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Remembering Tony Phillips, MLB’s first true super-utility player

Wednesday would have been his 59th birthday.

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

On this day in 1959, before the term had even been coined in reference to versatile defenders like Ben Zobrist, Major League Baseball’s first real “super utility” player was born in Atlanta. His name was Keith Anthony Phillips.

Better known in the baseball world as “Tony,” Phillips went on to have an unparalleled and unusual 18-year career in the majors. Even the way in which he was drafted would be unrecognizable to most fans today.

Taken out of high school in Roswell, GA, by the Seattle Mariners in the 16th round of the June Amateur Draft, Phillips did not sign and went on to spend a semester at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, NM. He was then picked again, this time 10th overall in the Secondary Phase of the 1978 January Draft by the Montreal Expos — that draft and that team no longer even exist. The January Draft was instituted in 1966 and its Secondary Phase featured only players previously drafted who did not sign the first time around, until the whole thing was discontinued after 1986.

While in the minors, Phillips was traded around a bit. He moved from the Expos to the Padres and ultimately to the Oakland Athletics, where he made his big league debut in May 1982 at the age of 23. He appeared in just 40 games during his first season with Oakland, playing each one at the shortstop position. Beginning the next season, things began to change for the switch-hitter and the role, or roles, he played on the team began to expand.

During the 1983 season, Phillips stayed mainly at shortstop but began playing often at both second and third base. The next season he played his first game in left field and by 1988 he’d spent at least one game at every position — including designated hitter, pinch-hitter, and pinch-runner. During his career the only roles Phillips was never asked to fill were that of the pitcher and the catcher, totaling at least 3,000 innings at each of three positions (2B, 3B, LF), another 1,000 innings at two more positions (SS, RF) and more than 500 at a sixth spot (CF). That’s all pretty incredible, even compared to today’s super-utility players.

Phillips wasn’t always the most natural hitter but he could hit from both sides of the plate, knew how to lay off pitches outside the zone, and could knock the right ones straight out of the yard. He was actually the first member of the Oakland A’s to ever hit for the cycle, which he accomplished on May 16, 1986.

It was during his four years playing in Oakland under Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa that Phillips began to flourish. Despite Phillips being somewhat rough around the edges, with a reputation as a fiery player who often ended up in arguments that would escalate quickly into brawls, La Russa recognized Phillips’ talents across the board and basically invented the super-utility role for him. Now it’s considered a special talent that is often prized around the league today.

Phillips played in two World Series with the A’s before signing with the Detroit Tigers, where he spent five of the best seasons of his underappreciated career. He played a role in the final outs of both of those World Series — in 1988 he struck out to end Game 5 in the Dodgers’ five-game win over the A’s, and in 1989 Brett Butler grounded out to Phillips at second to complete Oakland’s sweep of the Giants.

While playing for the Tigers, Phillips led the league in runs scored in 1992 with 114 and also happened to walk 114 times that year. In 1993, he finished 16th in the MVP voting, after batting .313 and leading the league in walks with 132. He went on to play for the California Angels, hitting a career-high 27 home runs in 1995, then went to the White Sox only to be traded back to the renamed Anaheim Angels in 1997. In 1998 he split time between the Blue Jays and the Mets, finally re-signing with the A’s the following season for the final year of his career.

Phillips scored 100-plus runs four times in his career and stole at least 10 bases in 12 seasons, including his final one with the 1999 A’s when he was 40 years old. Even after his time in the majors had ended Phillips played in independent leagues. He took the field as a 56-year-old first baseman for the Pittsburg (Calif.) Diamonds, going 3-for-23 in the last eight games of his life.

Phillips died suddenly of an apparent heart attack not long after his last games with the Diamonds, on February 17, 2016. He joined two of his teammates from the 1989 Championship team who also passed away far too soon over the two years prior, Dave Henderson and Bob Welch.

I had the opportunity to meet Phillips in 2014 while celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1989 World Series and he was so full of life and energy. It was easy to see where he got his “fiery” reputation. I saw the joyful, happy side of that fire and it is definitely missed.

It’s a shame that he will likely be remembered more often as a wild child and not for the extremely versatile, talented player that he was. Phillips was recognized just once with any amount of MVP votes, and he is the player with the highest career WAR (50+) that never made an appearance at the All-Star Game. He was a greatly underappreciated and rare talent who loved baseball and continued to play with an unbridled enthusiasm for the game until the end of his life.

Thanks for the memories, Tony!