Last week was not a good one for celebrity mortality. The authors Harper Lee and Umberto Eco passed away, as did one of baseball's great supersubs, Tony Phillips; draped over it all like a shroud were the empty robes of Antonin Scalia. Whatever their merits in their own fields, Phillips was the only one of the four who could take a walk. He was also arguably the only one who improved with age.
In an ideal world, this is how it always would be. Many of our encounters with ballplayers, however, are like a romantic relationship that begins with love at first sight and ecstatic sex, and then matures, through careful nurturing, into platonic fondness, bored familiarity, and finally disinterest and alienation. That is, the affair has a backwards evolution, departing from what should have been its point of arrival and vice versa. Think of Ken Griffey, Jr., now newly admitted to the Hall of Fame, who arrived as a thunderbolt, dazzled through his twenties, and then spent another decade withering. By the end, it was easier to root for a merciful disappearance than it was for the player himself. There are ways of curing or delaying entropy in our relationships—mostly we just need to seek new things to appreciate in one another—but ballplayers mostly just get worse and worse.
Tony Phillips was not like that. If you weren't around in his day, you missed a turn-of-the-century Ben Zobrist, a switch-hitter who began in the middle infield but eventually counted the whole field within his domain and improved as an offensive player as time went on. Unlike Zobrist, Phillips never made an All-Star team, but also Van Gogh couldn't sell a painting and A Confederacy of Dunces couldn't find a publisher. I once asked Bob Feller why his teammate Joe Gordon, a great second baseman who had been retired (and deceased) for decades, hadn't (yet—he would be subsequently) been elected to the Hall. Feller, then in his 80s, glowered, put his hands on his hips, and barked, "LIFE ISN'T FAIR." Sometimes people just can't see the good things happening around them.
We can pause here to correct the record a bit. Phillips was a very valuable ballplayer, one good enough to play in almost 2,200 games and hang around the majors until he was 40. He got there by remaking himself at midcareer. In a 2008 interview with Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, Phillips said he had had to change his attitude to achieve greatness:
"This game isn't about being nice," said Phillips, who claimed that when he tried to play being nice he hit .240, and when he was a jerk, .280. "So it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out."
Being a jerk sometimes meant troubling things, like Phillips changing into street clothes after being pulled from a game, heading to the leftfield stands, and throwing punches at a heckler who had been shouting racial epithets at him. There was also a late-career arrest for freebasing cocaine, which is a pretty terrible idea. On the field, though, being a jerk meant playing every day, often at a different position than the day before, walking up to 132 times in a season, and knocking as many as 27 home runs over the wall. Phillips' career averages were .266/.374/.389, which looks, to use a word that word Phillips so hated, nice, but not worthy of remembrance. Yet there was so much more to Phillips than that.
Phillips began his professional career as a Montreal Expos prospect. They traded him to the San Diego Padres when he still had that new-car smell on him for the veteran first baseman Willie Montanez, a player who hung around for 1,600 games, three-fourths of them spent batting third, fourth, or fifth despite his rarely doing anything. In this sense, Montanez was the antithesis of Phillips, a player whose contributions were initially more subtle but still actually there. This is why life isn't fair.
The Padres barely glanced at Phillips before sending him on to the A's for two players who never appeared in San Diego. Graig Nettles once observed that Old Timers Day with the Yankees was Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, whereas with the Padres it was Nate Colbert trying to sell you a used car. Missing on players like Phillips is one reason why.
Close your eyes and try to name the Padres franchise second baseman. No, not Roberto Alomar—they traded him after three immature seasons. Give up? There isn't one. Their career leader in games played at the position is Tim Flannery with 543. Phillips could have been the guy.
To be fair to the Padres, while Phillips' minor league performances were strong on walks and speed, there wasn't much else there to suggest a future big-league star except his notable athleticism. His career with the A's would seem to have confirmed this. He came up in 1982 and was just OK. The A's couldn't figure out if he was a shortstop or second baseman—he didn't quite have the arm for the former position—so he played a bit of both. They were almost religious about it: in 1984, he appeared 91 times at second and 91 times at short. He stayed with the A's through his age-30 season, hitting .251/.338/.350, which was not quite league-average production. After the A's picked up the 1989 World Series championship, he signed as a free agent with Sparky Anderson's Detroit Tigers.
Phillips' first year with the Tigers was also the first in which he received 500 at-bats in a season. The results weren't all that different from what they had been in Oakland. The next year, though, was apparently the first of the jerk years. No More Mister Nice Guy Phillips hit .284, walked 79 times, and hit 17 home runs. The 1992 season brought further change. Swinging at the high fastball had been a career-long problem, and then it just wasn't anymore. Over the next six seasons, Phillips took over 100 walks for five of them, with the only gap being the truncated 1994 season. He was now scoring 100 runs a year.
From the time he left Oakland until the end of his career, Phillips hit .273/.392/.409 and scored 946 runs in 1,325 games. Maybe that's not a Hall of Famer, even if achieved on a career basis, but it's the next best thing, especially with the kicker that Phillips' versatility allowed his managers to avoid using a replacement-level substitute anywhere on the field. Instead of putting Generic Quad-A Third Baseman in the lineup, he could just put Phillips there. Ditto shortstop, ditto left field, and so on.
Best of all, it was unexpected. If we believe Phillips' Jerk Theory, he didn't ripen so much as he indurated. Phillips' mid-career decision to double down on the strong strike-zone judgment he had always possessed certainly helped a great deal. And if it was cocaine that limited Phillips' impulse control just enough that he was willing to go into the stands and thrash a racist, well, just this one time, hooray for cocaine. However, this is almost certainly reductionist, and deprives Phillips of too much credit. His mistakes were his mistakes, but his strengths were also his strengths. They need not have been mutually dependent.
We are used to pitchers being unpredictable. They add or lose speed on their fastball. They learn a new pitch. Good or bad luck on balls in play alters their results in ways that don't reflect their true abilities. Hitters are a little different. They also can benefit or suffer from variable results on balls in play, but on the whole their careers are more linear. Barring injury, their seasons generally conform to expectations. For the most part, subs do not become stars at 30. Tony Phillips did that.
That's not just a baseball story but a story for anyone who feels limited and unaccomplished and is ready to surrender to their insecurities. There is another gear to reach, a new life to activate. Phillips found it by telling himself a story about being a jerk. You can tell your own, as long as you accept, as he did, that it is there to be found.