For some reason, whenever I think of Brandon Phillip’s legacy with the Cincinnati Reds, I think of then-Astro Jonathan Villar sliding face first into Phillips’ posterior. Not the between the leg flips, not the 30/30 season, not even the social media preening and local media bans–my mind is stuck on an innocuous tag that took a slight turn for the comical.
Phillips, for all of his bluster, continually embodied unadulterated joy on the field during his time with the Reds. He endeared so many Reds fans to himself through his smile, through his antics, through his willingness to be a human as much as an athlete. DatDudeBP played the game in exclamation points, shifting their meaning from wonder to outrage and back at the drop of a hat. The Villar slide more than anything demonstrates how Phillips made the game fun for everyone involved, taking an accidental goof and making it into a sticking point for those of us who loved him.
By accepting what amounted to a release with a specific destination last week, Phillips concluded his time in Cincinnati in probably the least ostentatious way possible. Maybe aging allowed him to add grace to his theatrical quiver or maybe he was simply tired of fighting. Either way, Brandon Phillips’ trade to the Atlanta Braves brings to a close his tenure in the least dramatic way possible. If anything, it was the smallness of the move that gave the ending the appropriate flourish.
Brandon Phillips joined the Reds in 2006, traded from the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named later (eventually Jeff Stevens). The very next year, Phillips went 30/30, with 30 home runs and 32 stolen bases. While he never even sniffed either of those marks again, Phillips was named to three All-Star teams during the Reds renaissance of 2010-2013. He won four Gold Glove awards, one Silver Slugger, and sniffed MVP consideration twice during his Reds career, anchoring the right side of the infield while the left cycled through a revolving door of shortstops and third basemen.
More than anything though, Brandon Phillips was known for his wizardry with the glove. There was the between the legs flip, the between the legs double play flip, the behind the back double play, the high five glove out (wait, wrong person’s glove). Phillips had such a knack for the extraordinary that he managed to convince a large section of the fanbase that he wasn’t a liability at the plate.
And that’s what makes him so hard to write about. More polarizing than any other Reds player of his era (Chapman starting vs. relieving debate aside), Phillips forced baseball fans to reckon with the nuance of humanity. Through social media, through his happiness, through his displeasure, Brandon continually reminded us that he was a sentient human being as much as he was a professional. No debate about Phillips’ legacy has ever ignored his personality, usually for the worst.
But Phillips’ joy should be celebrated too. In some way, Brandon Phillips and Cincinnati Reds fans have taught me what humanity means. That a person should approach their work with a smile and a laugh every single day, engage with the people who look up to them as much as they can, and be stubborn for what you believe.
On that last point, there may be some contention because Brandon usually picked the wrong battles. A contract war with Joey Votto, playing time as he aged, his relationship with the media–none of these made him look good from the outside. But there’s something to be said for sticking by your beliefs. Phillips’ pigheadedness, despite annoying a sect of Reds fans, has likely earned him entrance into the team’s Hall of Fame and a favorable trade to his hometown.
And then there’s the Cardinals brawl, a decision by Phillips that I will defend to this day. Yes, it may have ended Jason LaRue’s career, and yes, it was objectively stupid, but it made the rivalry exciting for three or four years. I always looked forward to Cardinals’ games and still love going to Busch Stadium now because of the sheer anger St. Louisians feel toward DatDude. I always make a point to wear my #4 jersey as well, just to watch the Midwestern “niceness” fly out the window.
Brandon Phillips is the only second baseman I’ve ever known, and to some extent, that makes his farewell impossible to stomach. Baseball is a business and happiness doesn’t usually mean a smart economic decision, but I guarantee Phillips’ joy brought at least one extra fan to the stadium each game.
Leaving Cincinnati as one of the best second basemen in team history is no small feat, but in this day and age of farewell tours and grand cinematic gestures of love, it seems anti-climatic. Brandon may not have received the love of the city on his way out the door, but he certainly deserved it, rebuild or not.