Ontario border town giving Phillies some love to support local skipper Rob Thomson

CORUNNA, Ont. — Sporting loyalties on the Ontario side of the St. Clair River have been split between Toronto and Detroit for decades.

The Blue Jays and Tigers hats have been put away for another season and the hockey rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings won't be renewed for a few more weeks.

There's a new rooting interest in the border town of Corunna, Ont., and surrounding area. The Philadelphia Phillies are getting the love now that local skipper Rob Thomson has guided the team to the World Series.

"Whoever thought a Corunna boy who went to the same high school that we did was going to do something like this," said local resident Becky Gilliland. "It's amazing."

Thomson took over as manager of the Phillies on June 3 and helped a 22-29 team turn its season around, eventually claiming the final post-season spot in the National League.

Philadelphia won three playoff rounds and split the first four games of the Fall Classic against the Houston Astros. Game 5 in the best-of-seven series was scheduled for Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park.

Thomson, 59, was born in Sarnia and grew up in nearby Corunna, a small town of about 5,500 that overlooks the river and Marysville, Mich., on the American side.

He played for the Stratford Hillers of the Intercounty Baseball League in the early 1980s and reached the Class-A level as a player before turning to coaching in 1988.

Thomson joined the New York Yankees organization in 1990 and worked his way up the coaching ranks. A 2019 inductee in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, he spent the last few seasons as Philadelphia's bench coach before his promotion to manager.

"He's really been a lifer in baseball," said Hall operations director Scott Crawford.

Some Phillies flags can be spotted flying on front porches in the cosy, friendly community of Corunna — pronounced kuh-RUN'-ah — about a 90-minute drive from Detroit and a four-hour trip from Toronto.

Antonio's Pizza, located a stone's throw from the fields where Thomson learned the game, posted a congratulatory note to him on its signage along the main drag of the three-stoplight town.

Inside the restaurant and sports bar, a couple dozen people — almost all pro-Phillies — took in the Game 4 action on the big screen.

Gilliland and friends purchased the "Rob Thomson Special," a jug of beer and medium Philly pizza with green peppers, onions, beef strips and aioli sauce.

"That's a small-town kid that made the bigs," she said, looking up at the screen. "There he is doing big things."

Thomson is the first Canadian to serve as a manager in the World Series since 1887, when Bill Watkins of Brantford, Ont., guided the Detroit Wolverines to victory over the St. Louis Browns.

Longtime Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said baseball loyalties are divided in the area, but when Detroit failed to make the playoffs and Toronto made an early exit, the "whole mood switched."

"It's all Phillies now and (there's) a great love of Rob and the team," he said. "And it's genuine because they've seen this workhorse guy who's very quiet just keep on doing what he's doing.

"Now look at the success that he's achieved."

Crawford said Thomson, who played for Canada at the 1984 Olympics when baseball was a demonstration sport, is just a regular guy who has enjoyed a long career.

"He's just the friendliest, nicest person," he said. "You hear that a lot about people, but it's a World Series game day and he (takes time to) text me back to say thanks for wishing him good luck."

Lindsay Reid, a server at Antonio's, said there was a significant uptick in patrons — many clad in Philadelphia jerseys — to watch the series opener last Friday.

The series will shift back to Houston for Game 6 on Saturday, and if a deciding game is necessary it will be played Sunday at Minute Maid Park.

"There's definitely a huge vibe now," Reid said. "The unfortunate thing is you can't find too much American (team) apparel here so a lot of people are going to have to order it.

"I actually saw a little kid had a Phillies hat and somebody (offered) her $20 to get that hat. So I think people are pretty excited."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press