There was the time he dared a heckler in Milwaukee to meet him behind the grandstand—"I shouldn't have done that," he admits—and then there was the time he tossed furniture around the Chicago White Sox clubhouse shouting, "We should've won this game! We could've won this game!" At times in his 14-year major league career Tony Phillips has had to be restrained from going after pitchers Scott Erickson and Frank Viola because they had hit him with pitches, and a whole list of umpires because of sundry slights, real and imagined. Now the question is no longer if Phillips's temper will flare, but when. 'After he makes an out, you just wait for all the noises and the bats to start exploding when he goes back to the dugout," says Minnesota Twins designated hitter Paul Molitor. "Things just start slamming."
Maybe the catalyst will be a strike call that Phillips doesn't agree with. Maybe it'll be a comment made by a catcher or an umpire telling him to get back into the batter's box. Pretty soon Phillips's face will be twitching like Travis Bickle's did in Taxi Driver.
On May 29, in the 10th game of his second tour with the Angels, Phillips displayed signs that a tantrum was imminent after failing to reach base in his first two at bats against the Oakland Athletics. By Phillips's fourth plate appearance, the Angels' dugout was on red alert. After Phillips swung at a pitch that nosedived out of the strike zone and he wheeled to see that the catcher had held on for the strikeout, he took a roundhouse swipe at his bat and angrily slapped it to the ground. He left it there and growled.
The crowd behind the visitors' dugout was hectoring him now. When Phillips got back to the dugout and paused on the top step, Anaheim outfielder Tim Salmon says, "my first thought was, Uh-oh, somebody get him before he snaps." Another teammate, Eddie Murray, said, "Come on, Tony. Get back in the dugout."
But Phillips stayed put and grinned crazily at the hecklers. "I'm a what? I'm a what?" he shouted. As the Angels' Darin Erstad batted, Phillips's exchanges with the spectators became louder and more animated. Just when no one was sure what he might do—scramble onto the dugout roof? Make a beeline to confront his antagonists?—Phillips raised his right hand and turned his palm skyward. Then he pursed his lips and bowed at the waist and blew the fans a kiss.
Sunday marks the five-week anniversary of Phillips's return to the Angels, whom he helped whip-crack and cajole to the brink of the 1995 American League West title before they collapsed in the final weeks of the season and lost a one-game playoff to the Seattle Mariners. Not coincidentally, Phillips is calling his return a chance to sew up "unfinished business," such as bringing a pennant to Anaheim.
To many baseball observers Phillips is both the best leadoff hitter in the league and an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle stuffed inside a powder keg. He has not only a temper but also a penchant for saying whatever he thinks, no matter whom it offends or how much trouble it may get him in. As Molitor puts it, "He's the Charles Barkley of baseball. I can't think of anyone who's more direct."
If you ask the White Sox why they traded Phillips on May 18, they'll insist that his volatility had nothing to do with the decision—they just needed to make room for some young outfielders and wanted to bolster their pitching staff by adding lefthanded setup man Chuck McElroy, whom they received along with catcher Jorge Fabregas for Phillips and catcher Chad Kreuter. But ask Phillips why he was dealt, and he says, "[Manager] Terry Bevington and I didn't like each other. He's in way over his head."
Phillips's off-the-field persona is nothing like his hell-bent-for-glory approach to baseball. He's a snarl of contradictions, but he's also one of the most approachable guys you'll ever meet. "I love the guy like a brother," says White Sox second baseman Ray Durham.
At 38 Phillips has been in pro baseball long enough to have been traded for Willie Montanez, but he has more bounce in his step than most of the Angels' batboys. He's got a distinctive, cackling laugh, a high-pitched squeak of a voice and a friendly habit of tapping you on the forearm or knee when he's getting to the good part of one of his stories. He's a devoted family man who scurries to his Scottsdale, Ariz., home on off days to visit his wife, Debi, and her 12-year-old daughter, Selina. Though he can effect one of the most maniacal glares in the game, his expressive black eyes crinkle with delight when he hears a good joke. "He's a real treat, a scream and a half," says Sparky Anderson, who was Phillips's manager with the Detroit Tigers from 1990 to '94.