Reds' past and present have sparkled at second
Who's better with the leather? Morgan, Phillips were wizards in two eras
Ever since Brandon Phillips joined the Reds in 2006, folks have compared the gifted second baseman to Joe Morgan, who helped make the Big Red Machine famous. They chat often, by the way. Said Phillips of Morgan, now a senior advisor to Reds upper management: "He's always in our clubhouse, so I always get to talk to him, and I love picking his brain."
Morgan has much to share. For one, he has a bronzed plaque in Cooperstown. For another, in addition to making 10 trips to the All-Star Game, winning back-to-back National League MVP Awards and owning two World Series rings, he has five Gold Gloves.
"I've seen some of the old films of Joe as a player," Phillips said. "He was outstanding. But defensively, I've got him hands down, and you can tell him I said that, because I've told him the same thing. I'm better than him defensively."
Let me think about that.
I'm still thinking.
No question, Phillips is spectacular. If you flip to MLB Network on any given night, there's a good chance you'll find this 32-year-old baseball magician doing the otherworldly with his arm or glove. That said, I saw Morgan up close and personal during the late 1970s as a backup writer on the Reds beat for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and he also appeared that he wasn't from this planet.
Morgan was masterful going to his left or right, rushing forward or backward and jumping up or bending down.
Did I leave something out regarding Morgan's defensive skills? I didn't mean to, and as I keep thinking, there was no better double-play combination than that of Morgan and Dave Concepcion, owner of five Gold Gloves at shortstop.
There also was Oct. 20, 1972, in Oakland, where Morgan completed one of the forgotten defensive gems in World Series history. With the Reds holding a one-run lead during that Game 5 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Athletics had runners at first and third and one out. Bert Campaneris lifted a foul pop toward the spacious foul territory at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and the ball threatened to drop beyond the reaches of the first baseman and the right fielder.
The second baseman arrived, though. After Morgan made the grab with his back to the infield, he whirled and fired a strike to catcher Johnny Bench to nail pinch-runner Blue Moon Odom who had tagged up at third.
So Phillips over Morgan on defense?
After thinking some more, why not? Phillips has two fewer Gold Gloves than Morgan, but that will change in a hurry. Phillips also gets the edge, because many of the fielding gems during his 12 Major League seasons -- especially during his eight with the Reds following a steal of a trade from the Indians -- are the stuff of Mother Goose, Peter Pan and several other fairy tales combined.
What is Phillips' favorite defensive play of all-time?
He's still thinking.
"I know Rob Butcher, the Reds' media relations guy, said the best he's seen me make was the one this year involving Ryan Braun," said Phillips, referring to what may finish as "The Play" of 2013 in baseball since it was slightly beyond impossible.
It occurred in early May at Great American Ball Park, where the Reds held a one-run lead in the top of the seventh against the Brewers. With runners at first and second and one out, Braun sent a chopper over the head of Reds reliever Sam LeCure. Before I continue, future generations would have called what happened next simply the collective figment of a bunch of imaginations -- if not for instant replay.
Phillips snatched the ball with his bare hand, touched second with his knee for the force out and delivered an off-balance dart to first baseman Joey Votto to complete the double play.
"I mean, it was a nice play," Phillips said with a shrug. "I don't know how I did it, but I did it, and it even made me smile."
After a pause, Phillips quickly added, "There was another play that I really liked, and it was back around 2008 when Angel Berroa was playing for the Dodgers. He hit the ball up the middle, and I slid past the bag, caught the ball, got up, touched second base and threw to first for the double play. Even today, that's still one of my favorite plays."
All of this drama is enough to make you wonder: What is going through Phillips' mind before, during and after these things?
Are they planned, or do they just happen?
And does he amaze himself?
"Actually, I practice on a lot of crazy plays and on a lot of crazy things, so I can see what I can do and can't do, and some plays just happen by accident," Phillips said. "Well, I shouldn't say by accident. I should say they naturally just happen. There was the ball that Ike Davis hit to me last year. I caught it between my legs, and it was something that just happened, but I do that in batting practice all the time. Still, I couldn't believe I did it in a game, and I looked at my coaches, and they were just like, 'Oh, my God.' It just happened. I didn't know I would have enough guts to do it in a game."
Just so you know, Phillips isn't all field and no hit. In 2007, he reached the 30-30 club with 30 home runs and 32 stolen bases. He won a Silver Slugger Award in 2011. He made his third All-Star Game this year with much help from his willingness (and ability) to switch from his normal spot at the top of the Reds' lineup to cleanup hitter after an early-season injury to slugger Ryan Ludwick.
Consider, too, that the primary objective of the No. 1 and the No. 2 hitters is to get on base. In contrast, No. 4 hitters are asked to drive in runs, and that's exactly what Phillips is doing. His 74 RBIs are tied for fourth in the Major Leagues.
"When I was pulled into [Reds manager Dusty Baker's office], and he asked me if I wanted to hit fourth, I said, 'I would love to,' because I feel like I'm very versatile, and I like challenges," Phillips said. "Hitting fourth, you're hitting in a lot of key situations, and your job is to drive in runs. I don't care about my batting average (.266). I don't care about anything else. It's all about ribbies."
Morgan mostly hit third for the Big Red Machine. He was known to drive in a few runs (111 in 1976), and he averaged 42 stolen bases per 162 games during his 22 years in the Major Leagues.
Said Phillips, easing into a grin: "I used to steal bases, but Dusty doesn't give me the green light anymore since I'm hitting fourth. When it comes to hitting and running bases, Joe always says, 'My eyes are better than yours, especially when it comes to plate discipline.' He's right, but I told him I've got more pop than he does, and he agreed.
"But as long as I look better than him, I'm good."
Now that's somebody else's column.