Remembering Tony Phillips

Tony Phillips was never an All-Star, nor did he break a major league record. In fact, to the casual fan, the only thing that the switch-hitter did which will stand out historically was snag a Brett Butler ground ball then make an accurate flip from second base to Dennis Eckersley for the final out of the 1989 earthquake World Series.

Two days after Phillips passed far too young from a heart attack at the age of 56, The Spitter reflects on a player who was far more valuable than history shall remember him.

When Phillips made that final play of the ’89 Fall Classic, it represented the end of an eight-year run with the Oakland Athletics. Phillips bounced around from position to position, but was primarily an infielder who never batted higher than .280 or posted an on-base percentage greater than .367, and only reached 10 home runs once.

When the Atlanta native signed on to bat lead-off for Sparky Anderson’s Detroit Tigers, however, it quickly became evident that Phillips had a lot left in the tank at the age of 31.

Phillips’ average was just .251 in 1990, but it was clear that patience at the plate was the new focus as he registered a career high 99 walks. Phillips also tacked on new highs with 19 stolen bases and 97 runs and played every position save first base and pitcher.

It was just the beginning of an incredible run that would last through the 1997 season.

Though Phillips only drew 79 free passes in ’91, his average ballooned to .284 with careers bests in homers (17) and runs batted in (72).

For the next six seasons (1992-97), Phillips’ average year was eye-popping. The super-utility player’s slashline was .281 / .405 / .819 with 14 bombs, 60 RBI, 109 runs, 114 walks and 13 stolen bases.

Bear in mind, that run coincided with Phillips manning virtually every position on the field during his age 33 to 38 seasons.

Phillips led the American League for runs in ’92 (114), plate appearances in ’93 (538) and walks in ’93 (132) and ’96 (125).

Phillips retired at the age of 40 following the 1999 season, and did so with a career OBP of .374.

For those who remember Phillips’ playing days, to say that he was a tempermental player would be an understatement. However, it was that very fire which provided the Phillips moment I remember most.

In a nationally televised night game against Boston, Phillips had been calling the strike zone into question most of the evening, and late in the game, one particular close call had Phillips punched out looking, and the chirping intensified. Red Sox catcher Mike MacFarlane said something to the irate Phillips and they ended up nose-to-nose, to the glee of the Fenway faithful.

After the game, a reporter asked MacFarlane what he had said that set Phillips off, and the receiver’s response was surprising. It wasn’t trash talk, but a statement.

“You’re too good a player to complain so much.”

Tony Phillips was not just a good ballplayer, he was an exceptional one whose talent, versatility and intensity would have proved an invaluable asset to any team yesterday, today or tomorrow.

In the early nineties, Cecil Fielder was the big draw for the Tigers, but for my money, it was the chance to watch Tony Phillips go to work.

He will be missed.

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