Remembering Lee Thomas, architect of those great 1993 Phillies memories originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Whenever the conversation turns to the most beloved teams in Philadelphia sports history, the 1993 Phillies are mentioned prominently.
OK, so that team lost in the World Series. We know that. But all these years later, the pain inflicted by Joe Carter’s dagger has dulled and the mere mention of the scruffy characters who authored that enchanted season brings a boy-that-was-fun smile to Philadelphia’s collective sporting face.
That throwback gang of gamers shook off a last place finish the year before and won the National League pennant thanks in large part to a special kind of winning chemistry that could be traced to the deft moves of a roster scientist named Lee Thomas.
Thomas, the Phillies general manager from 1988 through 1997, died Wednesday at his home in suburban St. Louis. He was 86 and had battled illness the last few years.
Thomas was such an intense and fiery competitor during a 17-year playing career that teammates called him “Mad Dog.” Off the field, he never ceased being a gentleman. He was widely respected around the game, both as a player and an executive.
Lee Thomas and Ed Wade in 2018 at the 1993 Phillies reunion.
Born in Peoria, Illinois and raised in St. Louis, Thomas signed with the New York Yankees out of high school in 1954.
A hard-hitting outfielder/first baseman who hit from the left side, he put up big numbers while climbing the ladder in the Yankees’ bountiful farm system. He hit .332 with 27 doubles, 10 triples, 28 homers and 112 RBIs in just 116 games split between Double A and Triple A in 1960 but could not crack a star-studded Yankees’ roster that was making a habit of winning American League pennants.
Thomas cracked through and made the Yankees’ opening day roster as a reserve in 1961. Playing time was scarce. That was the year the Yankees won 109 games with Roger Maris hitting 61 homers and Mickey Mantle swatting 54.
Thomas had batted just twice — both as a pinch-hitter — when the 1961 Yankees, already 12-5 on the season, headed to Los Angeles for a series against the expansion Angels in early May.
Mantle died in August 1995. Thomas, then the Phillies general manager, recalled the kindness that his old teammate had shown him during his rookie season.
“I hadn’t been playing much and there was some talk that the Angels had interest in trading for me,” Thomas said that day in 1995. “Mickey and Roger Maris caught wind of it and gave up their swings in batting practice a couple of days so I could get extra swings in front of (Angels manager) Bill Rigney.”
Thomas, then 25, put on a show for Rigney in batting practice and a few days later was traded to the Angels.
“I’ve always been grateful to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris for what they did for me,” Thomas said in 1995.
Thomas made the most of his opportunity with the Angels, hitting .284 with 24 homers and 70 RBIs in 130 games in 1961. He hit .290 with 26 homers and 104 RBIs the next season and was an American League All-Star.
Over the remainder of his career, he played with the Red Sox, Cubs, Braves and Astros. He also spent time in Japan.
After his playing career, Thomas returned to his hometown of St. Louis and worked in several roles for the Cardinals. He made his front office mark as the team’s director of player development and had a hand in grooming the 1982 World Series championship club and NL pennant winners in 1985 and 1987.
In June 1988, Bill Giles hired Thomas as GM of the Phillies and Thomas made a slew of acquisitions that started the team’s slow build to the 1993 pennant.
Thomas traded for Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Curt Schilling, Terry Mulholland, Danny Jackson, Tommy Greene, Wes Chamberlain, Ben Rivera, Roger Mason and David West. He signed Mitch Williams and Larry Andersen. He picked up Dave Hollins in the Rule 5 draft. He hired his old Angels teammate, Jim Fregosi, as manager and Fregosi empowered a homegrown underachiever named Darren Daulton to take over the clubhouse and be the team leader, a show of confidence that helped Daulton become a star.
Thomas signed veteran role players Mariano Duncan, Pete Incaviglia, Milt Thompson and Jim Eisenreich. He brought Mickey Morandini and Kevin Stocker to the majors.
The 1993 Phillies won 97 games and drew more than 3.1 million fans, the most ever in a season at Veterans Stadium. The club defeated the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS and lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays on a Game 6 walk-off home run by Carter. After the season, Thomas was named Major League Baseball Executive of the Year by the Sporting News.
The Phillies slipped to fourth place in 1994 and entered a rebuild in 1997. Thomas had long moved on by the time the Phillies returned to the postseason in 2007 and won the World Series in 2008, but he had an impact on that club. Two of his hires, Ed Wade and Mike Arbuckle, helped build the homegrown core of that club. Thomas also signed Ruben Amaro Jr. as a free agent during the 1996 season. That reunion with the franchise paved the way for Amaro’s move to the front office after the 1998 season and his eventual rise to general manager before the pennant-winning season of 2009.
After being let go by the Phillies following the 1997 season, Thomas worked as a front office adviser with the Red Sox, Brewers and Orioles. He visited Citizens Bank Park in 2018 for the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1993 Phillies.
The smile on his face that day seemed to say, “Boy, that was fun.”
Lee Thomas, front left, and the 1993 Phillies pose for a picture at the team's reunion in 2018.