Tony Phillips, who died Wednesday at age 56, was a Toronto Blue Jay for two weeks in 1998. During my years covering the Blue Jays, I've known only one player—Brett Lawrie—who was as tightly wound as Phillips, and no one who was as brash, loud and gloriously vulgar. In his brief Toronto sojourn, he played in 13 games, posted a .464 on-base percentage and enlivened a generally sedate clubhouse. He played one more year in the majors, but as late as last year was playing again, at 56, this time for a low-level independent team in California. Phillips was one of the most underrated players in baseball history, posting a 50.8 career WAR (per Baseball Reference)—a tick behind Kirby Puckett and better than David Ortiz and David Wright.
(Editor's note: The following story was originally published in 1998 after the Blue Jays traded Phillips to the Mets)
Tony Phillips is in repose.
If that seems like a contradiction in terms, so be it. Phillips is ensconced in a soft clubhouse couch, alone, watching TV. Contrary to his public image, he is not talking loudly, nor glaring, spitting, cursing, cackling nor spoiling for a fight. He is looking fairly… well, normal.
During a recent game, CBC commentator Brian Williams asked colleague John Cerutti how Phillips was in the clubhouse. "Loud," Cerutti replied.
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Indeed. Say the name Tony Phillips, and many immediately think of a man who kicks steel garbage cans down the street and flips a digital salute to anyone who dares look at him askance. To watch Tony Phillips is to observe a player at war, with the opposition, umpires, spectators, and himself. He has fist-fought fans, feuded with umpires and been suspended for cocaine use.
In 21 professional seasons, he has also played every position except pitcher and catcher, taught himself to switch-hit, and learned to bat from a Rickey Henderson crouch when the Detroit Tigers told him they wanted him to lead off.
"Nothing," he says softly, "has come easy for me."
For a brief moment in July, he was hired by the Blue Jays to jump-start their offence, something he was doing consistently when, unexpectedly, he was traded to the Mets just before the July 31 deadline. He had played in 13 games and hit .354. At age 39, he was suddenly in demand. A month earlier, he wasn't even playing. To outsiders, it appeared that Tony Phillips couldn't find a job in 1998. No one wanted a 39-year-old malcontent who had pleaded guilty to cocaine possession last year.
To hear Phillips tell it, he had too much pride to take what was offered.
Like many pro athletes, Tony Phillips often uses expletives as the way a writer uses punctuation. Unlike most of his fraternity, Phillips rarely censors himself during interviews. He also laughs easily, often at himself and his own punchlines. Even in cordial conversation, his intensity is rarely far from the surface, especially if he's talking about his job and his critics.
The day before the trade, we sit in the Blue Jays' clubhouse and chat for 15 minutes with the tape recorder on. For the most part, Phillips speaks softly. It is a dramatic contrast to the persistently high-spirited, occasionally pugnacious temperament he displays on the field.
"That's what people don't understand," he says. "People think that because you react a certain way on the field, that's the way you are off the field. But it's not true. You might be different at work than you are at home. You might put on another face."
His voice is beginning to rise now. The emotion begins to seep out as the game face appears.
"You have a job to do. That's how I go about my business. I'm fucking going out there to get it fucking done, no matter fucking what.
"It comes ON!" he shouts. "THE FACE JUST COMES ON!"
For a big-eyed moment, it is definitely on. Then it fades to a smile.
"That's the way life is for me," he says. "People think I'm all wound up and tight. I gotta take care of my kids and fight for my wife and fight for my mom. I think I have a right to get all worked up."
During spring training, his former manager with the Tigers, Sparky Anderson, told a reporter that Phillips' fiery nature is a positive force on a ballclub.
"He is intense," Anderson said. "Tony comes to the ballpark the same way every day. Tony comes to win. If he sees someone who is not giving what he has to the game, he will let them know about it.
"To me, he just wants to play hard and in the process he shows everybody, 'Hey, this is a fun job,'" Anderson added. "He does get overzealous, but when that happened, I would just tell him that it's my job to talk to the other guys, but that he should keep showing people by example."
During his brief stay in Toronto, Phillips bluntly told young outfielder Shannon Stewart that management thought he was "soft." He earned a rave review from shortstop Alex Gonzalez, whom he tutored on hitting. Phillips said he was surprising himself with his offence and enjoying his role as a teacher.
Phillips may be 39, but his offensive production has been consistent throughout the 1990s. He's still proficient at getting on base, keeps on hitting about .270 and can play anywhere in the infield or outfield.
Why, then, was he home in Arizona playing golf until July 1 of the '98 season?
He says four teams displayed interest in the spring but they didn't show him the respect he felt he had earned over 16 years in the big leagues. "They said I should just be happy to have a job," he says, then insists his refusal "to sell myself out" had nothing to do with money.
No, what happened was that the interested clubs held his cocaine conviction over his head, he says.
"That was the whole case. That's why I got treated the way I got treated, which is fine. I have no problem with that."
Of his drug arrest, he says: "I did it. I put myself in that situation. I take full responsibility for it. I'm still in control of me and what I do and where I go. I'm in control of my own destiny still. People may not like that, but that's the way it is."
Another perspective is that Phillips simply wanted too much money, that his drug conviction made him too great a risk to pay his asking price.
A report out of New York last week said that when the Mets pursued Phillips during spring training, they lost interest because his agent, Tony Attanasio, demanded a $1 million contract. The Mets reportedly offered $500,000 with incentives that could have boosted Phillips' pay to $1-million.
Phillips describes his time off as "awesome." Some days he played 36 holes of golf. He says he enjoyed spending time with his wife Debi and daughters Victoria, 17, and Selina, 13. He discovered that being away from baseball "is not so bad." But in the next breath, he says he was not about to quit baseball, that he wanted to come back "under the right circumstances" to increase his chances of landing a contract next season when he will be 40.
Why did Toronto offer the right circumstances?
"I talked to Mr. (Gord) Ash and I said, 'I think I can help you win.' He said, 'I think so, too.' Two days later I was with the Triple-A club in Syracuse."
A month later, he was gone after 13 games with Toronto. During that stretch, the Blue Jays won six and lost seven. Phillips had an on-base percentage of .467, a homer, seven RBI and nine walks.
In his last at-bat, he singled in a run against Minnesota, then was taken out of the game to catch a plane to join the Mets.
Phillips says "the mistake"—his cocaine use—will never overshadow his long-term success on the field. His resume lists two World Series with Oakland, four 100-run and four 100-walk seasons, more than 1,200 walks and 2,000-plus games. In 1991, he became the first big-league player to start at least 10 games at five different positions in a single season.
"That mistake will never wipe out the whole 16 years, no matter what people write, no matter what they say. Ever since I got into pro ball, I've been fighting and making sacrifices to be the best player I can be, and I'm proud of that. I'm happy with myself," he says.
If his career has been a fight, he has emerged a winner against formidable odds, Phillips says.
"I was 5'8", 145 pounds, coming out of high school in Roswell, Georgia. Who would've thought my little ass would have been in the big leagues for 16 years. Nobody! They said, 'You're not gonna make it. You'll never make it to the big leagues.'
"I can look back and say, HA-HA-HA!"
Then he unleashes a cackling laugh that drowns out the TV and every conversation in the clubhouse for a moment. Tony Phillips is laughing at his own punchline again, and to hear him tell it, getting the last laugh, too.