Like many organizations, Major League Baseball clubs love to wax poetic about their culture. Most of this is empty chatter, catchphrases and buzzwords, adding up to erudite prose that conveys little actual information. When teams restructure their front office, or hire a new manager, such talk typically reaches a fever pitch but it can all be summed up succinctly; teams like to hire people they’re familiar with.
This isn’t an esoteric concept. A new manager immediately becomes the de facto team spokesman and tone-setter. Temperament, communication skills, and intelligence are important considerations beyond the more baseball specific qualities preferred. Knowing a candidate intimately and understanding how they react to different situations and challenges helps assess their likely success leading and representing the organization. So again and again, managerial searches tend to focus on candidates the front office is familiar with, leading to former players and coaches getting much of the consideration for the job.
Former Tigers outfielder, and current hitting coach for the New York Yankees, Marcus Thames certainly fits that bill for the Detroit Tigers. As Tony Paul of The Detroit News first reported, they have interviewed Thames twice this week via Zoom meetings for their managerial vacancy. That he’s never managed before is the key sticking point, as managing pitchers and representing the team to the media are often hard-won skills. But in just about every other regard he seems like a good choice. Is it time for the Tigers to re-learn what it means to be “country strong?”
Thames is a 43-year-old native of Mississippi who overcame some particularly difficult circumstances to achieve major league success. When he was just five years old, his mother Veterine was paralyzed as the result of a car accident. The Thames family struggled to make ends meet, with the children assuming responsibilities in the household at an early age while their mother ran the show from her bed. Those early demands and struggles to keep the household solvent and functioning, as well as the inspiration derived from his mother’s example, are regularly cited by Thames as the key to understanding his work ethic and strong ethos of family, teamwork, and responsibility.
Thames was a multi-sport athlete as a kid, playing both baseball and football, but was never a sought after prospect in either sport despite the imposing physique and athleticism he developed as a teenager. He joined the Mississippi National Guard in his junior year of high school to help put food on the table at home, serving for four years while completing high school and then attending community college. The New York Yankees ultimately placed an inexpensive bet on him, selecting him in the 30th round of the 1996 draft.
That was a heck of a longshot pick in retrospect. Thames’ major league debut occurred on June 10, 2002, and he made the most of it, launching the first pitch he saw, from future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson no less, into the seats for a home run and a curtain call. The legend of “Country Strong” was born. He would ultimately play just a handful of games for the Yankees before getting traded to the Texas Rangers, where he spent the 2003 season in a pinch-hitting role. After they released him, the Tigers signed him prior to the 2004 season.
You probably know the rest. Thames hit 99 homers for the Tigers over the next six seasons. He was never a regular, but came through over and over with key hits, particularly home runs, during the shocking 2006 run to the World Series, and became a bit of a folk hero in the process. Though power was his only quality baseball tool, he got the most out of it, producing one of the higher contact to damage ratios ever. As a result, he was able to carve out a 10-year career in the major leagues until his retirement in 2011.
The New York Yankees never lost their admiration for Thames. They brought him back for a look in 2010 after his time in Detroit ended, and they gave him his first coaching gig in 2013. He began as hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Yankees, their Advanced-A Florida State League affiliate. Thames steadily marched through the organization from there as their best up-and-coming hitting coach. The next year he was promoted to Double-A Trenton in the Eastern League, and then to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes/Barre in 2015 after being considered for the role of major league hitting coach. He became the Yankees assistant hitting coach for the 2016 season, and ultimately won the lead role, succeeding Alan Cockrell after the 2017 campaign.
Along the way, Thames received accolades from many players, crediting him with improving their mechanics and approach. There are article’s worth of stories like this. Players like Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman, and even a good veteran like D.J. LeMahieu have all seen their offensive game reach new heights under Thames’ tutelage, albeit with some help from Yankee Stadium’s dimensions, of course.
Thames credits his attitude, positivity and leadership skills to his upbringing and his time as a platoon leader in the National Guard. He is known around the game for a calm, laid back demeanor that belies the quiet intensity and intelligence that have made him a highly respected coach. In short, his feel for players, understanding of the power game, and ability to lead have made him sought after as a coach, and he’s been discussed as future manager material for a while now.
Does he fit in Detroit?
As a person and as a leader, Thames seems like a perfect fit. He and the Tigers front office are no doubt familiar and comfortable with one another, and he’d have time growing with his young team to gain experience handling the pitching staff. However, Thames does lack managerial experience. That’s the one fly in the ointment. Still, Thames’ track record as a hitting coach and mentor to developing players makes him a pretty attractive addition to the organization even if there are some growing pains with regard to in-game decision-making.
Differences in hitting philosophies are sometimes overstated, but Thames power-based approach would be a welcome change. While the Tigers approach has typically been geared to spraying the ball around the park rather than focusing on driving the ball in the air for power, Thames understands the modern power game. Yet he appears to have a very flexible, player-by-player approach that doesn’t seem to superimpose a rigid ideal over his hitters. He would be a plus to an organization that struggles to get the most out of its hitters, and which has often bucked offensive trends to their own detriment.
If the Tigers believe Thames can grow in the role and quickly develop skills in managing a pitching staff, he seems like a decent bet to get the job. He has a wealth of coaching experience and success working for a good Yankees’ organization, and should have the knowledge and contacts to build a good coaching staff around himself. His track record, leadership skills, and personality all seem very well suited to lead a young Tigers club to success in the years to come.