When the New York Mets acquired Tony Phillips in a string of perplexing moves at the trade deadline in 1998, many wondered if bringing Phillips to the Big Apple was the right move in Flushing. For Mets outfielder Brian McRae, Phillips’ arrival was just what the team needed to stabilize their lineup.
“I was excited when they said that trade went through because I was hitting down in the order by that time and we really didn’t have a leadoff [hitter],” said McRae speaking Friday evening from Marshall, Texas where he was coaching the Park University baseball team. “We had done all of the shuffling in the outfield with [Todd] Hundley playing a little bit in the outfield after [Mike] Piazza got traded [to the Mets], so it was good to have him on the ball club.”
The versatile Phillips passed away at the age of 56 on Wednesday February 17, 2016 in Arizona due to an apparent heart attack. The news hit close to home for McRae who still had the death of another mutual teammate on his mind.
“It was like a month and a half ago with Dave Henderson too,” he said, “so I lost two former teammates in a short time.”
Coming up with the Kansas City Royals in 1990, McRae was familiar with Phillips from playing in the American League. He remembered Phillips as a hitter that pitchers weren’t fond of seeing at the plate.
“You didn’t like him because he was pesky,” he said. “Pitchers couldn’t bury him and get him out. He fouled off a lot of pitches and always seemed like he was in the middle of rallies for those good A’s teams. He just did a lot of things well to help his team win games.”
The 39-year-old Phillips brought the same tenacious approach that McRae described to the Mets, quickly invigorating the clubhouse. There were a lot of intangible elements to Phillips’ game that didn’t show up in the box score, but enabled the entire team to elevate their play.
“He was a good on-base guy for all the guys hitting behind him,” he recalled. “I think our offense got better once he came along. It wasn’t so much him hitting his way on, but just working the count. He might have had a low average, but his on-base percentage was pretty high, and he did a good job running up pitch counts to let everybody else in the lineup see pitches that the pitcher had. He was really comfortable in that role as far as taking a lot of pitches, getting deep in the count, and doing those types of things.”
Spending time with Phillips away from the field gave McRae the opportunity to gain a deeper perspective on Phillips’ approach that wasn’t apparent from the opposing dugout. He found Phillips to be a real student of the game who was willing to share the intricacies of the trade with him.
“I got to know him a lot better than I did in passing from playing against him,” he said. “We spent a lot of time talking about baseball, his approach mentally, and how he went about getting prepared for a game by checking scouting reports of other teams, pitchers, and things that he picked up.
“He was good with sharing a lot of that knowledge with me; I liked to sit at his locker, listen, and learn as much as possible. [He] put a lot of his heart and soul into what he did on the ball field, and with him being on those championship teams, you gravitated to those guys because there’s something special about them. When you’re around guys who have been a part of something special, you listen to them and try to learn as much as possible.”
McRae shared an example of Phillips’ tenacity while playing for Mets relaying an incident that occurred against the St. Louis Cardinals and his former manager Tony LaRussa. After a first-inning brushback by Cardinals starter Matt Morris, Phillips directed his angst at the Hall of Fame skipper.
“He brought a different aura to our ball club and he didn’t back down from anything,” he stated. “I remember we played against the Cardinals and Matt Morris threw up and in on him. He was jawing at Matt Morris, and then Tony LaRussa his former manager was yelling at him; he went right back at LaRussa. He brought a different edge that I think we needed.”