June 23, 2024

Two years of Rob Thomson, the trusting manager who helped change everything for the Phillies

PHILADELPHIA — The day before everything changed for the Phillies, Dave Dombrowski called the team’s bench coach and asked him where he was. There was no game. Rob Thomson was at Citizens Bank Park because he had video to dissect. The Los Angeles Angels, an unfamiliar opponent, were next.

Dombrowski could not have this conversation at the ballpark. “Can you meet me at my place?” the veteran executive asked Thomson. This was unusual; Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, had not had a visitor to his high-rise condo in Center City. He went downstairs to tell the doorman it was fine for Thomson to enter.

Dombrowski knew he’d fire manager Joe Girardi the next day. But he was not certain about Thomson as his replacement. The two men talked about the club. It was awkward for Thomson, who was a loyal subordinate to Girardi. Dombrowski offered him the job.

“I’d be stupid,” Thomson told Dombrowski, “to turn it down.”

It’s been two years since everything changed. It was, Dombrowski admitted this weekend, one of the more consequential decisions he’s made in his decorated career. The Phillies have won the fourth-most games in MLB since June 3, 2022 — Thomson’s first day on the job — and it is not because of the manager. But people across the organization have described a massive culture shift since Thomson inherited the manager’s office. It is built on the 60-year-old unpretentious baseball lifer from Canada creating trust that has not wavered.

Everyone has a job. Thomson believes they will do it. He does not interfere or panic — and that mindset has become the standard within a franchise not known for its steadiness. The Phillies have emerged as a force in the National League in those two years with Thomson.

“How 2022 unfolded was magical and historical,” current Phillies bench coach Mike Calitri said of the team’s run to the World Series. “But now that I look back at the last 700-plus days, it makes more sense. There were always great pieces here. He was just able to put the puzzle together.”

Two years ago, Thomson walked out of Dombrowski’s building. He was dizzy. At that moment, only two men knew it was done. Thomson would be the next manager. He decided to walk seven blocks to his apartment at The Franklin Residences.

“Hundreds of people walking by me,” Thomson said. “I’m thinking, ‘My life’s going to change. Big time.’ I won’t be able to do this at some point.”

He had no idea. He called his wife. He called his kids. No one else could know.

“And then,” Thomson said, “I just waited.”

He did not sleep that night.

Rob Thomson is introduced as Phillies manager by Dave Dombrowski at a news conference on June 3, 2022. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Riley Wilson’s minor-league career ended Sept. 17, 2021. He was a 25-year-old lefty reliever in rookie ball. He struck out two batters and hit the last one he faced. The Phillies released him that December, but they offered him something else. He became a Phillies intern in 2022 with the advance scouting group — a tedious job that required long hours to unearth trends about upcoming opponents that may or may not factor into winning an actual baseball game. Thomson liked his work ethic. When Thomson became manager and elevated Calitri to bench coach, they needed someone to work the video replay room during games.

The intern took over the replay challenges for Thomson.

“Through that first little bit, where it was rocky for sure, he never turned his back on me,” Wilson said. “It would have been easy for him to lose patience with me early on. But he never did that. He always stuck with me.”

On Sunday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, there was a close play at second base. Calitri picked up the dugout phone to call Wilson. They were running out of time. Go for it, Wilson said. The challenge was successful and, ultimately, led to two Phillies runs. It was the Phillies’ 13th successful challenge in 2024. That is tied for the most in the majors.

Wilson is not an intern anymore.

“Thoms has really good people around him,” Phillies third-base coach Dusty Wathan said. “There’s a lot of managers that have good people around and don’t trust them. And it goes both ways. Right? He trusts everybody and, in turn, you start to trust him.

“Even if you’re a young player, he lets you work through things. He might let pitchers go an extra batter or two. And that really pays dividends down the road. The trust factor is huge.”

It’s something that has resonated with Zack Wheeler.

“I like the fact that he respects me and how I feel,” Wheeler said. “He always asks me. He rarely tells me when I’m coming out of the game. So I respect that. That’s why I try to be as honest as I can with him because he trusts me back.”

There is something to that.

“Yeah,” Wheeler said. “I’ve never had that before.”

Rob Thomson takes the ball from Zack Wheeler in Game 1 of the 2023 Wild Card Series against the Marlins. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

It’s been two years with Thomson, and only three teams (Dodgers, Braves and Orioles) have won more regular-season games than the Phillies. Thomson has won 196 of his 333 games — the eighth-most by a manager, in that many games, to begin their career since MLB expanded in 1961. It’s the most by a manager who took over a team midseason, according to STATS Perform.

His .589 winning percentage is the best by any Phillies manager since 1890.

Everything has changed in the last 731 days.

“It feels like yesterday,” said Thomson, who was hired as interim manager but had the tag removed four months later, in October 2022. “Really. I mean, it’s just been so much fun with the group that we have, the staff that we have, and the front office that we have. I can’t imagine a place being any better than what we have here. I really can’t.”

Thomson, who has been with the Phillies since 2018 and is signed through 2025, leaned forward at his desk.

“And that’s why I will never work again,” he said. “Whenever this is over, I’m done. Because I can’t imagine a place replicating what we got going here.”

Now, it is hard to imagine this place without him.

“He’s the right person,” Calitri said, “for this time with this group.”

Rob Thomson toasts the Phillies after they defeated the Padres in the 2022 NLCS to advance to the World Series. (Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Two years ago, Dombrowski wondered how Thomson would be different as the boss. It’s one thing to be the right-hand man. You stay in your lane. But there was no change.

“No,” Dombrowski said. “He’s just much more comfortable discussing things and talking openly. And I had to tell him: I’ve been doing this a long time. But you still have to tell me how you feel. It’s important. I’m not down there. I may have an opinion. It doesn’t mean I’m always right.”

That transparency, Kyle Schwarber said, has carried the most weight with younger players. They know where they stand with Thomson. “He’s straight-up honest with them,” Schwarber said. They know days in advance when they will or won’t play. It’s not a guessing game — or an overreaction to a bad night.

“He knows,” Bryson Stott said, “how hard baseball actually is.”

With continuity among the players and coaches, the Phillies have better developed unfinished players at the big-league level — a goal that had eluded the organization for years. They have constructed a pitching program that has blended new-age ideas with old-school thinking. They have come to embody the manager’s steadiness.

“I don’t say a whole lot,” Thomson said. “But when I say something, they listen. And they do it. That’s who they are. I think that’s probably the main reason. I want them to be themselves. I want them to come to the ballpark and have fun. But there’s a difference between having fun and (messing) around. And they know that I know the difference. So, I think that’s how it works.”

It works because, for two years, the standard has not fluctuated.

“To know Rob Thomson,” Calitri said, “is to know that he cares more about other people and is more empathetic to their needs than he is to himself — on almost every level. His consistency is unparalleled.”

(Top photo of Rob Thomson: Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)