By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
For the two weeks he spent with the Toronto Blue Jays in July 1998, Tony Phillips was the loudest player in the clubhouse.
“TP”, as teammates called him, was profane, outspoken and without a filter. He played with a chip on his shoulder and every time he stepped on the field, it was like he was going to war.
“He was great,” former Chicago White Sox teammate Robin Ventura said about Phillips in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2016. “He was crazy, in a good way. Brought a lot of spirit and everything else to your team. Was a great player, a very dedicated guy of just playing hard every day . . . he was the loudest guy in the room, but a fun guy to play with.”
In big league circles, if you’re going to talk the talk the way Phillips did, you better be able to walk the walk. And Phillips did — literally. He topped the American League in walks in 1993 and 1996 and finished in the top five in seven seasons. Yet, despite a long and impressive resume and his unmistakable presence in the clubhouse, Phillips remains one of the most underrated players in major league history.
In parts of 18 big league seasons, he recorded 2,023 hits, a .374 on-base percentage (OBP), 360 doubles, 1,300 runs, 1,319 walks in 2,161 games. He also won a World Series with the Oakland A’s in 1989. Yet somehow he was never selected to the All-Star Game and only received MVP votes in one season (1993, he finished 16th in the American League voting). In fact, no player in major league history has played longer without an All-Star Game selection.
But such snubs likely motivated Phillips, who was 5-foot-8, 145 pounds when he graduated from Roswell High School in Georgia in 1977. He loved to prove his naysayers wrong.
“Who would’ve thought my little ass would’ve been in the big leagues for 16 years? Nobody!” Phillips told John Lott for a National Post article in 1998. “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!’”
Prior to his brief stint with the Blue Jays, the versatile Phillips had scratched and clawed his way into becoming one of the game’s best leadoff hitters.
Born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1959, he was a multi-sport athlete in high school. On top of baseball, he starred on the basketball, football and track teams. He was initially selected in the 16th round of the 1977 MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners, but he declined to sign.
The Montreal Expos then chose him in the first round (10th overall) in the January 1978 (Secondary) draft and he inked a deal with the Canadian club. He would spend parts of three seasons in the Expos’ organization in an era when on-base percentage wasn’t as valued as batting average. Phillips never batted higher than .253 in a season in the Expos’ system, but in 1980 with the double-A Memphis Chicks, he topped the Southern League with 98 walks and finished second with 100 runs. He also stole 50 bases and had a .374 OBP.
However, with a surplus of infield prospects, the Expos dealt Phillips to the San Diego Padres for veteran first baseman Willie Montanez on August 31, 1980. The Padres then traded him to the Oakland A’s on March 27, 1981.
Phillips split the 1981 season between double-A and triple-A before he made his big-league debut with the A’s on May 10, 1982. He would serve as a starting middle infielder with the A’s in 1983 and 1984, but he didn’t truly find his stride as a major leaguer until the late 1980s. He was a member of the A’s 1988 American League pennant-winning club and he fielded the final out at second base for the A’s in their 1989 World Series win over the San Francisco Giants.
After that season, Phillips signed with the Detroit Tigers and it was in Motown that he blossomed into one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. Incorporating a crouch into his stance, similar to that of his former A’s teammate Rickey Henderson, the switch-hitting Phillips began to regularly draw 100 walks in a season. While with the Tigers, he topped the American League with 114 runs in 1992 and led the AL with 132 walks the following year. His .443 OBP in 1993 was second in the American League to Toronto Blue Jays first baseman John Olerud.
By 1994, Phillips was showcasing more power, belting 19 home runs to go along with a .409 OBP. At the beginning of the following campaign, the Tigers dealt him to the Angels, where he socked a career-high 27 homers, which landed him a two-year contract from the Chicago White Sox following the season.
His tenure with the White Sox was a tempestuous one. In his first spring with the club, he abruptly retired and then unretired two days later. But when the 1996 season started, he was ready and continued to be effective, posting a .404 OBP and leading the American League with 125 walks.
In a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium that May, a fan yelled racial slurs at him. According to the Chicago Tribune, Phillips took himself out of the game in the sixth inning, changed into his street clothes and walked out to the left field stands and challenged the fan to a fight. The fan came down and Phillips reportedly punched him in the face twice. No charges were filed and Phillips was not suspended for his actions.
The following season, Phillips had a heated argument with oft-controversial Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti. Following the confrontation, Mariotti didn’t return to the Sox clubhouse, which pleased many of Phillips’ teammates who took to calling him MVP after the incident.
On May 18, 1997, Phillips was traded to the Angels where he recorded a .376 OBP in 105 games, but he ran into trouble off the field when he was arrested in an Anaheim motel room for cocaine possession. The Angels released Phillips at the end of the following spring.
Phillips’ arrest made it difficult for him to find another big league job. Ultimately, it was Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, with his team scuffling to score runs and in the hunt for the American League Wild Card spot, that would sign Phillips.
“I talked to Mr. Ash and I said, ‘I think I can help you win.’ And he said, ‘I think so, too,” Phillips recalled to John Lott of The National Post.
Ash shared a similar story with reporters after signing the veteran to a minor league deal on July 1.
“Given that we haven’t been able to make a deal to add offense, this is a good gamble,” Ash told reporters.
A candid Phillips later told Lott that he understood why his drug arrest scared teams away from signing him.
“I have no problem with that. I did it. I put myself in that situation. I take full responsibility for it,” Phillips told Lott.
Phillips reported to triple-A Syracuse and posted a .489 OBP and registered 15 walks in 10 games before being recalled by the Blue Jays on July 17 to join a clubhouse that included Jose Canseco and Cy Young Award winners Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen. Phillips was asked what it was like for him to team up with Clemens and Hentgen.
“Those guys want to win as bad as I do,” said Phillips. “We’ve had some wars out there – them snorting on the mound, me snorting at the plate.”
Another reason Phillips was signed was to motivate Shannon Stewart, then a young left fielder, who had been accused of dogging it. And when Phillips arrived, he bluntly told Stewart that the Blue Jays thought he was “soft.” Given Stewart’s later success, Phillips’ bluntness with him seems to have helped.
In his first game with the Blue Jays, Phillips batted leadoff and played left field and had two walks and a run in four plate appearances. He was used exclusively as the leadoff hitter during his short tenure with the club and was excellent in that role. From July 22 to 24, he had three consecutive, three-hit games. On July 24, he clubbed his only home run as a Blue Jay, a two-run shot off Boston Red Sox reliever Dennis Eckersley in the fifth inning of a 10-6 win at Fenway.
After going hitless on July 25, Phillips had back-to-back two-hit performances, giving him five multiple hit games in six contests.
In all, in 13 games with the Blue Jays, he batted .354, had a .467 OBP and walked nine times before being dealt to the New York Mets at the July 31 trade deadline for minor league pitching prospect Leo Estrella.
Though he had been everything the Blue Jays could’ve asked for in a leadoff hitter, the 39-year-old Phillips failed to springboard the club into a Wild Card spot. The team went 6-7 with him in the lineup and had fallen to 54-56.
Phillips played the last two months of the season for the Mets, before finishing his major league career with the A’s in 1999.
But Phillips kept himself in great shape and was still playing professionally in his fifties. In 2011, he competed in 24 games for the Yuma Scorpions of the independent North American League. The following year, he’d suit up for 16 contests with Edinburg in the same circuit and in 2015, he played eight games for Pittsburg of the independent Pacific Association at the age of 56.
Sadly, on February 17, 2016, Phillips suffered a heart attack and passed away. Many were shocked because he kept himself in outstanding physical condition.
Paul Sullivan, of the Chicago Tribune, covered Phillips while with the White Sox and had stayed in touch with the ageless switch-hitter.
“Tony Phillips was a ballplayer who never knew when to call it quits,” wrote Sullivan in a tribute to Phillips in 2016. “Every winter for the last decade or so, I would get a call from the versatile infielder-outfielder . . . He would always tell me he was making a comeback, and to get ready to write ‘the greatest story of your career.’”