Chet Greason email@example.com
Baseball fans of all ages were treated to a glimpse inside the world of the majors when New York Yankees bench coach Rob Thomson paid a visit to Stratford's International Canadian Academy of Sports Excellence (iCASE).
Thomson, a Stratford resident, fielded questions from the academy's students, as well as their excited parents, during a question and answer period at iCASE's open house on Saturday, Jan. 17.
Growing up just outside of Sarnia, Thomson played with the Stratford Hillers, which is how he came to know and relocate to the area. He played on Canada's first Olympic baseball team at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles before being drafted into the minors as part of the Detroit Tigers' farm system.
"I knew the first day that I wasn't going to make it (to the big leagues)," Thomson told the small crowd. "There were just too many great players that were better than me. So when they offered me the coaching job, I jumped on it."
Thomson was eventually hired by the Yankees, a team that he says is "Probably the greatest franchise in the world." He served as bench coach in 2008 and third base coach from 2009-2014. This year, he's back in the role as bench coach, which he describes as a kind of assistant manager position.
He said he loved coaching third, although it's a very tough job.
"Nobody really talks to you unless someone is thrown out," he said. "But I liked the action, the quick decisions, and having to be held accountable for those decisions."
Thomson has faced some criticism in the past for the number of runners he sent home that were thrown out, but he explained to the youngsters that a perfect record on third is not necessarily something to strive for.
"Having no one thrown out all year is actually a bad thing," he said. "It means you're not being aggressive enough, and it's a bad sign. It means you're probably missing out on some potential scores."
A number of questions dealt with two of the Yankees' biggest stars: Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
He described the recently retired Jeter as being very talented, "but I've seen a lot more talented guys. Rodriguez, for example."
Instead, Thomson said Jeter possesses certain characteristics and traits that upped his game from simply being a talented baseball player to one of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen. Among those were an almost constant drive to compete and incomparable hustle.
"He's the first guy at the ball park every day," said Thomson. "He watches all kinds of film, and in the off-season he's on a weight program. It's one of the reasons he's lasted so long."
In addition, Thomson said Jeter respects everyone around him, from teammates to media.
"You'll never hear a bad thing about Derek Jeter because I've never heard him disrespect someone."
Thomson added that it's a tough gig in New York to maintain all of the qualities, especially throughout a storied, 20-year career like Jeter's.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, was described as pure talent. A more controversial figure who is coming off a record-setting 221 game suspension for his involvement with a performance-enhancing drug scandal, Thomson acknowledged that "A-Rod" has made some bad decisions in the past.
"If you ever think to put that HGH (human growth hormone) or steroids in your system, don't!" Thomson stressed. "It will kill you, and you will get caught."
Despite the controversy, Thomson said Rodriguez is a very thoughtful and generous teammate.
"I love him. I don't love him for the mistakes he's made, but I will support him," he said.
Thomson confirmed that A-Rod would return to the field in 2015.
Stay in school
When an iCASE student asked Thomson about the rate of pay allotted to players in the minors, Thomson answered that he thought minor league pay "is not a good situation."
"They're living below poverty levels," he stated. "That's why you guys should stay in school."
Thomson went on to explain how only five per cent of players signed to a minor league contract actually make it to the majors; and of those, the average career length is only two to three years.
"You guys read about players like Alex and Jeter making zillions of dollars, but there's still a whole group of guys out there who aren't making much. Even if you get there, you're still going to need to find a job when you're done."
Other attendees asked Thomson about his favourite stadiums to play in besides Yankee Stadium (Seattle), grass versus turf (grass), instant replay (not a fan as it robs the game of the human element), the Yankees' prospects for the year ("If we stay healthy, we'll be fine"), and the Toronto Blue Jays' prospects ("Russell Martin will make that club a lot better").
When asked about the league's attempts to shorten games and whether he thought games ran too long, he noted that they didn't seem long to him, "but I'm involved."
"Meanwhile, a kid at home is going to be sent to bed before the game's over at 11," he said. "They'll lose interest if they can't see the end of the game, and we need kids involved or I'm out of a job."
Another question dealt with Thomson's preference between the old and new Yankee Stadium. Thomson said he preferred the former.
"Ticket prices are a little high," he said of the team's new home, which replaced the original in 2009. "That means we get a lot of business men, not the construction workers we'd get at the old stadium. They used to buy a ticket, drink a few beers, and get rowdy (and loud), and really intimidate the other team."
Speech has a ring to it
Thomson also brought along his World Series ring that he was awarded for the 2009 season. He's got five rings in total at home. The young attendees were thrilled when he passed the ring through the crowd and allowed them to take photos while wearing it.
He quizzed attendees as to who possesses the most World Series rings. One astute young person offered Yogi Berra, who indeed has the most of any player (10 in total.)
But Thomson revealed the real record belongs to Frankie Crosetti, a shortstop and, later, a third base coach for the Yankees, who garnered 17 rings between 1932 and 1964.