when I learned how much he cared about people," Thomson said. "It was like he had this antenna. He picked up on everything. Nothing got by him. What was he doing driving by the complex at 9:30 at night? I don't know. Maybe he was just leaving his office over at the stadium. Maybe he was heading home from dinner and saw a light on and came in. It's like he just knew. He picked up on everything and paid attention to every detail."

• • •

Attention to detail is one of the qualities that made Rob Thomson the best lieutenant in baseball and made him so coveted by the Phillies five years ago when he traded in the navy-blue pinstripes he thought he'd wear forever for the red ones he has grown to love during five years on the coaching staff and now as interim manager for a team that is headed to the postseason for the first time in a decade.

Joe Girardi was let go as Yankees manager after the 2017 season. Thomson, his bright and steady bench coach, was a candidate to become manager. The Yankees conducted a methodical search that took some time.

Meanwhile, down in Philadelphia, the Phillies had hired a first-time manager in Gabe Kapler. They wanted to complement him with an experienced bench coach. They wanted Thomson, the best lieutenant in baseball.

"A bunch of teams actually called but I told them I was confident I'd be back in New York as part of the coaching staff if I didn't get the manager's job," Thomson said. "They all backed off."

Except one.

"Kap kept calling and calling," he said. "I said, 'Kap, move on.' He said, 'No, we'll hang tight.'"

A week passed. Thomson went through a seven-hour interview with the Yankees.

Another week passed.

Kapler kept calling.

"Just come down to Philly for a day, meet some people, have dinner, just in case it doesn't happen with the Yankees," he suggested.

By this time, Thomson was feeling a little strung along by the Yankees.

Why not, he said to himself.

He got in his car and drove nine hours from his home near Toronto to Philadelphia and spent the day with Phillies officials. He paid his own way. No strings attached because he was still in the hunt in New York, and, of course, wanted to retire a Yankee.

Thomson enjoyed his time visiting with Phillies officials and told Michele as much on the phone driving home the next day. 

During the drive, his phone rang. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak was calling and offering a lucrative three-year deal to become the team's bench coach.

"It's there," Klentak told Thomson. "Think about it. If you get the Yankees job or stay on the coaching staff, we'll rip it up and no one will know."

Another day passed. Word began to percolate that the Yankees were set to make a managerial hire. It ended up being Aaron Boone. Thomson would have been considered for a spot on the coaching staff. He sat at home in Ontario, alone with his thoughts, the moment not dissimilar to the one he had in that office in Tampa two decades earlier after he had just lost his dad and George Steinbrenner walked in to comfort him.

At that moment, Rob Thomson decided he'd always cherish his 28 years with the Yankees and always be grateful for what the organization had done for him.

But he was going to Philly.

• • •

Back in June, Torre, one of Thomson's former bosses, visited Philadelphia and told of how he gave Thomson the nickname "Topper."

"He was very organized," Torre said. "He lived at the ballpark. He was there all the time. I'd get to the park in spring training by a quarter to 7 and he was already there finishing his work. He had it all mapped out and ready on my desk to look at. And he was a stickler for precision. With more than 50 guys in camp, that's not easy.

"We thought we were doing good and all of a sudden he was there longer and stayed longer after we left."

In other words, Thomson was on top of everything.

Hence, Topper.

Topper was so on top of everything that Torre tried to bring him to Los Angeles when he became manager of the Dodgers in 2008. Thomson was too loyal to the Yankees to leave. In his long run with the organization, he was a minor-league manager, he ran player development and coached on the big-league staff. He wanted to retire as a Yankee.

Thomson's organization skills and attention to detail go back to his dad, Jack, a veteran of the Canadian Navy who ran three shifts and managed a staff of more than 300 during a distinguished career with the Cabot Corporation in Ontario.

George Steinbrenner also had a hand in developing the former minor-league catcher's eye for and commitment to detail.

Back when Thomson was overseeing spring training for the Yankees, he'd get a call from Steinbrenner a few weeks before camp opened every year. Thomson and a maintenance worker would meet Steinbrenner at the big-league park in Tampa.

"Every year, he wanted to do a walkthrough of the stadium, him, me and a maintenance man," Thomson said. "We'd go through the entire lower level, visitors' clubhouse, home clubhouse, umpires' room. Everything. If there was a little water stain on a ceiling tile, 'Replace that.' If there was a chip in the paint, 'Paint that." If there was a tear in the rug, 'Replace all this rug.' He flushed every toilet, turned on every shower head. Any calcium build-up, 'Replace that.' 'Make sure that's shined.'"

Couldn't Steinbrenner have done all this with just a maintenance man by his side?

Why did he need the baseball guy?

"Because Mr. Steinbrenner used to say, 'Every player that comes in here, if they're a Yankee, I want them to feel like they're treated like the best, and if they're a visitor, I want them to want to be a Yankee.'

"Attention to detail. You carry those lessons."

Steinbrenner, of course, was known publicly for his impatience and his temper. Thomson saw it here and there. But to him, that just showed how invested and passionate the man was about building a winner.

"He was a lot like John Middleton," Thomson said, mentioning the Phillies managing partner. "If you had a real good reason that you needed something and it was going to help the club or help a player, he'd go get it. It didn't matter the cost. That's who he was."

Steinbrenner's commitment to excellence rubbed off on Thomson and extended beyond baseball, which was his No. 1 passion.

"He had hotels, a horse farm, a car racing team," Thomson said. "We'd be in a baseball meeting and the farm would call. 'Well, did you feed him those special oats?' He'd know the same thing about the cars.

"It was amazing how many things he was involved in and how detailed his knowledge of that operation was. It made me think, if I can't figure out all these players in the minor leagues and he can do all that, I probably shouldn't be doing this job."

There was a time when Steinbrenner considered buying the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning and he shared that desire with Thomson.

"He used to call me The Canadian, so I guess he thought I knew hockey," said Thomson, who grew up playing the sport.

Thomson and Steinbrenner would often attend Lightning games together.

"It was great," Thomson said. "We'd sit in his box, order pizza."

Even on his way to a hockey game, Steinbrenner never lost his eye for detail. His antenna was always up.

"He came over to pick me up at the complex and we'd be getting ready to pull out," Thomson said. "There would be cars in the lot, some people still working, some who left their cars there because they were on the road.

"He'd always say, 'Whose car is that? Whose car is that?' "

Finally, one day, Thomson asked Steinbrenner why he was always asking who owned which car.

"They're all backed in," Steinbrenner said. "I get leery about people who back into a parking spot at work because they're in a hurry to get out of there."

Thomson laughed telling the story of going to hockey games with Steinbrenner. 

The Canadian and The Boss.

"Oh, no, it was always Mr. Steinbrenner," Thomson said. "I loved the man. Still do. He did so much for me."

• • •

Thomson tells a story about a good buddy up in New York. He doesn't mention the guy's name, only the lesson that goes with it. 

The buddy was up for a primo job, a dream job. Prestige. Importance. Good money. Fancy office way up high in a New York skyscraper. Thomson's buddy went through a long interview process, thought he had the job, was walking on air all weekend until the phone rang Monday morning and something happened. He didn't have the job.

A week later, on what would have been the guy's first day in the office, the planes hit the towers.

"Everything happens for a reason," Thomson said.

He didn't get the Yankees' manager job. He joined the Phillies, worked as the right-hand man to two men who could not end a long postseason drought and now has ended it himself. 

The best lieutenant in baseball has proven himself to be a pretty good general.

"Coming here has been great," the 59-year-old baseball lifer said. "I never envisioned myself anywhere but New York, but I can't even tell you how great this has been. I'm grateful."

When Thomson worked for the Yankees, he became accustomed to going to the postseason. It was an expectation, a mandate from Steinbrenner and he wouldn't be happy unless a World Series flag was raised in the Bronx.

Who knows what these next few weeks hold for The Canadian. But somewhere, Mr. Steinbrenner is standing in a sky box, arms folded, watching. With pride.

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