Put Phillips in a big league game or dugout or locker room, however, and he becomes, he concedes, "someone else." He swaggers. He cusses. He spits and yells and fights. Though he is only 5'10" and 175 pounds, Phillips doesn't hesitate to storm after whoever is annoying him—sometimes because he feels provoked, sometimes because he's just having a bad day. His tendency to turn the most innocuous remarks about him into personal motivation is almost Jordanesque. After making an out in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 25, Phillips threw things around the dugout until he caught some Blue Jays players giggling at him. He bounded to the top step and screamed, "What the hell are you looking at?"
"Look," Phillips says, "even I don't know when this stuff is going to happen." Debi says, "I watch all of his games on satellite TV. When something happens, it's never long before the phone rings, and it's him saying, i couldn't help it. I had to do it. They just made me so mad.' "
Despite his unpredictability, Phillips is respected by his peers. Both Bevington and Anaheim skipper Terry Collins say the same thing: With Kenny Lofton now playing for the Atlanta Braves in the National League, no one else in the American League rivals Phillips's ability to wreak havoc. Through Sunday, Phillips was hitting .285, with an on-base percentage of .412, and his 53 walks ranked fifth in the league. Since rejoining the Angels, he has started at five positions—DH, leftfield, rightfield, second base and third base. At week's end Anaheim was 18-14 with Phillips in the lineup and was averaging 5.78 runs per game, up from 5.00 before his arrival. "Tony is one of those guys who always seems to start big innings," says Collins. "He's got this fiery attitude that's contagious. Every day he gives you everything he's got."
Despite Phillips's career-high 27 homers and 119 runs scored in 1995, Angels management didn't attempt to keep him when his $4.36 million contract expired after the season. Bitterly disappointed, Phillips took the only offer he received—a two-year, $3.6 million deal with the White Sox.
His one-plus season in Chicago was stormy, even by his standards. Last year he averaged almost a flare-up a month. During 1996 spring training he announced his retirement, then returned to the Sox 48 hours later and refused to discuss why he had left. In May, during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, he changed into street clothes after being removed in the sixth inning. Then he left the clubhouse and got into a fistfight behind the outfield grandstand with a 23-year-old spectator who had been riding him. In June he was tossed from back-to-back games in Seattle for arguing a called third strike.
In his worst moment this season he was tossed out by home plate umpire John Shulock just three pitches into an April 21 game against the New York Yankees after Shulock warned him not to step out of the batter's box. Following the ejection, Phillips charged Shulock, but he was restrained by three members of the White Sox. American League president Gene Budig suspended Phillips for two games. Phillips went ballistic, telling reporters that Budig, a former University of Kansas president, was "a bookworm" who didn't understand the game the way a former player would. Then Phillips, who is African-American, suggested that Budig, who is white, was racist; he pointed out that Budig also had suspended him for three games in 1995 for fighting with Kansas City Royals catcher Mike McFarlane but did not suspend McFarlane, who is white.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (page 76) called Phillips's racism charges "out of line," and 13 days later Phillips was traded.
When asked if he regrets his remarks about Budig, Phillips scowls and says, "No. Hell, no. No, no, no, no, no." He does add, "I don't know if Gene Budig is a racist or not. I haven't talked to him. But I've been doing the same things for 12, 13 years. Then Budig comes in, and all of a sudden I'm a villain, a loose cannon, a thug?"
To understand Phillips's stubbornness, it's important to know where he comes from. His place in baseball was hardly secure during his first 10 pro seasons. He didn't sign a big-money contract until 1990, when he was 30. As a kid he was a five-sport letterman at Roswell (Ga.) High before the Montreal Expos took him in the 1978 draft.
"You know what my lifelong problem is?" Phillips says, laughing. "I've always had Little Man's disease. Your whole life people tell you that you can't do this, you can't do that. I always thought, Oh, yeah? Well, I'll show you, you so-and-so. I didn't have a chip on my shoulder—it was a chunk. When I went to my first spring training with Montreal, a coach looked at me and said, 'Get me a towel.' I said, 'What? I ain't no towel boy. I'm a player. I'm a ballplayer!' "