When the Mariners were in Cincinnati in early July, Reds manager Dusty Baker told Robby Thompson he thought he was ready to manage.
The two have been close since Baker was Thompson’s hitting coach, and later his manager, with the Giants. Thompson, in fact, began his coaching career on Baker’s San Francisco staff in 2000 and 2001. Baker told Thompson in July he would be happy to help spread his name around the game as a managerial candidate.
Thompson, who had been Eric Wedge’s bench coach in Seattle since his hiring in 2011, told Baker to hold off, for the time being.
“I want to make sure I’m 100 percent in,’’ Thompson told Baker. “I don’t know how or when I’m going to know that, but I want to make sure I’m like you and Eric: All in.’’
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Baker told Thompson that he understood, but when the time was right, he’d know.
And then fate intervened. Less than three weeks later, Thompson found himself thrust into the Mariners’ managerial seat when Wedge was felled with what has been termed a mild stroke. Just a year earlier, Baker had missed time late in the season with what was termed a “mini-stroke.”
While Thompson fully embraces that he is merely keeping the job warm for Wedge’s return — and he stated unequivocally on Sunday that Wedge “will be back“ — his stint running the Mariners has helped erase any lingering doubts about his readiness or desire.
“I’ve really enjoyed this, although it’s under unfortunate circumstances, with Eric being sick,” said Thompson, who will continue to manage the Mariners at least through their six-game trip which begins Tuesday against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
“I think it’s going to be a great learning experience for me. I’ll figure out whether I like it, and whether I feel I can do it. And the answer to those two right there: I think I can. Both of them. I think I do want to do it, and I think I can do it. I have a lot of trust and confidence in myself I can do it.”
Thompson, 51, added that if an opportunity arose during the offseason, “I’ll really think hard about it, and maybe go interview. And even if I don’t get a job, I think going through the interview process would be huge. I’ll learn from that for the next time or opportunity. I do think I’m ready.”
That’s an opinion shared throughout the game. Thompson, in fact, was labeled as potential managerial timber throughout his overachieving 11-year career with the Giants, which resulted in two All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove at second base.
When Thompson joined the Cleveland staff in 2002 as Charlie Manuel’s first-base and infield coach, he and Wedge first crossed paths. And when Thompson moved to the front office for the next eight years as a special assistant to then-general manager Mark Shapiro, and Wedge replaced Manuel as manager, the two grew closer. In 2005, when Wedge’s bench coach, Buddy Bell, left in June to manage the Royals, Thompson finished the season as the Indians’ bench coach.
Wedge and Thompson share a gritty approach to the game.
“Eric has said before, we’re like two peas in a pod,’’ Thompson said. “Eric’s a hard-nosed guy. He really does have a kind side to him, and a very generous side. Eric takes care of everyone but Eric. He’s concerned about everyone more so than himself. That includes his players, it includes us as staff, other people in general. He really does have a soft spot.
“When it comes to the game, it’s sincere. He cares about the game, he cares about how the game is played, not just by our club, but the other players, and the other teams, because the game should always be respected and played right. Respect is one of the major things he believes in.”
When Wedge’s contract was not renewed by the Indians after the 2009 season, he asked Thompson if he would be on his staff if and when he was hired again. Thompson, whose children were now grown, readily accepted — except he didn’t know where they’d be headed. After sitting out the 2010 season, Wedge was in hot demand, interviewing with the Cubs, Brewers, Blue Jays and Pirates, among others.
After his Mariners interview, Wedge was scheduled to return to Toronto for a second interview. Instead, he called Thompson at 1 in the morning at his Florida home, waking him up. After screening the call the first time, Thompson sleepily answered when Wedge immediately called back.
“I’ve got good news,’’ Wedge told him. “Are you still on board?”
“Yeah, of course,’’ Thompson replied, “Where are we going?”
“Seattle,’’ replied Wedge.
As Thompson tells it now, “Silence. He’s like, ‘Are you still there?’ I’m thinking Seattle, really? Florida. Seattle. Really?’
“I got back on and said, ‘Congratulations, I’m on board. I was fired up. But when he said Seattle, it buckled me.”
Now Thompson says he loves the Northwest and is excited about the Mariners’ future. His main concern, however, is Wedge’s return to health.
Thompson talked extensively about Wedge’s passion for the Mariners and his job. Asked if that will have to be modified because of the stroke, Thompson replied, “I don’t think the passion will change. But that was a life-changing moment for him.
“We all know that. I think his priorities will maybe change a little bit, but probably not much. His heart, and soul, and passion will still be there, but he may look at things a little differently. Wins and losses will probably mean the same, but maybe not taken as hard as they were in the past.”
No one knows quite when Wedge will return. By all accounts, he looked and sounded strong when he made a surprise appearance at Safeco on Sunday to talk to the team. But as Thompson said, “It (the stroke) was a severe thing. Eric knows that, he understands that, and that’s how he’s going to handle it.”
He said Wedge has told him his return will be “baby steps … I don’t know if he’s going to be able to come right back in, first day, boom, up on the top step and running the show. He’ll know when that day is. I’m sure he’ll come back in uniform, pregame, and slowly get back into it.”
Thompson said he’s excited to return from the trip to assess Wedge’s progress. He will happily hand over managerial duties when Wedge is ready to return.
But now Thompson has the firm knowledge that one day, he’d like his own team.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.