He wasn't a full-time major leaguer until 1983, and it was while playing for Oakland, with whom he went to the World Series in '88 and '89, that he learned the nuances of the game from teammates like Joe Morgan and Davey Lopes and Dusty Baker. He loved Carney Lansford's grit, Dave Stewart's tenacity and Dave Parker's giant-sized personality and insouciance. Phillips has always been a switch-hitter with power, and his exaggerated crouch stance and the way he cocks his front leg to time the pitcher were lifted from Rickey Henderson. "They were all very different people," Phillips says of the A's who influenced him, "but the one thing they all had in common was they played hard."
Though Phillips has never had Henderson's speed, he has a talent for coaxing walks, getting under people's skin and rattling pitchers. By the time he left Oakland and signed as a free agent with Detroit in 1990, he had begun to put his talent, his skills and his knack for psychological warfare together. But even after his breakthrough seasons (1990 to '94) in Detroit, during which he averaged .281 with 12 homers, 62 RBIs and a .476 on-base percentage, Phillips still felt he didn't get enough respect, especially after 1995, when the Angels snubbed him. "Sparky Anderson always told me, 'Never cheat the game; don't ever cheat the game,' " says Phillips. "I thought by '95 I had done everything the game had asked me to do. When no one seemed to want me, I was crushed. I was bitter. When I got to spring training, the feeling didn't go away. Finally I called my wife and said, 'Honey, I'm coming home.' "
Within 24 hours his former teammate Baker, who by then had become the manager of the San Francisco Giants, visited him in Scottsdale. Laughing now, Phillips says, "I went through my little angry speech: 'I'm tired of this! Forget it, that's it, I quit. I'm through.' Dusty got about an inch from my face, looked me right in the eye and said, 'Listen you little black militant mother——, it ain't about you. Baseball ain't about you.' I said, 'But Dusty, man, they didn't give me any respect!' And Dusty—oh, he was awesome—he screamed, 'Respect? They didn't give Hank Aaron respect, and he hit 755 home runs!' Then he said, 'Look, Tony, don't you see? You've come full circle. You should be having the time of your life now because you don't need the game anymore. You did it. You made it. Now think of those kids on the White Sox. I know God didn't give you all that talent and all that knowledge to take it to the hills and keep it to yourself.' "
And? "I told myself, He's right!" Phillips says.
But, wait, Phillips is asked, are you saying you want to be a role model?
Phillips sits back and says, "You got it." Then he smiles that crazy, happy, giddy, scary smile of his. Uh-oh.