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Brandon Phillips Is the Most Entertaining Player in Baseball
Because someone has to be.
“Baseball is boring.”
Brandon Phillips is serious. He professes this with a smirk, arching his eyebrows ever so slightly as he speaks, but the man means what he says. “You’re standing out there, waiting for the pitcher to pitch. I’m at second base like, Ah, geez, it’s gonna be a long game. Can we speed this up?”
And then he pauses, cracking that signature smile beneath the brim of his snapback Bubba Gump Shrimp hat, his teeth as sparkling white as the v-neck T-shirt he’s wearing. “But the thing is, I love playing it.”
Phillips is right. Baseball is boring. For the casual fan—and even for those who love the sport—the pace is glacial, the season is unending, and the “unwritten rules” are archaic. Which is why Phillips is always trying to make the game as fun as he possibly can. It’s a role he’s accepted and embraced, almost like a second job: All-Star second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, Major League Baseball entertainer. “The thing about Phillips is that there is obvious joy in his game,” says Will Leitch, senior writer for Sports on Earth and New York’s go-to sports scribe. “He’s always having a good time. That’s extremely appealing.”
“This ain’t a career. This ain’t a job. This is fun,” Phillips recites, mantra-like, over a glass of ice water in the Art Deco confines of the bar at the Netherland. “I wanna smile out there. Some people like the old-school way. Nah, you gotta show some emotion. The fans feed off that.”
Without question, it sets him apart. Another reason baseball has that boring stigma is that many of the game’s superstar athletes project the pizzazz of Ben Stein without a hint of Stein’s sardonic delivery. Over the past decade or so, players like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera have dominated the league from a performance standpoint, but they’ve done so with the aggregate personality of a bag of balls. Statistically speaking, Phillips isn’t quite on their level. But stats don’t always put butts in the seats.
“Baseball rewards conformity,” says Craig Calcaterra, a baseball blogger for NBC Sports. “Phillips, though, has figured out that he can be himself—can be interesting—and still be considered a great teammate and a great player. It’s refreshing to see.”
When it comes to the Reds, it’s necessary. The team is flush with talent and young studs yet deficient in terms of charisma. First baseman Joey Votto, the 2010 National League MVP, is the team’s best player and arguably the game’s best hitter right now. He also fits right in with Phillips’s description of the sport overall. “Joey doesn’t really have a personality. He just goes out there and plays. He’s just Joey, you know what I mean?” says Phillips. “Plain Jane Joey. I hit the ball, I catch the ball, and I make money—that’s Joey. But I bring excitement to the game. I make it interesting. And my teammates love that.”
They aren’t the only ones.
Because the fans love him. Adore him, really. You’d have to go back to the days of the Big Red Machine to find players who’ve had the same connection Phillips—the franchise’s best second baseman since Joe Morgan—has with the people of this city. Some of that is a product of the times, with Twitter and Instagram making it easier to engage with fans on a day-to-day basis (at press time, Phillips had 718,856 followers on Twitter). But a lot of it is simply how Phillips responds.
“It’s my momma’s fault,” he says, smile still plastered across his face. “That’s all about my mom, me giving back and interacting with my fans.”
Mom and Barry Larkin. Phillips was raised in Atlanta, which is where he first caught sight of the Hall of Fame shortstop in action at a Braves-Reds matchup in the early ’90s and immediately locked onto his impressive mix of ability and showmanship. “He just became my favorite athlete,” he says. “He was out there smiling, making plays. He was the best player on the field, and you always wanna be the best player.”
This is in part why Phillips can reliably be found signing autographs before and after games, posing for pictures with anyone who asks, tweeting with fans, and showing up to events around the city. He cares about the fans, appreciates them. Whatever it is that makes people genuinely nice, Phillips has it coming out of his ears.
“I think people are attracted to [him] because he’s so open,” says Joel Luckhaupt, the Reds statistician for Fox Sports Ohio and author of two books on the team’s history. “It’s not a quality you can expect all players to have, just like you can’t expect every player to hit .330. But it’s nice to have those players on your team.”
A couple of years ago Phillips was looking for suggestions via Twitter on what to do in Cincinnati during one of his few in-season days off. A 14-year-old saw the tweet and responded—wishfully more than anything else—urging Phillips to come to his baseball game in West Chester that evening. Phillips took him up on the invitation.
“That was probably the highlight of my year,” he recalls. “I was bored, I had a lot of things on my mind, so I just showed up. And when I got there, I was like, Wow, this is why I love playing this game. Seeing the parents talking to the kids, how little kids play. I feel like every big leaguer should experience something like that. It reminds us why we play this game.”
And the less inspiring fans? He loves them too. “Some of the drunk ones though,” he chortles, “you gotta understand that they get wild.”
Because he has no filter.
#ALLREADY: It’s the hashtag Phillips uses on every one of his tweets and Instagram posts, a phrase that doesn’t quite make sense yet the meaning is somehow implicit—this guy is always on, always genuine, always ready. Most athletes are rehearsed and robotic. They are instructed and conditioned to say the least controversial thing possible in every situation. Brandon Phillips is the complete opposite.
The most memorable example occurred three years ago, in August 2010, when he was overheard in the locker room saying that he hated the St. Louis Cardinals. He then followed that statement with, “They’re little bitches, all of ’em,” before adding, for good measure, “Let me make this clear: I hate the Cardinals.” The Dayton Daily News picked it up and beamed it out to the world. He was talking smack, for sure, but he also was being honest about his feelings—and to a greater degree, revealing the way his fellow Reds players viewed their perennial Central Division rivals. The next day, talking with reporters before the first game of a series between the two teams, Phillips refused to back off or apologize. Perhaps the least surprising thing is what happened next: a bench-clearing brawl, sparked by jawing between Phillips and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina during the second baseman’s first at-bat. Five players and both managers were ultimately punished, and both Molina and Phillips were fined. Though the Reds organization certainly wasn’t happy with the incident, Phillips was never muzzled.
“They didn’t get mad at me about it,” he says. “I mean, what can they really say to me? I’m always gonna speak how I feel, regardless of the situation.”
Fortunately, how he feels rarely leads to a two-team donnybrook. It’s usually quotable and entertaining, whether he’s noting “We don’t have no buttholes on our team,” or commenting on his relationship with third baseman Todd Frazier (“It’s like a bromance. But he’s the girl, I’m the man.”), or describing how a pitcher made him look like Willie Lump Lump in an overmatched plate appearance. “My daddy used to say it,” he says, breathing deep after doubling over with laughter. “Willie Lump Lump was that guy you didn’t want to be—a fool. It sounds terrible.”
He’s also the most candid and creative tweeter in the major leagues, admitting that he played like “#SLAW” during a rough home stand or responding “#ImGlovinIt” when followers praise his defensive prowess. “The thing is, I try my best not to cuss,” he says.
Even when discussing the dearth of African-American players in professional baseball—which he does thoughtfully, noting obstacles faced by young black athletes such as the slow pace, expensive equipment, and the costs of Little League teams—he can’t shut his inner comedian off. “The only black baseball player on TV is [Phillies first baseman] Ryan Howard, eating a Subway five-dollar footlong,” he says. “C’mon man. That don’t make me want to go out there and play baseball.”
Because he has swag.
He pulls up to the curb in a matte black, custom Hummer H3T. The interior seats are covered in the same black leather as the glove he wears on the field, a white letter B with red trim stitched on the headrest. Standard H3 logos are replaced with B4 insignias. Phillips hops out of the driver’s side. He’s sporting black Ray-Bans, a white tee, and dark blue jeans. The red bottoms of his customized Louboutin low-top sneakers match the customized red-leather Louboutin backpack slung over his shoulder. His Hummer beeps as he clicks the lock button. His smile shines with the brightness of a thousand suns. “What’s up, boss?”
“Brandon has a superstar personality.” That’s how Luckhaupt describes it, back here on Earth. “He has that air about him. He likes having that attention.”
“Some people say I’m cocky, but I’m not, I’m not a cocky person,” says Phillips. “I just play with a lot of swag because that’s the only way I know how.”
Every word he utters is true despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Nevermind what he’s wearing or the car he drives. Nevermind that he’s only moments away from discussing how everyone says he’s the King of Cincinnati or how much his teammates love him. Nevermind that swag is merely cocky in sheep’s clothing. On a roster lacking panache in a sport that drags on and on, Phillips is exactly what the game, the team, and the city needs. He constantly flirts with the line that separates his swagger from egotism yet is careful never to cross it, even if it’s perceptible only to him.
Because he’s not afraid to be honest. “I thought I was gone. I thought that everything I did for this city—the city that I love—I thought I wasn’t gonna come back.”
This is not the Brandon Phillips fans are accustomed to. His voice is quiet, his face void of that ever-present smile. He’s discussing his contract negotiations prior to the start of last season. His then four-year deal was set to expire following the 2012 season, but after the organization proffered a massive 10-year, $225-million extension to Joey Votto, Phillips’s future with the team was in doubt.
“I just feel like they didn’t have to sign Joey to that contract. He still had two more years on his,” says Phillips. “And for [the front office] to go out there and sign him before they sign me, and they knew I was going to be a free agent?” Phillips shakes his head. “I understand Joey’s a good player. He’s one of the best players in this game. But I feel like I am too. I told them that this is where I wanted to be. I begged them. I told everybody I want to finish my career here. And then they give someone a contract who didn’t ask for nothing?”
With Phillips hoping to garner a deal in the range of the league’s highest paid second basemen, the numbers weren’t adding up. Rumors were beginning to swirl about Phillips being used as a trade asset later in the season. Quietly, the Reds front office offered him six years for $72.5 million. Phillips says that Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty and team owner Bob Castellini—chairman of Castellini Co., the billion-dollar national produce distributor—made clear it was all the team could offer. Phillips swallowed his pride and signed the deal, though he clearly hasn’t forgotten what he perceived as a slight.
“To this day, I’m still hurt. Well, I don’t wanna say hurt. I’ll say scarred. I’m still scarred. It just sucks that it happened,” he says. “For [Castellini] to sign somebody for $200 million, there must be a new vegetable or fruit coming out that we don’t know about. For him to do something like that and tell me they didn’t have any more money, that’s a lie. But what can I do? I just feel like it was a slap in my face.”
Phillips’s voice trails off as he shakes his head again. It’s not in his nature to be serious for this long. “But how can someone slap you in the face with all that money?” he finally says, the smile returning to its rightful location. “It’s a nice slap in the face.”
In the end, Phillips got more money than is stolen in most heist films and he got to stay in the city he’s made his home.
“Number one, the fans love me here. I love it here. It’s a blessing. It shows that [the team] invested a lot of money in me to go out there and do my job, and to keep representing the Reds in a positive way,” he says. “I feel like that’s the only reason I got that deal—if they didn’t feel I was important to the city, then I wouldn’t still be here.”
“That, and I probably would have said some shit on Twitter.”
Because his defense is so smooth.
It’s the top of the seventh inning in a mid-May contest at Great American Ball Park. The Reds lead the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 3–2 but the Brewers are threatening, runners on first and second with one out and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun at the dish. Sam LeCure delivers a 3–2 fastball that Braun chops back up the middle, caroming high over the mound and heading directly toward second base. Phillips is shuffling to his right, eyeing the ball the whole way, trying to judge the bounce. As he approaches the bag—the runner from first barreling into his peripheral vision—the ball takes an awkward short hop off the infield dirt. Phillips plants his right leg and drops, snagging the ball bare-handed with his throwing arm as his left knee lands in the center of the base. He then twists his body and hurls the ball to first, all in one motion, rolling on his back to the shortstop side as Votto digs the throw out of the dirt. Inning-ending double play. Phillips stands and smacks his chest as broadcaster Thom Brennaman screams “Holy Moses!” heading into the seventh inning stretch.
“I don’t know how the hell that happened,” says Phillips, reaching for his glass of ice water. “I surprise myself sometimes.”
It’s one of the best defensive plays you’ll ever see, but it’s not out of the ordinary for the three-time Gold Glove winner. Phillips works tirelessly on every aspect of his craft, focusing on both the fundamentals and the seemingly impossible. During batting practice, he has an assistant coach hit grounders at the most difficult angles, speeds, and locations possible, so that when a real-game situation requires him to flip a ball between his legs or behind his back he can do it without hesitation. He calls it “showout.”
“Some things happen on accident. Some things are just reaction,” says Phillips. “But some of the things I do, best believe that I’ve tried it before.”
Because he still hates the Cardinals. Maybe. “Do I still hate them?” Phillips says, leaning back and narrowing his eyes. “You know what…” Here he pauses to think. “I’m not going to say that I hate them.” But he still seems a bit unsure.
The two NL Central teams have long been rivals but the 2010 brawl was the turning point. The Reds, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 1995, finally honed themselves into contenders, battling with St. Louis deep into the summer for first place in the division. Things came to a head with Phillips and Molina standing face-to-face at home plate before both teams rushed the field. Pushing, shoving, even kicking ensued, resulting in injuries to Cardinals player (and former Red) Jason LaRue that ultimately ended his career.
But an interesting thing happened afterwards. The Reds took off, jumpstarted by the fracas like a boxer landing his first big punch, winning the NL Central by five games. Phillips, too, turned his fortunes around when it came to the Cardinals, simultaneously drawing the ire of every baseball fan in St. Louis. “I couldn’t hit off the Cardinals before that,” says Phillips. “But ever since that fight, I tear their ass up.
“I’m glad it happened,” he continues, though he does regret the outcome for LaRue, a former teammate. “I feel like it brought our team together. And now I love going to Busch [Stadium]. The ‘Boo’ Phillips come out. They can keep booing, it doesn’t bother me.”
So why have Phillips’s feelings changed? What about him has softened when it comes to the Cards? “The guy that was doing all the crap isn’t there anymore—and I mean the manager,” Phillips says, unable to leave any ambiguity about his feelings for the now-retired Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. “But you gotta respect them. The Cardinals are one of those organizations that are always winners.”
Nevertheless, as Phillips continues—heaping more and more praise on the pile, coming clean with his admiration for the ball club—his tone changes just slightly. He’s becoming more animated, gesturing with his hands, talking faster. It’s as if all of these feelings are rushing back to him.
“They’re better than us. They have so much success, and you always hate the best,” he says, sitting forward. “So I respect the organization, I respect their players, I respect the way they play…but if you wanna say I still hate them?”
He lifts his glass to take a drink before smirking.
“Yeah, I do.”
Because we can’t wait to see what he has planned.
Brandon Phillips claims he has only tasted alcohol twice in his entire life: first after the Reds clinched the division in 2010, and then again after clinching in 2012. It’s the only time he makes an exception. (For good reason. “It tasted like ass,” he says. “Just…ass. ”) If the team gets in the playoffs and continues winning, he’ll keep hoisting all the way to the World Series. As much as Phillips may not like the taste, that’s the goal, that’s what he wants more than anything—a championship. It’s part of the reason he signed a contract for less than he thought he deserved, part of the reason he wanted to stay in Cincinnati, part of the reason he admits he’s not the best second baseman in baseball. He doesn’t have a ring.
“I feel like with this core group, we can win something,” says Phillips. “I feel like we came close twice. We went to the playoffs, and I know we didn’t win a playoff series yet, but we were close.”
He grits his teeth. The earnestness of his words hangs in the air. He can picture it. And if—let’s stay positive here and say when—the Reds win, drinking won’t be enough. No, he has something special planned for that.
“I already told everybody [on the team] what I’ll do, but I can’t tell you right now,” he says. “I gotta get there first.”
And then there it is again. That smile.
“Everyone will love it, too. It’s gonna be crazy. Trust me.”
To which we say: #ALLREADY.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue.