For 18 seasons, from 1982 through 1999, Tony Phillips graced the diamonds around Major League Baseball. He was a switch-hitter who could play infield or outfield, and play every position well. He had speed and he could hit. Wherever he appeared on a major league roster, six teams in all, he was the most versatile and one of the most beloved players on the team. Phillips died on Friday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 56.
Phillips was the 10th player overall chosen in the 1978 MLB draft by the Montreal Expos. Nine of his seasons were spent with the Oakland Athletics, where he made his major league debut. Perhaps the highlight of his career was fielding a ground ball off the bat of the San Francisco Giants' Brett Butler in the 1989 World Series to give the A's a 4-0 sweep against their crosstown rivals. That play would end his tenure in Oakland.
The Detroit Tigers signed Phillips as a free agent in 1990. He was a mainstay and a fan favorite on the team for the next five seasons, hitting .281 with a .395 on base percentage and an OPS of .800. He was fondly known by Tigers fans and media as "Tony the Tiger." He scored over 500 runs in his five seasons with Detroit, and averaged 664 plate appearances in that span. He played all three outfield positions, three infield positions, and would DH in between. He hit 61 home runs and stole 70 bases during his tenure in Detroit, averaging almost 5.0 WAR per season.
Phillips probably had his best years in Detroit, including the 1993 season when he hit .313 with a .443 OBP and an .841 OPS. He only hit seven home runs that season, but he drew 132 walks and scored 113 runs. He became the first (and still the only) player to ever have 100 or more hits, walks, runs, and strikeouts in a season with less than 10 homers. He would be voted Tiger of the Year that season, and finished 16th in the American League MVP voting.
Phillips was traded at the beginning of the 1995 season to the California Angels for center fielder Chad Curtis. That was a sad day in Detroit. Phillips went on to hit 27 home runs that season in Anaheim, a career high. He would eventually play for the Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and back to Oakland at age 40 to finish his career where it all began.
Phillips finished his 18-year career as a .266/.374/.389 hitter with 160 home runs and 177 stolen bases. He played at least 97 games at eight different positions, including designated hitter. He never won an MVP, and never played any one position often enough to win a Gold Glove, nor a Silver Slugger award. He just played the game hard, and played it well for 18 seasons.
Rest in peace, Tony the Tiger.