FOX Sports MLB Analyst
CLEARWATER, Fla. — In February 1997, a 34-year-old third base coach for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate was given an enormous responsibility: running minor league spring training.
Rob Thomson’s task had previously belonged to Mark Newman, who had served as the team’s minor league field coordinator for seven seasons. But Newman had been promoted to vice president of player development and scouting the previous season and the club had yet to fill his old role. That meant someone needed to take over New York’s minor league camp while Newman ran things on the big league side.
And so, he turned to the ever-reliable Thomson.
But to design all the different drills, rotations and player groups, Thomson had to teach himself a new computer program, one that had been completely foreign to the coach: Microsoft Word.
“I had never used a computer,” Thomson told FOX Sports. “The first time I wore one was during that spring training in ’97.”
Eventually, he adjusted to the new technology and proceeded to command what he remembers as a neat and productive camp. Thomson did so well that after the 1997 season, Newman offered him the field coordinator position for 1998, a job that involved organizing spring training for the major and minor leagues.
While Thomson couldn’t have known it at the time, his ability to coordinate a well-run camp would become a defining characteristic of his coaching life. From that spring of 1997 through last year, Thomson conducted 25 consecutive spring training sessions, the first 20 for the Yankees in Tampa, the last five for the Phillies in Clearwater. Ask any coach who spent time working with or for Philadelphia’s manager, and they’ll tell you how well he runs spring training and how much he loves doing it.
But Thomson, 59, who intended 2022 to be his last season as the Phillies’ bench coach before retiring, has a new job these days. When former captain Joe Girardi was given the jerk last year in early June, the man now forever known as “Philly Rob” took the reins. And after guiding the Phillies through an unforgettable season, Thomson is experiencing spring training as a major league manager for the first time.
That means a different set of responsibilities: daily media meetings, a more hands-on approach with the big league club, being on the bench during spring training games, etc. And so, for the first time since he learned to operate Microsoft Word, Thomson is no longer responsible for the day-to-day minutiae that had become the pace of his February. That job has fallen on the shoulders of bench coach Mike Calitri, the man who took over as bench coach once Thomson was promoted.
And Calitri, well, use Excel.
“[Calitri] and I’ve been working together since we came to the Phillies, so he knows exactly what to do,” Thomson explained, like a seasoned wedding planner finally handing over the reins of the business to a beloved protégé. “Our early days have been right. .”
Running spring training is a hectic and thankless job. It requires an immense amount of organization, constant communication with the entire coaching staff, and many, many extremely early mornings.
Calitri estimates that, so far this spring, she has woken up around 4:30 a.m. most days, and is usually lying on her pillow around 8:45 p.m., but it’s a process. that you intend to do the right way.
And with the king of spring across the aisle, Calitri’s first camp at the helm has been perfect.
“It’s been helpful to have him as a resource.” Calitri said. “But he had so many different versions of the calendar and a lot of it lives in his head.”
For fans who watch camp via short social media videos of their favorite players stretching or playing catch, spring training may not seem all that complicated. But the whole operation can be a bit like conducting an orchestra or hosting a busy business convention, except it’s outdoors in the Florida sun and no one blows the trumpet.
Whether it’s making sure Rookie X is in the same BP pool as Veteran Y or that a certain catcher is available for a particular pitcher’s bullpen session or that the infielders and outfielders finish their individual drills simultaneously Before a full team session, there are a million things for Calitri or any other coordinator to keep track of.
Overseeing a well-oiled spring training is like conducting an orchestra or hosting a well-attended business convention, except you’re outside in the Florida sun and there are no trumpets. But at the end of the day, it’s about avoiding injuries and ensuring that the big dogs prepare for the season and that the younger players have a chance to develop.
In Thomson’s opinion, those goals are achieved by making sure that players (1) are never confused about where to be and (2) never just stand around doing nothing.
“I used to think of it as being in a helicopter,” he said. “I watch players move, making sure they always move in a circle, not crisscross. If you make them run, you’ll lose them.”
But that’s no longer Thomson’s direct concern: After 25 years, he’s earned the right to take his hands off the wheel a bit and let someone else steer the ship. Chances are he won’t even have to start Microsoft Word all spring.
Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He is an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and thus leads a solitary existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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