For fan favorite Phillips, Rays tenure was 'heck of a time'

August 2nd, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG – On Saturday, the Rays recognized Brett Phillips’ nearly lifelong connection to the franchise while Phillips showed what playing for his hometown team meant to him.

Before Tampa Bay’s 6-4 win over Cleveland, thousands of the 22,756 fans filing into Tropicana Field put on giveaway Devil Rays basketball jerseys with Phillips’ name and No. 35 on the back. Inside the Rays’ clubhouse, players and staff did the same before taking the field for their pregame workout. Beforehand, Phillips gushed about what the day meant to him. Afterward, he sat and signed autographs for an hour as fans left the building.

“It was an easy decision. First of all, just to say thank you for everyone who came out solely because it was Brett Phillips' jersey giveaway,” Phillips said on Saturday. “Also, how often do you get your own giveaway in the big leagues? Like, this is a day that I'll remember, and I want to make the most of it.”

But Phillips’ time with the Rays is now over. When Tampa Bay acquired center fielder José Siri as part of a three-team trade on Monday, Phillips was designated for assignment, and on Tuesday he was traded to the Orioles for cash considerations.

From an emotional standpoint, the move hit harder than you’d expect for an outfielder batting just .147 with a .475 OPS and a nearly 41 percent strikeout rate. But Phillips is more than those numbers; he’s a hometown kid, Tampa Bay’s Ray, born and raised in Seminole and who on his fourth birthday wore a Devil Rays basketball jersey like the ones given away at the Trop on Saturday.

“You just see how much and how well he connects with our fans, our community. We're here to win games, but it's a lot more enjoyable when you connect with the players along the way -- and that's him,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “We'll miss everything about him in those respects, but at the end of the day, there are times where we have to make some difficult decisions. And this is what we felt was best for the club at this point.”

The outfielder bounced from the Astros to the Brewers to the Royals earlier in his career before joining the Rays via trade in August 2020. He quickly forged a deep connection with Rays fans, emerged as a relentlessly upbeat and encouraging teammate, provided plenty of entertainment with his highlight-reel defensive plays (and often hilarious pitching appearances) and came through with one of the most memorable hits in franchise history.

Phillips’ two-out, two-strike RBI single off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the 2020 World Series drove in Kevin Kiermaier, then Randy Arozarena scored the game-winning run to cap a wild sequence that led Phillips to soar into the outfield, arms spread wide, in his “airplane” celebration. During a postgame TV interview, Phillips dropped the line that encapsulates his joyful approach to the game -- and started a merchandise line: “Baseball is fun.”

Phillips repeated those words in a video message posted to Twitter following Monday night’s announcement, saying it was “an absolute pleasure and honor to play for my hometown team.”

“It sucks, but we all know business is business. I’m going to dust myself off and keep moving forward,” he added. “But I appreciate each and every one of y’all for the support the last couple years. We’ve had a heck of a time. All I ask is you guys continue to go out there and support the Rays. I’ve seen this fanbase grow in the last couple years, and it’s been awesome. Until next time, and never forget: Baseball is fun, baby. God bless.”

From a baseball perspective, the move made sense. Phillips, 28 years old and out of Minor League options, has continued to play excellent defense this season, but he’s struggled at the plate and would have further ceded playing time to Siri and the recently acquired Roman Quinn.

“From just purely an evaluation of the talent and the contributions, that part, it's a tough call,” Neander said. “But certainly, above and beyond that, we all know Philly's impact extends beyond just that. … He makes it fun and always has.”