Useful Phillips had his best seasons as a member of the Tigers

A tough competitor who was excellent at getting on base, Tony Phillips played six different positions for the Tigers during his five season in Detroit.

A fiery switch-hitter who was excellent at getting on base, Tony Phillips played six different positions for the Tigers during his five seasons in a Detroit uniform from 1990 to 1994.

It was sad and shocking to hear that a heart attack ended the life of Tony Phillips at the age of fifty-six.

Detroiters got to root for Phillips for only five seasons of his long career, but they were among his very best. He made an indelible impression on fans of the Detroit Tigers. Phillips was a hard-working, versatile, and amazingly productive player whose many contributions to a major league roster far exceeded his stature.

At 5 foot 10 and 175 pounds, Phillips may not have cut an impressive figure on the diamond, but through sheer force of will and dedication, he honed his talents far beyond what anyone expected and carved out a long and noteworthy career. Drafted by the Montreal Expos as the tenth pick in the first round, he spent eight seasons with Oakland before his five seasons (1990-94) with Detroit, and then five more with a variety of teams before finishing in 1999 back where he started with Oakland.

Today, Phillips would be mentioned in the same breath as Ben Zobrist. Like Zobrist he was a super-utility player who could perform well virtually anywhere on the diamond, excelling at corner outfield spots as well as at the key infield positions of second base, shortstop, and third base.

In today’s game, Phillips’ versatility would be even more valued than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. With extra roster spots going to relievers nowadays, every team needs a multi-position player off the bench. Phillips was a multi-position starter; like Zobrist, you had to find a way to work him into the starting lineup, and his ability to play all over the field meant it was never tough to do so.

He was underappreciated in his day for another reason. During his career, the importance of on-base percentage to a team’s offense was just starting to be recognized. And Phillips excelled at getting on base. Not too many players have an on-base percentage 100 points higher than their batting average like Phillips did in his career (.374 to .266).

In his early years with Oakland, he was a part-timer. But Phillips had his peak seasons with Detroit. Mostly playing third base and left field—and then more second base as Lou Whitaker’s career wound down—Phillips was a regular in Detroit and turned in fantastic seasons in 1993 and 1994 in his mid-thirties. In 1993 he led the league in walks with an amazing 132 free passes and batted .313 to boot for a .443 on-base percentage. The following season he also hit for power, with a very productive slash line of .281/.409/.468 in a strike-shortened season.

The Tigers, who had signed him as a free agent after the 1989 season, eventually traded him to the Angels for Chad Curtis, but it turned out his career was far from over. In his final year, at age forty with the A’s,  Phillips played in 106 games and batted .244/.362/.433.

For his career, he had over 2,000 hits, scored 1,300 runs, and stole 177 bases. Not too shabby.

I liked Tony the Tiger a lot. He wore number 4, worn previously by two of my all-time favorite Tigers, Charlie Maxwell and Aurelio Rodriguez (see a list of all players who wore #4 for the Tigers).

Phillips was a key cog in some excellent Tigers team of the early 1990s. And even from the stands you could see he was well liked by his teammates. He leaves us with nothing but fond memories.