Phillips was MLB's pound-for-pound champ

Fiery super-utility player won World Series ring with '89 A's

February 19th, 2016

Tony Phillips is gone, both too soon and without the proper appreciation. Most of us never paused long enough to consider how well he played and his role in changing the game.
An apparent heart attack claimed Phillips on Wednesday, at age 56. This is a stunner because he was not a man you could knock down, not for long anyway. You always knew he would find a way to get in the last word.
It's a crying shame that Phillips is gone without having been recognized for the legacy he leaves behind. He's remembered by many as the ultimate gamer, but he was more than that. The great Orange County writer Mark Whicker calls Phillips "a real live wire and a heck of a player," and that's a fitting epitaph.
Baseball Reference points out Phillips had the highest career WAR of any player who did not make a single All-Star team. He would have been lost there, anyway, as he would have had a hard time abiding the carefree nature All-Star Games had taken on before that historic tie in 2002.

Phillips' 50.8 WAR is better than dozens of Hall of Famers, including Orlando Cepeda, Jim Rice and Lou Brock. But outside of maybe Tony La Russa and Sparky Anderson, he was never really treasured by those in the game he loved.
Phillips had a temper. He didn't suffer fools or perceived slights easily. Phillips could make those around him uneasy and often did. He just wasn't going to take it, whatever it was.
No one who saw it will ever forget the 1997 tirade Phillips unleashed toward one Chicago columnist. It was one of those discussions that left you saying, "Well, that escalated quickly." But Phillips wasn't wrong in the position he staked out. He just wasn't politically correct.
Phillips played in the right era, as the game has changed since he retired. There's no telling how long a player would be suspended if he walked from the clubhouse to the outfield bleachers to fight a fan, as Phillips did in Milwaukee in 1996.

But Phillips was a guy you couldn't put anything over on. He became as well known for his notorious edge as his talent, and that's a shame. Because this was a really talented player.
Phillips earned a World Series ring with the 1989 A's, a tribute to his versatility and La Russa's creativity. La Russa understood what was too often missed or taken for granted.
The undersized Phillips (listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds by Baseball Reference) was one of the game's all-time pound-for-pound champions. He was Julio Cesar Chavez with an infielder's glove on his hand. Or an outfielder's glove. Phillips could do everything there was to do on a baseball diamond, and luckily for him, La Russa basically invented a position for him.
It was the super-utility spot, as it was later named by Joe Maddon.
Phillips, a speed-power menace to pitchers everywhere during an 18-year career that extended beyond his 40th birthday, was Ben Zobrist before it was cool for players to move all around the field. He didn't need the security of a regular position or spot in the lineup. Phillips just wanted a uniform and a chance to make the other team look bad -- and he did that more often than you might remember.
Because the switch-hitting Phillips could do damage at the plate, La Russa utilized him in a revolutionary way during the four years they spent together in Oakland. If Phillips had been a chess piece, he would have been part knight, part queen. There was no role he could not fill.
During the Athletics' dominating run in 1989, from a 99-win regular season through an 8-1 postseason run that wasn't slowed even by an earthquake, Phillips started at three infield positions and both outfield corners. He was 30, but he ushered into the best years of his career by La Russa's willingness to overlook his being rough around the edges wherever he played.
As Ozzie Guillen said in a tweet Friday, you knew what you were going to get with Phillips. "You always play hard," Guillen said, accompanying the tweet with a photo of Guillen leaping to avoid Phillips as he slid into second base.

Phillips could beat you every way there was to be beat. He wasn't a natural hitter, but he could lay off pitcher's pitches and hammer their mistakes. Phillips hit .313 for the Tigers in 1993, when he also led the American League with 132 walks, and hit 27 homers for the Angels in the strike-shortened 1995 season. He scored 100-plus runs four times and stole at least 10 bases in 12 seasons, including that final one with the 1999 A's, when he was 40.
Phillips grew up in Roswell, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. He went to the New Mexico Military Institute to play basketball, but he jumped at the chance at a baseball career when the Expos took him with their first pick in the January Draft. Phillips' development was proof that an athlete can become a world-class baseball player.
It was all Phillips ever wanted to be, and he never lost the need for the adrenaline rush that comes from stepping into the batter's box. He sought opportunities to coach after his career ended -- as recently as last February I visited with him at the D-backs' camp, where he had come to pitch himself to Dave Stewart -- but apparently the offers never came along. Phillips' reputation as a wild child -- including a 1997 cocaine arrest, for which he pled guilty -- got in the way.
Phillips played independent baseball in 2011 (a stint most remembered for his punching former Dodgers first baseman Mike Marshall, who was managing the opposing team) and again last August. He took the field as a 56-year-old first baseman for the Pittsburg (Calif.) Diamonds, going 3-for-23 in the last eight games of his life.
Even then, Phillips wasn't giving away anything, including at-bats. He walked 10 times in those games. He was a smart player who never stopped wanting to help a team. Phillips' legacy lives on in players like Zobrist, Brock Holt, Marwin Gonzalez and Mike Aviles. But there was no one quite like him.