In the weeks leading up to the disastrous strike of 1994 that would wipe out the latter third of the regular season, playoffs and World Series, the Detroit Tigers hosted the Boston Red Sox at Tiger Stadium on June 8. The Tigers were in fourth-place in the five-team AL East facing their divisional rivals, the second-place Red Sox. Detroit enjoyed one of their rare victories over Boston that season and romped to a 14-5 destruction.
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With the game winding down in the eighth inning, and both teams going through the motions as often happens in a late-inning blowout, Tigers’ leadoff man Tony Phillips hit a sharp grounder to Boston second basemen Carlos Rodriguez that bounced off his glove into the air. Rodriguez was able grab it on the bounce and quickly throw to first, but the speedy Phillips was safe.
Moments later an E appeared on the Tiger Stadium scoreboard. On his way back to the Detroit dugout, Phillips glared up into the scorer’s booth and appeared to yell “Horseshit! That’s horseshit!” This angered the official scorer so much that he went to the clubhouse to confront Phillips and a shouting match ensued.
And that is the perfect snapshot of former Tiger Tony Phillips, someone that played the game hard from the first at-bat to the final out, no matter the score. It also showed that Tony the Tiger, as he was often affectionately deemed, was very combustible and feisty.
Phillips experienced a non-distinct career when he came to Detroit in 1990. His first eight seasons were spent in varying roles with the Oakland Athletics, a team on the rise through the mid- to late-1980’s culminating in back-to-back appearances in the World Series in 1988-89 and a World Championship.
Because Oakland relied mostly on the home run, Phillips’ speed was not used as much, but manager Sparky Anderson understood that he’d fit at the top of the lineup even though to that point he hadn’t shown he could get on base frequently. Lou Whitaker had been the Tigers’ leadoff man for much of his career, but with the arrival of Phillips, Sparky was able to move Sweet Lou down to a more appropriate two-hole.
Phillips had a so-so first year with the Tigers, but one notable stat was his walks. His base-on-balls increased from 58 in 1989 to 99 in 1990 while his stolen bases grew from just three to 19.
In 1992 the switch hitter’s walks ballooned to 114 and then to a baseball-best 132 in 1993. Those are quite astonishing walk numbers for a player that didn’t receive intentional passes. Because he changed his game, and became a more patient hitter, his average and OPS both climbed during his years in Detroit.
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Phillips’ value did not stop at the plate. He was a Don Kelly before his time (albeit with more talent) and could play at seemingly any position on the diamond. Phillips played in every outfield position and every infield position except for first base. He had a different glove for each position and fielded each remarkably well. He also served as the designated hitter for quite a few games.
Tony’s hard-nosed play, and ability to seemingly always be on base, endeared him to fans. His competitive nature was often off-set with a mostly friendly persona.
The Tigers decided to move on and shipped Phillips to the California Angels for Chad Curtis before baseball resumed in 1995. Phillips became a journeyman for the rest of his career, spending time with the White Sox, back to the Angels, Blue Jays and Mets. He finished his major league career back where it all started, with the Athletics in 1999.
Because of his temperament, Phillips occasionally ran into problems both on and off the field. One instance of this occurred during his second stint in Anaheim when he was arrested for possessing a small amount of cocaine. The charges were later dropped after completion of a drug program.
Many years later, after the age of 50, Tony’s passion reemerged and he played for a couple of Independent League teams in 2011-2012. During that time it was clear that the competitive nature never left. Phillips, playing for a team managed by Jose Canseco, got into a brawl with former Dodger Mike Marshall, managing the other team, and was suspended for three games.
Anyone who remembered Tony Phillips from his years in Detroit were not surprised by this development.
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