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Ex-Lakeland Tigers Lovullo, Thomson meet in NLCS

Once Class A teammates, managers will face off on national stage
October 15, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- They were in their early 20s at the time, there for the summer -- maybe longer -- some of them not yet two years out of high school. Lakeland, Fla., didn’t offer many diversions in those days, so the hours were spent night fishing, relaxing or hanging by

PHILADELPHIA -- They were in their early 20s at the time, there for the summer -- maybe longer -- some of them not yet two years out of high school. Lakeland, Fla., didn’t offer many diversions in those days, so the hours were spent night fishing, relaxing or hanging by the pool. Most never reached the Majors. Fewer still on that Class A Lakeland team made any sort of impact.

At least two were different right from the jump. There was Rob Thomson, the native Canadian, demonstrative as a catcher and a bit older than most. At 23, Thomson’s time as a Minor League baseball player was already running short. There was also Torey Lovullo, a quieter presence, introspective and talented. Lovullo had spent most of his first professional season at a lower Class A level before joining the Lakeland Tigers late in the summer. There, he met Thomson.

Thirty-six years later, their paths are crossing again. Thomson, now manager of the Phillies, has been charged with taking the National League’s top Wild Card team and accomplishing what he couldn’t quite achieve last season -- this time, as an on-paper favorite to reach the World Series. Lovullo, manager of the D-backs, will challenge Thomson with a capable roster that appears to be peaking, having won all five of its postseason games to date.

“I always knew being around those two that they had the mind to definitely do something else once their playing careers were over,” said Kevin Bradshaw, a teammate of both men with Lakeland. “Their minds worked different from the rest of us. They were always thinking the game. You just knew that they were going to be able to do something.”

Thirty-six years later, what they’ve done is come full circle.

* * * * *

For years, Lakeland's most famous resident was a one-eyed, three-legged alligator named Blinky who would frequently wander into town. This was Lakeland in the 1980s -- not quite a backwater, but full of water out back. In addition to giving the city its name, the dozens of area lakes offered diversions for those with little money and plenty of free time.

A group of ballplayers, many of them away from home for the first time, certainly qualified.

Like most Minor League clubs, the 1987 Lakeland Tigers were a mix of legitimate prospects pining for the Majors and lesser players scraping to keep their careers alive. Barely any of them had reached their 25th birthdays. Games were hot, and the club averaged fewer than 1,000 fans per night.

During idle hours, the Tigers would play “tape ball” -- a stickball variation featuring a fungo bat and rolled-up sanitary socks balled together using medical tape. Eight-bit Nintendo baseball games were popular. Late-night food was scarce. Players used employee identification cards to order discounted pizza from a local Domino’s chain, courtesy of Tigers owner and pizza tycoon Tom Monaghan.

And of course there were the alligators.

Manager John Wockenfuss loved to fish, taking his boat out late after games or early in the morning. On at least one occasion, Wockenfuss caught several baby gators, fastened their mouths shut, and hid them under clothing at his players’ lockers. A player like Thomson or Lovullo might have picked up his shirt to see an agitated reptile staring back at him.

Another time, Wockenfuss managed to wrangle a fully-grown alligator into the clubhouse bathroom, which he barricaded with stools. Players arrived to find the beast “moonwalking around … Michael Jackson-ing around the locker room,” as former equipment manager and longtime Lakeland employee Rob Fredericks laughingly recalled it. Someone from the city parks department had to come remove it.

It was into this culture that Thomson and Lovullo arrived on decidedly different terms. Thomson, a 32nd-round Draft pick from the University of Kansas, had been in the Tigers’ system since 1985 without much on-field success. During those days, Tigers president Jim Campbell didn’t believe in employing Minor League coaches. So director of player development Joe McDonald found a workaround, listing Thomson as an active player but, by 1988, essentially employing him as a full-time coach.

“Early on, you kind of knew that Robbie probably wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues or anything,” Fredericks said. “But he just loved the game.”

Lovullo, by contrast, came to the club as a fifth-round Draft pick in 1987 who had just set the UCLA career record for home runs.

“A really talented player,” as Thomson put it.

Because Lovullo spent much of his first professional season in the lower-ranked South Atlantic League, he and Thomson appeared on the same roster only briefly. But they did manage to form a bit of a connection. Most Tigers players stayed at a converted hotel that abutted Lake Parker, a short drive (or long walk) from Joker Marchant Stadium. After games, they would often lounge around with their teammates, wives and girlfriends and learn about each other.

“I wouldn’t say that they were best friends or anything,” Fredericks said. “I wouldn’t say they were super, super tight. But all of us were pretty close.”

“Back then, it was a lot different,” Bradshaw added. “We almost all lived together. You really got to bond back then.”

Eventually, the summer ended, and most players moved on -- some to an ongoing career in baseball, others to a civilian life. And that’s where the story certainly could have ended.

* * * * *

Those who knew Thomson and Lovullo in the late 1980s described the former as more outgoing, a bit of a prankster, and the latter as quiet and serious.

“Both guys were complete leaders,” said Wayne Housie, an outfielder on the 1987 Lakeland team. “So no, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they made it to this level, and they’ve been able to execute as well. Both guys have a leadership mentality. They showed it back then.”

Following the summer of 1987, Thomson moved onto his coaching internship under Johnny Lipon, one of the winningest Minor League managers in history. Before long, the Yankees came calling, hiring Thomson as a coach and keeping him in their employ for more than a quarter century. It was not until the Yanks passed over Thomson for a managerial job that he moved south to Philadelphia, where he found himself in the right place to become interim boss and orchestrate a 2022 World Series run.

Until that all happened, Thomson had considered retirement. Now, he says, he’s scrapped such thoughts: “I’m having too much fun.”

Lovullo, meanwhile, spent parts of eight seasons in the Majors as a player before taking coaching jobs with Cleveland and Boston. He became Arizona’s manager in 2016. Over the years, given more extended interactions as opposing coaches and managers, Thomson and Lovullo became closer than they had been as brief Lakeland teammates.

Earlier this season, Thomson vocally criticized Lovullo for yelling at his catcher, J.T. Realmuto, after Matt Strahm hit Corbin Carroll with a pitch. But the incident didn’t have any apparent long-term effect on their relationship. On the eve of the NL Championship Series, Thomson offered nothing but compliments for Lovullo, calling him “a really good baseball man” who “cares about his players, cares about the game.”

Lovullo, in turn, said that he’s “always been a huge fan” of Thomson, “because I know how much he loves baseball.”

The Lakeland lineage includes two other former Minor League players, Dave Roberts and Gabe Kapler, who went on to become big league managers. Lovullo’s D-backs were the ones who dispatched Roberts’ Dodgers in the NL Division Series, setting up another matchup of former Tigers farmhands in the NLCS.

No matter what happens this week, a Lakeland alumnus will reach the World Series -- a point of pride for anyone who knew them way back when.

“I [root] for both men,” McDonald said. “I love them both. Credit to the two of them for sticking it out with their lack of great ability to play the game, and then to have the success that they’re having.”

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for since 2007. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.