Tony Phillips passed away from a heart attack at the age of 56, according to friend and former teammate Dave Stewart. The 18-year veteran played for six different teams, including extended stints with the A's and Tigers. He was one of the most unique players in baseball history, and it's time to celebrate just how amazing he was. He was, in several respects, the perfect baseball player.
If you think the word "perfect" is hyperbole, consider that Phillips was basically a video game create-a-player in all the best ways. He ...
- Was a switch-hitter without serious platoon splits
- Had excellent speed
- Had surprising power, including a 27-homer season
- Took walks and annoyed other pitchers
- Played center field (well)
- Played second base (well)
- Played third base (well)
- Played anywhere you wanted
If you're looking for a modern-day comp, the obvious one is Ben Zobrist, and it works on several levels. But Zobrist wasn't quite as fast, and more importantly, he wasn't nearly as under-appreciated. With the advent of WAR and advanced statistics, everyone knows exactly what Zobrist is. It's why there was a bidding war for him when he finally became a free agent in his mid-30s. And that was after the long-term deal he had already secured from his former team. Everyone wants a Zobrist.
Phillips, on the other hand, was too good at everything to be appreciated properly, at least at the time. If he hit 40 homers while running like a bullpen catcher and fielding like an offensive lineman, he would have been a perennial All-Star and possible Hall of Famer, but he wouldn't have necessarily been more valuable. If you go by WAR, indeed, he was about as valuable as Orlando Cepeda or Tony Perez. When he played, though, he was considered a nice complementary player, certainly not someone who got serious consideration for the All-Star team.
You didn't need WAR, though. Phillips passed the eyeball test. He was a player you couldn't watch without thinking this guy does everything, and he did it for almost 20 years. He was an overqualified utility player in his 20s with the A's, and then he was a superstar without the accolades and awards for the Tigers for the first half of his 30s. When he was 40, he was still helping his team win, playing six positions (not including DH) for the A's, stealing 11 bases and posting a .362 on-base percentage.
Phillips was even underrated as a human interest story when it comes to his long career, playing last year for the Pittsburg Mettle of the Pacific Association. He was released after getting three hits in 23 at-bats, but he stole two bases. And he had an OBP of .394, of course. His return was overshadowed by the return of Jose Canseco later that season, which is basically a big ol' dumb metaphor.
Phillips was one of the rarest players baseball has ever seen, someone who did everything you wanted a hitter to do, played everywhere you needed him to and ran the bases like a speedy player should. Baseball was better with him in it, and he's on a short list of the best Swiss Army knives in Major League Baseball history.
If you never got a chance to appreciate Tony Phillips, take a moment to do so. Baseball has lost one of its underrated superstars.