Popular Underrated Star Tony Phillips Dies at 56

by Rocco Constantino | Posted on Saturday, February 20th, 2016
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In 1978, two teenagers got their start playing the infield for the Single A West Palm Beach Expos of the Florida State League.  Sometimes they formed the double play combination for the game while other times they played side-by-side on the left side of the infield.  They were two incredible athletes, just 18 and 19 years old, beginning a journey that would see them make huge impacts on the game of baseball over the next two decades.

They were Tim Raines and Tony Phillips.

Phillips died of a heart attack Friday at the young age of 56.

While Raines went on to superstardom, Phillips found his niche as a super utility man, playing every position except pitcher and catcher  and playing them well.

Phillips was traded twice before reaching the Majors with the A’s in 1982.  He recorded his first two Major League hits in his third game against Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer as legendary manager Billy Martin started him at shortstop right out of the minors.

He got his first taste of the outfield in 1983 and by 1987, had played every position but pitcher and catcher.  Phillips was a solid player, but after hitting just .203 with the A’s in 1988, he was released.  The A’s had second thoughts and resigned him for one more year.  He went on to win the World Series with the A’s last year, making a fine play and flipping the ball to Dennis Eckersley for the final out.

Phillips is the third prominent member of that team to die recently, along with Bob Welch and Dave Henderson.

Phillips signed with the Tigers as a free agent after the 1989 season and his performance improved even further.  Sparky Anderson used him at every position on the diamond and he thrived getting over 500 at bats for the first time.  He was used to spell veteran stars Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and also played along side them at third base.

Phillips enjoyed his first breakout season at the age of 33 when he led the American League with 114 runs.  Always a player with an astute eye at the plate, Phillips led the league in walks the following year with 132 and had an on base percentage of .387.  Over the next six seasons, Phillips on base percentage jumped to .406.  Considering how valued on base percentage and versatility are in today’s game, Phillips would have been a much bigger star than he was considered at that time.

As he got older, Phillips still remained a dangerous weapon as a versatile fielder and a winning player.  He was the type of role player with leadership skills that contending teams begged for.  The epitome of the wily veteran willing to do anything on the field or behind the scenes to win and help his younger teammates grow.

On July 18, 1999, the A’s took on the Rockies on a hot afternoon in Oakland.  Phillips trotted out to the field to play second base and his old teammate from 21 years earlier in West Palm Beach, Tim Raines jogged out to left field.  The two were teammates once again in Phillips’ final season in the Majors.  Raines was removed from the game after an injury and didn’t play another game that season.  Phillips hung on for another month before an injury put an end to his season as well.

Even at the age of 40, Phillips played every position on the diamond that season for Art Howe.  On August 15, Phillips came up in the third inning of a game against the Blue Jays hard-throwing youngster Kelvim Escobar.  With the game tied at two, Escobar tried to jump in front of the notoriously patient Phillips with a fastball.  Instead, Phillips turned on one last pitch and drove it into the right field seats for his 160th home run of his career.  It was his 15th for the season and the final official at bat of Phillips’ career.

Phillips leaves behind a legacy of being perhaps the most versatile player of his generation.  His offensive and defensive value is belied by the fact that he has the highest career WAR (50.8) of any player not elected to the Hall of Fame.  Phillips actually played professional baseball in 2015 at the age of 54, registering an on base percentage of .394 for the Pittsburgh Mettle of the Independent Pacific Association.

In reflecting on his friend’s passing, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson said, “Tony would have rolled around in his wheelchair thinking he could still play.”  Knowing what he accomplished in his career, would anybody doubt that?

Predictably, the baseball world was shocked and saddened by the death of the popular Phillips.

Rickey Henderson: 

“If anyone played the game like I did or loved the game as much as I love the game, it was Tony. He admired the game, cherished the game. He respected the older generation and tried to teach the younger guys.  He still believed he could play the game and last year was talking about making a comeback.”

Mike Henneman:

“He was beautiful. That’s some very sad news.”

Robin Ventura

“He was great.  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.”

 

https://twitter.com/MCHammer/status/700892063559131136

 

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Rocco Constantino
About the Author

Rocco is the author of 50 Moments That Defined Major League Baseball (Available on Amazon now!) and former Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He is also a die hard Mets fan going back to the awful early 80's and ready for the revival. D2 NCAA softball coach and athletics administrator. Follow Rocco on Twitter @mlb100years.







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