There was the time he dared a heckler in Milwaukee to meet him
behind the grandstand--"I shouldn't have done that," he
admits--and then there was the time he tossed furniture around
the Chicago White Sox clubhouse shouting, "We should've won this
game! We could've won this game!" At times in his 14-year major
league career Tony Phillips has had to be restrained from going
after pitchers Scott Erickson and Frank Viola because they had
hit him with pitches, and a whole list of umpires because of
sundry slights, real and imagined. Now the question is no longer
if Phillips's temper will flare, but when. "After he makes an
out, you just wait for all the noises and the bats to start
exploding when he goes back to the dugout," says Minnesota Twins
designated hitter Paul Molitor. "Things just start slamming."
Maybe the catalyst will be a strike call that Phillips doesn't
agree with. Maybe it'll be a comment made by a catcher or an
umpire telling him to get back into the batter's box. Pretty
soon Phillips's face will be twitching like Travis Bickle's did
in Taxi Driver.
On May 29, in the 10th game of his second tour with the Angels,
Phillips displayed signs that a tantrum was imminent after
failing to reach base in his first two at bats against the
Oakland Athletics. By Phillips's fourth plate appearance, the
Angels' dugout was on red alert. After Phillips swung at a pitch
that nose-dived out of the strike zone and he wheeled to see
that the catcher had held on for the strikeout, he took a
roundhouse swipe at his bat and angrily slapped it to the
ground. He left it there and growled.
The crowd behind the visitors' dugout was hectoring him now.
When Phillips got back to the dugout and paused on the top step,
Anaheim outfielder Tim Salmon says, "my first thought was,
Uh-oh, somebody get him before he snaps." Another teammate,
Eddie Murray, said, "Come on, Tony. Get back in the dugout."
But Phillips stayed put and grinned crazily at the hecklers.
"I'm a what? I'm a what?" he shouted. As the Angels' Darin
Erstad batted, Phillips's exchanges with the spectators became
louder and more animated. Just when no one was sure what he
might do--scramble onto the dugout roof? Make a beeline to
confront his antagonists?--Phillips raised his right hand and
turned his palm skyward. Then he pursed his lips and bowed at
the waist and blew the fans a kiss.
Sunday marks the five-week anniversary of Phillips's return to
the Angels, whom he helped whip-crack and cajole to the brink of
the 1995 American League West title before they collapsed in the
final weeks of the season and lost a one-game playoff to the
Seattle Mariners. Not coincidentally, Phillips is calling his
return a chance to sew up "unfinished business," such as
bringing a pennant to Anaheim.
To many baseball observers Phillips is both the best leadoff
hitter in the league and an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle
stuffed inside a powder keg. He has not only a temper but also a
penchant for saying whatever he thinks, no matter whom it
offends or how much trouble it may get him in. As Molitor puts
it, "He's the Charles Barkley of baseball. I can't think of
anyone who's more direct."
If you ask the White Sox why they traded Phillips on May 18,
they'll insist that his volatility had nothing to do with the
decision--they just needed to make room for some young
outfielders and wanted to bolster their pitching staff by adding
lefthanded setup man Chuck McElroy, whom they received along
with catcher Jorge Fabregas for Phillips and catcher Chad
Kreuter. But ask Phillips why he was dealt, and he says,
"[Manager] Terry Bevington and I didn't like each other. He's in
way over his head."
Phillips's off-the-field persona is nothing like his
hell-bent-for-glory approach to baseball. He's a snarl of
contradictions, but he's also one of the most approachable guys
you'll ever meet. "I love the guy like a brother," says White
Sox second baseman Ray Durham.
At 38 Phillips has been in pro baseball long enough to have been
traded for Willie Montanez, but he has more bounce in his step
than most of the Angels' batboys. He's got a distinctive,
cackling laugh, a high-pitched squeak of a voice and a friendly
habit of tapping you on the forearm or knee when he's getting to
the good part of one of his stories. He's a devoted family man
who scurries to his Scottsdale, Ariz., home on off days to visit
his wife, Debi, and her 12-year-old daughter, Selina. Though he
can effect one of the most maniacal glares in the game, his
expressive black eyes crinkle with delight when he hears a good
joke. "He's a real treat, a scream and a half," says Sparky
Anderson, who was Phillips's manager with the Detroit Tigers
from 1990 to '94.
Put Phillips in a big league game or dugout or locker room,
however, and he becomes, he concedes, "someone else." He
swaggers. He cusses. He spits and yells and fights. Though he is
only 5'10" and 175 pounds, Phillips doesn't hesitate to storm
after whoever is annoying him--sometimes because he feels
provoked, sometimes because he's just having a bad day. His
tendency to turn the most innocuous remarks about him into
personal motivation is almost Jordanesque. After making an out
in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 25, Phillips
threw things around the dugout until he caught some Blue Jays
players giggling at him. He bounded to the top step and
screamed, "What the hell are you looking at?"
"Look," Phillips says, "even I don't know when this stuff is
going to happen." Debi says, "I watch all of his games on
satellite TV. When something happens, it's never long before the
phone rings, and it's him saying, 'I couldn't help it. I had to
do it. They just made me so mad.'"
Despite his unpredictability, Phillips is respected by his
peers. Both Bevington and Anaheim skipper Terry Collins say the
same thing: With Kenny Lofton now playing for the Atlanta Braves
in the National League, no one else in the American League
rivals Phillips's ability to wreak havoc. Through Sunday,
Phillips was hitting .285, with an on-base percentage of .412,
and his 53 walks ranked fifth in the league. Since rejoining the
Angels, he has started at five positions--DH, leftfield,
rightfield, second base and third base. At week's end Anaheim
was 18-14 with Phillips in the lineup and was averaging 5.78
runs per game, up from 5.00 before his arrival. "Tony is one of
those guys who always seems to start big innings," says Collins.
"He's got this fiery attitude that's contagious. Every day he
gives you everything he's got."
Despite Phillips's career-high 27 homers and 119 runs scored in
1995, Angels management didn't attempt to keep him when his
$4.36 million contract expired after the season. Bitterly
disappointed, Phillips took the only offer he received--a
two-year, $3.6 million deal with the White Sox.
His one-plus season in Chicago was stormy, even by his
standards. Last year he averaged almost a flare-up a month.
During 1996 spring training he announced his retirement, then
returned to the Sox 48 hours later and refused to discuss why he
had left. In May, during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers,
he changed into street clothes after being removed in the sixth
inning. Then he left the clubhouse and got into a fistfight
behind the outfield grandstand with a 23-year-old spectator who
had been riding him. In June he was tossed from back-to-back
games in Seattle for arguing a called third strike.
In his worst moment this season he was tossed out by home plate
umpire John Shulock just three pitches into an April 21 game
against the New York Yankees after Shulock warned him not to
step out of the batter's box. Following the ejection, Phillips
charged Shulock, but he was restrained by three members of the
White Sox. American League president Gene Budig suspended
Phillips for two games. Phillips went ballistic, telling
reporters that Budig, a former University of Kansas president,
was "a bookworm" who didn't understand the game the way a former
player would. Then Phillips, who is African-American, suggested
that Budig, who is white, was racist; he pointed out that Budig
also had suspended him for three games in 1995 for fighting with
Kansas City Royals catcher Mike McFarlane but did not suspend
McFarlane, who is white.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (page 76) called Phillips's
racism charges "out of line," and 13 days later Phillips was
When asked if he regrets his remarks about Budig, Phillips
scowls and says, "No. Hell, no. No, no, no, no, no." He does
add, "I don't know if Gene Budig is a racist or not. I haven't
talked to him. But I've been doing the same things for 12, 13
years. Then Budig comes in, and all of a sudden I'm a villain, a
loose cannon, a thug?"
To understand Phillips's stubbornness, it's important to know
where he comes from. His place in baseball was hardly secure
during his first 10 pro seasons. He didn't sign a big-money
contract until 1990, when he was 30. As a kid he was a
five-sport letterman at Roswell (Ga.) High before the Montreal
Expos took him in the 1978 draft.
"You know what my lifelong problem is?" Phillips says, laughing.
"I've always had Little Man's disease. Your whole life people
tell you that you can't do this, you can't do that. I always
thought, Oh, yeah? Well, I'll show you, you so-and-so. I didn't
have a chip on my shoulder--it was a chunk. When I went to my
first spring training with Montreal, a coach looked at me and
said, 'Get me a towel.' I said, 'What? I ain't no towel boy. I'm
a player. I'm a ballplayer!'"
He wasn't a full-time major leaguer until 1983, and it was while
playing for Oakland, with whom he went to the World Series in
'88 and '89, that he learned the nuances of the game from
teammates like Joe Morgan and Davey Lopes and Dusty Baker. He
loved Carney Lansford's grit, Dave Stewart's tenacity and Dave
Parker's giant-sized personality and insouciance. Phillips has
always been a switch-hitter with power, and his exaggerated
crouch stance and the way he cocks his front leg to time the
pitcher were lifted from Rickey Henderson. "They were all very
different people," Phillips says of the A's who influenced him,
"but the one thing they all had in common was they played hard."
Though Phillips has never had Henderson's speed, he has a talent
for coaxing walks, getting under people's skin and rattling
pitchers. By the time he left Oakland and signed as a free agent
with Detroit in 1990, he had begun to put his talent, his skills
and his knack for psychological warfare together. But even after
his breakthrough seasons (1990 to '94) in Detroit, during which
he averaged .281 with 12 homers, 62 RBIs and a .476 on-base
percentage, Phillips still felt he didn't get enough respect,
especially after 1995, when the Angels snubbed him. "Sparky
Anderson always told me, 'Never cheat the game; don't ever cheat
the game,'" says Phillips. "I thought by '95 I had done
everything the game had asked me to do. When no one seemed to
want me, I was crushed. I was bitter. When I got to spring
training, the feeling didn't go away. Finally I called my wife
and said, 'Honey, I'm coming home.'"
Within 24 hours his former teammate Baker, who by then had become
the manager of the San Francisco Giants, visited him in
Scottsdale. Laughing now, Phillips says, "I went through my
little angry speech: 'I'm tired of this! Forget it, that's it, I
quit. I'm through.' Dusty got about an inch from my face, looked
me right in the eye and said, 'Listen you little black militant
mother------, it ain't about you. Baseball ain't about you.' I
said, 'But Dusty, man, they didn't give me any respect!' And
Dusty--oh, he was awesome--he screamed, 'Respect? They didn't
give Hank Aaron respect, and he hit 755 home runs!' Then he
said, 'Look, Tony, don't you see? You've come full circle. You
should be having the time of your life now because you don't
need the game anymore. You did it. You made it. Now think of
those kids on the White Sox. I know God didn't give you all that
talent and all that knowledge to take it to the hills and keep
it to yourself.'"
And? "I told myself, He's right!" Phillips says.
But, wait, Phillips is asked, are you saying you want to be a
Phillips sits back and says, "You got it." Then he smiles that
crazy, happy, giddy, scary smile of his. Uh-oh.