If you had to describe Tony Phillips as something that could fit in your pocket, it would have been a Swiss Army knife.
Few ballplayers in baseball history have been as handy, as capable, as versatile, as Phillips, who played for the Detroit Tigers for five seasons, from 1990 to 1994. To Tiger skipper Sparky Anderson, Phillips was indispensable.
Everything Tony did was useful. He was a switch-hitter, he could play almost every defensive position, and he had no problems bouncing around between those positions. As long as his name was in the lineup, Phillips was happy. Well, sort of happy. He did have a fiery disposition, often tossing bats, glaring at or arguing with umpires, and barking at pitchers who dared to throw the baseball too close to him.
Phillips was born in Roswell, Georgia, which might explain why he later had a good friendship with Tigers’ broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who also hailed from the Peach State. Harwell dubbed Phillips, “Tony the Tiger” during his tenure in Motown. Phillips was a gifted athlete as a youth, playing basketball and football in addition to baseball, starring for the Roswell High School Hornets. After his senior year he was drafted in the first round of the amateur draft by Montreal with the tenth overall pick in the 1978 secondary phase. He was a shortstop in high school but the Expos didn’t think much of Tony’s throwing arm and switched him to second base. He was peddled to San Diego at the trade deadline in 1980, but his big break came during spring training the following year when on March 27, 1981, the Padres traded him to Oakland in a five-player deal that was comprised mostly over minor leaguers. The A’s front office liked the fact that Phillips was a switch-hitter who could get on base: despite low batting averages in the minors, Tony showed a keen batting eye and drew a lot of walks.
In spring training in 1982, Phillips nearly earned a spot on the big league roster, but he was one of the final cuts by manager Billy Martin, who came to be a great admirer of the young player. Five weeks into the season Phillips was summoned to the major leagues, making his debut on May 10 as a replacement for veteran shortstop Fred “Chicken” Stanley, who was (as usual) hitting poorly. Tony batted ninth and struck out against Baltimore’s Sammy Stewart in his first plate appearance. Later in the game he touched home plate for the first time, scoring on a single by Dwayne Murphy. Two days later he got his first hit and walk in the majors, both coming against Mike Flanagan. Overall, rookie Phillips played in 40 games in ’81, batting .210 with little power, but he displayed a good eye, which would be his trademark, posting a respectable .326 on-base percentage.
For the rest of the 1980s, Phillips was an important part of the Oakland team, playing at short and second base primarily, but also melding into a fine utility man. He added 31 games at the hot corner in 1985, and in 1988 as the A’s captured the first of three straight pennants, Phillips filled in for more than 30 games in left field. The next season, his last with Oakland, Tony played at short, second, third, left and right field, and even appeared in one game at first base. Manager Tony Larussa loved to slot Phillips in almost anywhere to spell a starter or to get Tony’s solid bat in his lineup. In ’83, ’84, and ’89, Phillips played in more than 140 games for Oakland despite not having one set position. It didn’t seem to faze him.
“When they call my name, I’m ready,” Phillips said in 1987, “I [just] want to play somewhere.”
The biggest moments of Phillips’ career came in the 1989 World Series, a spectacle that was interrupted by an earthquake that devastated the San Francisco Bay Area and delayed the series between the Athletics and Giants. Tony appeared in all four games, producing an RBI single in Game One, but he saved his best for Game Three, the first game back from a 12-day delay due to the earthquake. In that game Phillips hit a solo home run in the fourth inning off Scott Garrelts, helping his team go on to a 13-7 victory. The next night, Tony had an RBI double and in the bottom of the ninth he handled the final groundball that was the last out of the 1989 World Series. Phillips was a world champion as part of a great Oakland team that year.
Following that noteworthy ’89 season, Phillips was a free agent who attracted quite a bit of attention on the baseball market. At the winter meetings he signed a five-year deal with the Detroit Tigers for $10.2 million. The Tigers were trying to recover from a miserable season that saw them finish out the otherwise successful 1980s with 103 losses. Phillips joined Cecil Fielder and Lloyd Moseby as offseason acquisitions the team hoped would turn them back into contenders.
The Tigers were set in the middle of the infield with stalwarts second baseman Lou Whitaker and shortstop Alan Trammell, but they had a glaring hole at third base, a position that they seemed to annually have a problem with. Rick Schu hadn’t been the answer, and young Travis Fryman (who was making a transition from short to third in the minor leagues) wasn’t ready yet either. The Tigers handed Phillips to manager Sparky Anderson, who was more than happy to play the 31-year old veteran at the hot corner. But as would happen throughout his tenure in the Motor City, Phillips played second base, shortstop, and the corner outfield positions in addition to his “anchor” spot at third. Whitaker and Trammell frequently needed breaks or were sidelined with injuries, and Phillips was a perfect filler at those spots on occasion. Sparky made a wise move by placing Phillips at the top of his lineup, pushing Whitaker down to third just ahead of Fielder. Sweet Lou had developed more power as his career was progressing, and Phillips was more than capable of d=getting on base in front of the meat of the Detroit order. Phillips drew 99 walks and scored 97 runs in the role in his first season as a Tiger.
The Tigers made a 20-win improvement in 1990 thanks to the slugging bat of Fielder and steady play from Phillips and others. The following season Phillips showed that he was warming to the cozy dimensions of Tiger Stadium, as he belted a career-high 17 home runs. That year his batting average rose to .284 and he scored 87 runs and walked 79 times to go along with the increase in power.
In 1992, when neither Milt Cuyler nor Gary Pettis could produce enough offensively to secure the center field spot, Phillips filled in there too. Sparky often used Phillips as his designated hitter as well, since he excelled at getting on base in front of of Fielder, Trammell, and Mickey Tettleton, Rob Deer, and Kirk Gibson, who returned to Detroit in 1993. In ’92 Phillips led the American League in runs scored with 114 and also walked 114 times. By this time he was establishing himself as one of the most important members of the team. Though his defense was never stellar, it was solid enough and Detroit fans took to him.
If there was one thing “Tony the Tiger” could do, it was draw a base on balls. Peering out at the mound from an exaggerated crouch, Phillips’ eagle eye and postage stamp sized strike zone led to plenty of free passes. In 1993, he coaxed 132 walks, leading the American League. He averaged 104 per season as a Tiger. ’93 was his best year with the bat, as he scored 113 runs, produced a career-best 177 hits, swiped 16 bases, batted .313 and had a .443 on-base percentage. In all, he got on base more than 300 times that season and he finished 16th in AL Most Valuable Player voting. Detroit baseball writers selected Phillips as “King Tiger.”
Phillips struck out a lot, especially for a leadoff man – 96 times per year in Detroit. Thus accounting for the K’s and walks, the Tiger handyman usually failed to put the ball in play about one in every three time he came to the plate. Yet, it was nearly impossible to take your eyes off Phillips when he was at the plate. He was a ball of energy, argumentative and prone to dramatic facial expressions. He had what old time baseball observers called “pep” or “spark.”
With Whitaker and Trammell entering the latter stage of their careers, Phillips found his way into the lineup filling in for the veteran double play combo. Though he was an average defender, Phillips was solid everywhere he played. No matter which glove he took onto the field, Phillips was a key offensive performer. Always in good shape, he rarely missed playing time, usually ranking among league leaders in games and plate appearances.
By his final season in Detroit in 1994, Phillips had learned to take advantage of Tiger Stadium, belting 19 homers in a strike shortened season. He was no Fielder or Gibson, but Phillips wasn’t a punch-and-judy hitter either.
The Tigers never advanced to the playoffs during Phillips’ tenure with the Tigers, which coincided with Sparky’s wind down in Detroit, but little Tony’s career .395 OBP as a Tiger ranks among the best in franchise history. Phillips suffered an injury during the spring of 1995 which shelved him as the season started, but before he could come back for another year in a Detroit uniform, the team traded the veteran. This time he was off to the west coast to play for the Angels. Detroit was happy about the swap: they got 26-year old center fielder Chad Curtis in return for the 26-year old Phillips.
In his post-Detroit years Phillips played for five teams in four years. He had a fine season for the Halos in ’95, showing off his mature physical power by hitting 27 home runs, and the following year with the White Sox at the age of 37 Phillips led the league in walks and played the outfield for most of the season. He was a versatile performer for sure. He played his final games back with Oakland in 1999, where he had started his big league odyssey. At the age of 40 he was still hitting leadoff and showed off his combination of patience and power: drawing 71 walks and hitting 15 home runs in only 106 games. He was still effective enough to post a .362 on-base percentage in his last season and he also collected his 2,000th career hit. Oakland invited him back as a non-roster invitee for spring training in 2000, but Tony was done. He announced his retirement. His 1,319 career walks ranked in the top 30 when he left the game.
For usefulness, of all the players to ever wear the Old English D, it’s hard to top “Tony the Tiger.”