Near the end of his Major League Baseball career, it was clear to anyone watching that Brandon Phillips wasn’t enjoying himself any longer. Throughout his 14 years in MLB Phillips had been known for his electric personality on the field and his matching play. There were holes in his game just as there were holes in his personality. He was prone to anger and to arguing on the field just as he was getting caught stealing or grounding out on a ball he rolled over to the second baseman. No matter what the majority of the time Phillips still looked joyful on the baseball field, then for his last couple of MLB seasons he didn’t.
MLB is the cream of the crop of the baseball world in general and the major leagues specifically. No one is about to deny that, but those same people also wouldn’t deny the grind that is present for an MLB player. Especially one who makes it to his fourteenth year and has seen his role reduced from a starter and perennial all-star candidate to a bench bat and late-inning defensive replacement. When all that you’ve known has been changed in such a massive way you’re bound to lose some of the joy you once held for your job. That’s the position Phillips found himself in come the end of the 2018 season and it seemed by all accounts that he was done with baseball after his stint with the Boston Red Sox.
In June of 2019 a press release started making the round that proclaimed Phillips would be suiting up for a four-game set with the Pacific Association’s Vallejo Admirals. Phillips did just that and those who were lucky enough to see him play saw that smile returning somewhat. He followed up those four games by signing with Diablos Rojos del México of Liga Mexicana de Béisbol to finish out the 2019 season. He looked good, though not completely back to his old self. Still, the baseball bug was clearly back in Phillips as with very little pro baseball being played during the Coronavirus plagued 2020 season he still found a way to get into some games for the Baseball Brilliance of the Yinzer Baseball Confederacy.
Phillips’ two-year journey through some interesting unaffiliated baseball stops demonstrated one undeniable fact, Phillips loved playing baseball. MLB may have become a less than desirable workplace, but the game of baseball still called to him. Seeing a chance to reunite with his brother, P.J. Phillips (he was the manager of the Admirals when Phillips played for them), manager for the newly unaffiliated Lexington Legends in the Atlantic League, the elder Phillips brother jumped at the chance. The catch? This time Phillips had more at stake as he wasn’t just playing or doing something fun with his brother, he was announced as part-owner of the Legends.
It was never clear just how much the 40-year-old Phillips planned to play with the Legends. He remained a part-time player, appearing in 54 of the Legends’ 120 games, mainly home games at that. He didn’t need to be a full-time player to have an impact on the Legends, in every respect. Moving past those caveats, not only was Phillips good on the field, he was clearly having a ton of fun playing baseball again.
The good on the field part took the form of a .276/.335/.507 slash line in 242 plate appearances. He hit 14 home runs, had 5 stolen bases with a SB% of 100, and walked 17 times to only 31 strikeouts. He also provided great defense all year long and when in the field was a regular highlight reel candidate. He ended up being an integral part of a Legends squad that made the playoffs and as I type this has a chance at winning the Atlantic League Championship Series due in large part to Phillips’ play during the series.
Those numbers are great, but they aren’t what stayed with me when it came to watching Phillips play this season. The big personality and smile he was known for throughout most of his career were finally completely back in Lexington. Phillips routinely interacted with fans before, during, and after games. He could be seen joking with his teammates and his brother. The joy for baseball that had personified so much of Phillips’ time in MLB had found its way back to him in a manner that shone very bright throughout the entirety of the 2021 ALPB season. Brandon Phillips renewing his love for the game of baseball and displaying that love loud and clear for all to see is yet another reason why unaffiliated ball remains the best.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – WKYT