Brandon Phillips is cool without trying to be. Maybe that's why baseball doesn't know what to make of him.
The best second baseman in the game is active on Twitter. DatDudeBP had 34,728 followers at last count. He jabs opposing fans, especially the baseball-serious savants in St. Louis, who empty their lungs in his direction whenever the Cincinnati Reds are in town.
Phillips talks trash and acts brash. His tapping of the shin guard of St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina while in the batter's box last August incited a bench-clearing mill-around. It also ignited what has become the best rivalry in the NL Central. Or at least the most relevant, with the Cubs remaining largely dormant.
Phillips plays baseball like a football player. He yaps like a playground rat in Brooklyn. If DatDude played football or basketball, no one would notice his extracurriculars, except to note how tame they were. In baseball, everybody notices, because baseball maintains a quaint sense of decorum.
In the first week of the season, the Reds led the Houston Astros 9-4 in the 6th inning, when Phillips came barreling in from third base, on a grounder to shortstop. He slammed into Astros catcher J.R. Towles and scored the run. Phillips marked the occasion with a small thrust of a fist and two quick pounds on his chest.
The discontent among other players, home and away, lingered into the next day. One of Phillips' teammates said, "We don't need that in here, same as we didn't need it last year against the Cardinals.'' Phillips had violated the broad, vague, yet universally understood code. He had "showed up'' the other team.
Oh, Abner, what are we gonna do?
"I have fun, man,'' Phillips explains. "This game is supposed to be fun. I'm not showing any disrespect to anyone. If the catcher's blocking the plate, run his (butt) over. If he's not, hook slide. Or just jump over him, Willie Mays Hayes style. The point is to score the run.''
Given that the Reds blew a few monstrous leads last year -- a six-run, 9th-inning edge at Atlanta leaps to mind -- Phillips says he takes no advantage for granted. As for the self-congratulations, well, that's just who he is. Baseball could use a little jolt of anti-decorum. It needs more DatDudes, not less. This isn't 1940. DiMaggio isn't tipping his cap.
Phillips isn't showing up anyone. He's excited to have done something for his team and for himself. It's 9-4 in the 6th inning, and Phillips is throwing himself at the other team's catcher. I want that guy on my team.
It'd be good to have his glove on the right side of my infield, too. Phillips plays second base the way Deion Sanders played cornerback in his prime. Not only does Phillips have zero errors this year, he gets to balls few others even consider. In just the last week, he has made two plays that opened jaws coast to coast.
Last Tuesday against Houston, Phillips charged a slow roller hit by speedy Jason Bourgeois and flipped it between his legs to first, for the out, a play he swears he works on during batting practice. On Friday at Wrigley Field, he ranged deep behind the bag at second and flipped the ball behind his back, to the bag, for a force out.
Until a recent mini-slump, Phillips led all major league second baseman in batting average. He's still among the leaders in batting average (.311), runs (22), hits (38) and on-base percentage (.372). Meanwhile, he has had to shift from batting second in the Reds lineup, to fourth, while regular cleanup man Scott Rolen spends time on the disabled list.
Switching from a table-setting hitter to a table-cleaning one takes entirely different skills and thinking. Phillips has done it each of the last three years.
"When I was hitting second, in front of Joey (Votto), me and Joey were having a field day out there,'' Phillips says. "Now, when I hit behind Joey I'm not going to see that many fastballs or strikes. I have to go up there and be more patient. I've been getting myself out by swinging at bullcrap instead of letting the ball come to me.''
He spent last offseason swimming, running, doing yoga and practicing tae kwon do. He studied video of his favorite second baseman, Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, and one of his favorite hitters, Michael Young of the Texas Rangers. What Phillips saw was two players who have succeeded by doing what they were able, and doing it well. Nothing more.
"That's the kind of player I can be, I ought to be,'' Phillips says. "You just stay within yourself. Alomar hit 20 homers every year, hit .300 and played great defense. Michael Young had 200 hits every year. I just need to be within myself.''
Phillips says batting cleanup cramps his style. "It's hard for me to be me, hitting fourth.'' He isn't a power hitter, even though he did hit 30 homers in '07, cleaning up. Last year, he was an All-Star for the first time, generally batting first or second.
"Everybody's all about the long ball now,'' says Phillips. "At leadoff, I started thinking about the whole game, instead of just driving in runs. It was a beautiful thing.''
Phillips says that a lot. Yoga "helps you stay in the moment,'' he says. "It's a beautiful thing.'' Watching video of Alomar playing second base: Beautiful thing.
He's a natural at Twitter and learned from the master. "Me and Chad are cool,'' he says of Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco. Planet Ocho is King tweet among pro athletes, with almost two million followers.
Phillips started tweeting in February. It's run-of-the-mill fodder for the jock/celeb obsessed: Where he's eating, what he's eating, his favorite road cities, a birthday wish for Willie Mays.
"It's something for the fans. My teammates love me on Twitter. (Votto) would never do it. (Jay) Bruce wouldn't,'' Phillips says. "They say it's stupid, but they do it through me.''
One topic Phillips addressed recently was his "walk-up music,'' the tune played on the public address in Cincinnati as he approaches the plate. He says he changes it every month. The Reds haven't gotten the message.
Since Opening Day, DatDude has walked to the dish accompanied by Cee-Lo Green singing "Forget You'' except it's not "forget'' you in the original, if you get the drift. It's pretty fitting for Brandon Phillips, though. Maybe he shouldn't change it.