In a sport like baseball, which has been around for over a hundred years, it’s seldom something that happens for the first time. But on Thursday, Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson will write his own page in baseball history books when he becomes the first Canadian to lead a team to the World Series.
In typically reserved Thomson fashion, he downplays the historical achievement.
“There were so many firsts this year that I really didn’t have time to really think about it. I am Canadian. I live there in the off-season,” Thomson told CBC. “I love our country and what we’re about, but as the first Canadian to ever referee the World Series, I really didn’t think about it that way.
“I’m just really happy to be in the World Series.”
Thomson’s Phillies defeated the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series to earn their place in the Fall Classic. They face American League champions Houston Astros in Game 1 scheduled for Friday.
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Thompson may not be celebrating his accomplishment, but it’s significant, says Scott Crawford, the superintendent of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, of which Thomson is a member.
“It shows that Canadians can handle big things. We know as much about baseball and are just as good at baseball as any other country,” Crawford said. “Having Rob on the big screen for the World Series just goes to show that if Rob can do it from a small town in southern Ontario, anyone in Canada can do it.”
Thomson has traveled many places in his decade-long baseball journey, but always stayed close to the small town where he grew up. He was born in Sarnia, Ontario, but his home was just down the freeway in Corunna, a small town of about 2,000 people.
And when the 59-year-old takes to baseball’s biggest stage, many of the city’s residents will be closely watching and celebrating the man they’ve known since childhood.
At Antonio’s Pizza, on the main drag in town, the large sign in front of the restaurant wishes Thompson and his Phillies the best of luck. Inside, staff are decked out in Phillies attire and proudly advertise the Rob Thomson World Series Special. It includes a mug of beer and a Philly pizza modeled after the famous Philly cheesesteak.
“I think it’s great. I think it says a lot for a person to come from a small town and start on a small baseball field and work your way up to the World Series. It’s amazing,” said Ann Maitland, one of the restaurant’s wait staff.
Rick Corner is pretty proud too.
“He was the bat boy to many [local] teams,” recalled Corner, a longtime family friend of the Thomsons who spent many hours playing baseball with and against the family.
“They were a die-hard baseball family, eat, sleep, drink, baseball, their entire lives,” Corner said. “Yes I think the potential was there (to lead a team to the World Series) but Corunna was a small 2,000 person community. I don’t think anyone could have imagined that.”
As a player, Thomson was good enough to play college baseball at the University of Kansas and was eventually drafted by the Detroit Tigers. But after a few years in the Tigers’ minor league system, he realized his future in baseball lay in coaching.
For the past 30 years he has coached in the Detroit, New York Yankees and Philadelphia organizations. He finally landed a job as major league head coach this year when the Phillies fired his predecessor, Joe Girardi, a few months into the season.
“[Thomson] always wanted to be a manager. He didn’t get a chance with the Yankees, but he did great in Philly and the players just love him,” Corner said. “He is a very humble person. Nothing is about Robbie Thomson. He’s about the team, he’s about supporting the boys.”
Corner stayed in touch with Thomson over the years, most recently visiting him in Philadelphia shortly after Thomson took over as manager. He was also instrumental in putting together an exhibit at the Moore Museum near Corunna that pays tribute to Thomson’s baseball career.
“I met Robbie at home to ask his thoughts. He says I support you 100 percent whatever you want to do there. So I tried to set up a chronological exhibition in the museum itself,” Corner said.
The exhibition features objects, pictures and uniforms from when Thomson played in Corunna as a child to the present day. It includes jerseys from his days at Kansas University and his Tigers days, as well as his 1984 Canada Olympic team jersey of which Thomson was a member.
“Rob gave me some Yankees jerseys from his time there and some Phillies jerseys. There are so many pictures and stories on display. I’m very proud,” Corner said.
Corner said he hopes Thomson’s appearance on baseball’s biggest stage will draw many to the museum to see where it all began for his lifelong friend. But it’s about more.
“If I can inspire a little kid seeing this display to see that this man came as a bat boy from a community of 2,000 and made it straight into the big leagues. If that can inspire a little kid, then I’ve achieved my goal,” Corner said.
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