Phillips isn't talking, but has plenty to say
Trade rumors, perceived media slights fuel frustration for Reds second baseman
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Eight years ago, when he was competing for a utility job with the Indians, Brandon Phillips cut off all conversation with reporters, myself included. He went "media mute," as one colleague put it, because, from what I gather, he felt misunderstood, and the truth is he didn't have much good to say about an Indians organization that had dispatched him to the Minors after his initial big league struggles, anyway.
The only time Phillips did talk to us that spring was when he smiled one morning and made an admission.
"I liked that 'media mute' line," Phillips said. "That was pretty funny."
I bring this up because Phillips has gone "media mute" again here in Reds camp. Only this time, it's a selective form of media muteness. He's not talking to the Cincinnati beat reporters, the guys around him essentially on a daily basis. Phillips doesn't feel the fact that he played hurt last season -- he was hit by a pitch in the forearm in early June, and his stats slid from that point forward -- has been given adequate attention in analysis of his 2013 efforts.
"I don't have nothing to say to those cats," Phillips said of the Cincinnati media. "They know what the deal is. They just talk about how I was falling off and declining. How the [expletive] am I declining? I had 100 ... ribbies [RBI] last year. And I did that with one ... hand. And I won a Gold Glove? So how the [expletive] am I declining? Come on, man."
Indeed, while Phillips is careful about who he opens up to, it's clear he still has plenty to say. About the media. About the Reds. About his role and his future and his frustrations.
As was the case eight years ago, relations between Phillips and his current team are not exactly rosy, given the rampant trade rumors that surrounded Phillips' name this past winter.
No matter what they say publicly now, it's no secret in the industry that the Reds explored trade possibilities for Phillips, two years after signing him to a six-year, $72.5 million extension. That exploration bore no fruit.
So now Phillips is here, still wearing the uniform he wanted and expected to wear all along, but wearing it with a different outlook.
"This offseason, I really found out that baseball is a business," Phillips said. "I had never looked at it as a business. I thought it was just a game to play, to have fun, make a lot of money to take care of your family and your kids and your kids' kids. It was a game of just having fun and being an entertainer.
"But this offseason, it was more of a business. Did it [hurt]? Yeah, it [hurt]. I did as much as I can for this organization when it comes to social media or caravans or Reds Fest. I did it all because I wanted to do it. Not because they asked me to do it; because I wanted to do it."
Let's rewind, for a moment, and remember how we got here in the first place.
This story really begins in that aforementioned Indians camp. Phillips never had a realistic shot at that utility job, because Eric Wedge couldn't stand him. Wedge worried Phillips, who was out of options, would be a clubhouse cancer, and he preferred Ramon Vazquez, an inferior player with a superior attitude, for that bench spot.
That's how the Reds managed to basically steal Phillips in an end-of-spring swap. In the years that followed, they watched him blossom into one of the best second basemen in baseball, a pivotal piece on the Reds' 2010 and '12 National League Central championship squads. And if you asked Phillips at any point in that time why things had worked out so well in Cincinnati, he would emphatically tell you it was because the Reds let him be himself.
But at least two notable controversies from the 2013 season shifted the storyline. First, there was the interview with Cincinnati Magazine in which Phillips said he was "scarred" and that it was a "slap in my face" that the Reds gave a $225 million extension to Joey Votto, when Votto was two years away from free agency and Phillips was only one.
That the Reds had long since settled that situation with the $72.5 million contract -- signed mere days after Votto's deal -- did not prevent Phillips from voicing that displeasure.
"I feel like the Cincinnati Reds media really blew that up more than what it was," Phillips said this week. "Me and [owner Bob] Castellini and [general manager] Walt [Jocketty] talked about it, and it was not what people thought it was. Somebody asked me my feelings, and I told them. It was not that I was trying to put somebody down. I wasn't jealous of somebody getting more money than me. People who think that have to re-read the article. What I was saying was just that there was a moment when I thought I wasn't going to be wearing a Reds uniform, and that's how I felt."
The other controversy was Phillips' verbal assault on a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, C. Trent Rosecrans, who had referenced Phillips' on-base percentage in a tweet about Phillips moving to the No. 2 spot of the lineup. Phillips insists there's more to the story than the video we all saw of Phillips going off on Rosecrans during Dusty Baker's pregame media session.
"It's always three sides to a story, man," Phillips said. "It's his side, my side and the truth."
To be frank, the details at this point aren't nearly as interesting as the fallout. The fact that Baker let his player go off on a reporter without stepping in was seen by some as the beginning of the end of his Reds tenure. And fair or not, it's easy for those of us on the outside to draw a line between Phillips' public fusses and his perceived availability on the trade market.
Equally easy, for the record, is the ability to draw a line between the four years and $50 million remaining on the 32-year-old second baseman's contract and the fact that he's still a Red.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't really thought about it," Phillips said of the trade rumblings. "I have a no-trade clause in my contract. All these people were saying I'm going to the Yankees. Well, they've got to look at my contract and see what was going on and how I could block trades."
The Reds kept Phillips, but not Baker, perhaps his strongest supporter. They replaced him with pitching coach Bryan Price.
"I love Dusty to death," Phillips said. "I still talk to Dusty to this day. Of course, me and Dusty were close. A lot of people think we were really close, but we were just all about winning. It [stinks] we didn't get a championship while playing for him. Hopefully we can get things done with BP."
Price plans to bat Phillips in the No. 2 spot, where the focus will be on OBP and not RBIs. Phillips is one of those rare players who admits his spot in the order affects his mental mindset, and he's convinced that the batting order flexibility he's embraced over the years has affected his numbers.
"If I was to go out there and be selfish, my stats would be totally different than what they are," Phillips said. "But my goal is to get a ring on my finger. I've got the Silver Slugger, got the All-Stars, got the Gold Gloves. The only thing I'm missing is a ring. I got it in the Minor Leagues, had it in high school. Would I like an MVP? Yeah that would be nice. But what I really want is a ring."
The Reds famously fizzled late last season, coughing up a chance to at least host the Wild Card Game and then getting beat by the Pirates in said game. Phillips was the one who stood up in the locker room afterward and admitted what was obvious: "We choked."
Looking back now, though, Phillips doesn't sweat the end result of the 2013 season.
"Honestly I feel like last year didn't hurt me as much as 2012," Phillips said. "Last year, you know, it didn't really hurt me that much, because we didn't really all play together because of injuries. In 2012, we were all healthy. That was our year, and I feel like that would have been beautiful."
Can 2014 be beautiful for a club that lost Shin-Soo Choo's on-base ability and Bronson Arroyo's innings?
"To tell you the truth, the only thing I can really say is we all have experience," Phillips said. "That's the only thing I can really say. We all gained experience. That's the only thing we can say that's better."
What the Reds undoubtedly don't need are distractions. Phillips came to camp looking to avoid them, hence that aforementioned media muteness. Price, meanwhile, said his attitude has been "terrific."
"You know how the game is," Price said. "We're all evaluated and everything is so much more front-and-center. You're evaluated on 'Baseball Tonight'; or the MLB Network or in the media. Everything is so much more now. Every game is on TV, every game is scrutinized. And that's fine. But after a while, the criticisms get on your nerves.
"I think what he really wants to do is just be in a more positive, optimistic environment. I think he feels that part of last season is so far behind us now and we'd all like to move forward and not have it be a talking point."
The talking points will continue. MLB Network released its list of "Top 10 Second Basemen Right Now" the other day, and Phillips' name was nowhere to be found. He laughed at the slight, just as he tries to laugh off all the craziness of 2013 and the winter that followed.
But if Phillips has one takeaway from all of this, it's that he was still well-received when he showed up (after much speculation as to whether he would) for Reds Fest in December and received, in his own estimation, "the loudest cheer out of everybody." And to a man waging war with the media and skeptical of his standing with the higher-ups, this is where Phillips, a complicated-yet-captivating figure, finds his solace.
"The thing is, man, I'm playing for the city of Cincinnati," he said. "I'm playing for the fans. People can think what they want. I know I've got fans, and they love me. I don't have 800,000-plus Twitter followers for no reason, and I don't have almost 300,000 Instragram followers for no reason. People know I'm real, and I keep it 100."
It's just that right now, he's selective about who he "keeps it 100" with.