Phillips making himself right at home with Braves

May 27, 2017
  • By Steve Hummer
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In the small office of his baseball training center in Stone Mountain, James Phillips goes life-size with the posters of his son, Braves second baseman Brandon, and daughter Porsha. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Brandon Phillips really needs to pick up his game. Admittedly, he has been slacking off. Not giving his all. Disappointing the fans.

Even his mother is on his case.

“Since I’ve been here,” said the second baseman who joined the Braves this spring, “I haven’t been on Twitter as much as I want to. My mom said, ‘You got to get back on Twitter like you normally do. The Braves fans would love to see how you talk and how you interact with them.’ That’s something I need to get back doing.”

That is the thoroughly modern Phillips — otherwise known as @DatDudeBP. He’s the player who started riding the social-media wave when it was a building ripple and now has more than 1.1 million followers to feed, 140 characters at a time. That’s more than the Braves team site (1 million). Yet considerably less than the Angels’ Mike Trout (2.25 million), for those of you keeping score at home.

SEE PHOTOS OF PHILLIPS IN HIGH SCHOOL

It’s a minefield out there in social media, each keystroke a potential detonation. Phillips doesn’t care. He’ll engage when needed, and play that game as hard as the one that pays him millions. Putting himself out there with the fans, after all, had made him one of the more popular players in Cincinnati during his 11 seasons with the Reds. He likes to connect.

“A lot of people can hide behind computers about many things. But myself, I am who I am,” he said.

When Phillips agreed to a trade from the Reds back to his hometown this spring — an emergency acquisition when the Braves lost utility infielder Sean Rodriguez to an auto accident — he arrived as an already major league-made man. The ingredients that went into the making were richly diverse.

He is a combination of contemporary attitude and the ageless appreciation of consistency. That is apparent in the way he plays.

It’s the thoroughly modern Phillips — the one who was encouraged to throw himself into the Twitter abyss by the voluble and volatile receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson in Cincinnati — who occasionally will go out of his way to make a play at second look like modern dance. Flair, they call it when the play results in an out, or two.

When explaining himself, this Phillips is the one who will dare speak blaspheme in a baseball clubhouse.

“Baseball is boring to me,” he said. (Insert gasps here)

“I got to do something to make me come to the field and play this game every day. I can’t just do the fundamentally sound thing every time. I do it, but I also add a little flair to it. I just feel like baseball is boring to me, compared to basketball and football.”

Thus, the young shortstop working to Phillips’ right may expect feeds from any angle, apogee and velocity — including the behind-the-back flip he broke out this spring against Detroit that triggered a double play.

“I know (the feed from his second baseman) comes from different places. It seems flashy, but honestly he works on it,” Dansby Swanson said. “By his preparation and by him doing it a lot, it makes it easy on you because he puts it right there where it’s supposed to be.” Four Gold Glove awards, his last in 2013, would seem to confirm the Phillips approach.

As Dusty Baker, his longtime manager in Cincinnati, now the man in Washington, said, “Flair doesn’t bother me, even stylin’ doesn’t bother me. But you better be able to play if you’re going to have some flair and style or it’s nothing more than just clownin’. Brandon was one of my favorite dudes over there.”

The same fellow who took communication advice from a football player who named himself Ochocinco and who is such a proponent of flashy fielding learned parts of his game from one of the most old-school sources you’ll ever meet.

At 64, James Phillips is not given to a lot of foolishness, despite the ready, wide smile that he obviously passed down to his major league son. His idea of a good time is sweating like the ringmaster of a five-ring circus, fast-walking between the cages of the little baseball training center that has taken root in Stone Mountain, trying to turn children into baseball players.

Last Monday, hitting his 200th career home run off the Pirates, Brandon became the 48th man in human history to pair power and speed effectively enough to hit at least 200 homers and steal at least 200 bases.

And where was dad at that moment? Not with other family members at SunTrust Field. He was at the Phillips Baseball Center, listening to the game on the radio while telling his other kids — related only by baseball — to level their swings and wait on the pitch and assorted other timeless truisms.

He took a quick break to text his son as soon the ball left the new park. “It’s a dream come true,” he typed.

The training center grew out of Brandon’s need for a dry place to work on his game in the offseason (see, the fundamentals do complement the flash). In 2008 he bought the former auto-detail shop, outfitted it with a cage and a place to take ground balls. Rather than let the building sit fallow for most of the year, James began taking in a few young pupils, passing along the methods he picked up while raising three baseball players — and, to complete the athletic family portrait, his daughter Porsha, who played basketball at Georgia and in the WNBA.

“Next thing you know more people, more people, more people,” Brandon said. “And we started making the building a little bit bigger, bigger and bigger.”

With word of mouth its only form of marketing, the Phillips center stays amply busy. “(Brandon) wants me to stop, but I get a lot of energy from it,” James said.

The Phillips Baseball Center will be closed next weekend. All the kin are traveling to Cincinnati, for the Braves’ first game there since the former Redan High star was dealt back home.

It was with the Reds that Phillips established himself as an All Star-level infielder, developing a broad fan base and taking up residence in multiple top-10 career categories for a franchise that has been around since the ball was made of dinosaur hide. Meaty categories like games played, plate appearances, runs, hits, RBIs, total bases.

He can visit his money while he’s there, too. So anxious were the Reds get younger and to move Phillips, who turns 36 next month, they are paying $13 million of his $14 million salary this year.

For that and a couple of marginal minor league pitchers, the Braves obtained a still-skilled second baseman with a career .275 batting average and .742 OPS. In the last year of his contract, Phillips is performing above that level, hitting .303 with a .784 OPS as of mid-week.

And to think his dad was severely chapped when his son turned down the chance to play football and baseball at Georgia, and signed instead with the Montreal Expos in 1999 as a second-round draft pick. “He told me he wanted to play baseball and he was going to be in the big leagues in three to four years,” James said. He debuted with the Cleveland Indians three years later; by which time his father had swallowed the last bit of disappointment in not getting to see his boy play ’tween the hedges.

But it wasn’t until Phillips was dealt to Cincinnati for the infamous player to be named later in 2006 that he really gained traction in the majors. Paul Daugherty, who has written newspaper columns in the Queen City for the last quarter century or so, called Phillips the best defensive infielder he’d seen pass through town. The work he had invested all the way back to his youth in Stone Mountain — “He practiced before he went to prom; he practiced before he went to (high school) graduation,” his father said — began paying off in consistently productive offense.

As the calendar turned and the Reds produced younger options, Phillips found himself in the position of fending off trades to stay in Cincinnati. Until the February day when he popped into his parents’ house wearing a Braves cap, his way to telling them he had OK’d a deal to come home.

Phillips is downplaying the return to Cincinnati, which doesn’t make for great Twitter heat, but is likely the smart play.

“It will be pretty fun,” he shrugged.

To date, Phillips considers his return to Atlanta better than even he imagined. “Regardless of what happens after this season, or during this season, whatever, I’ve made my dream come true,” he said.

As more young talent here — namely Ozzie Albies — pushes from behind, there is no certainty about Phillips’ place on this roster this season and beyond. To hear his one-time manager, now a divisional foe, talk, there should be plenty of tread left on the tire for seasons to come.

“He’s still in his prime,” Baker insisted. “Brandon Phillips can still get a clutch base hit when you need it, still steal you a base, still play great second base. With that body and how he takes care of himself, he can play until 40 and beyond.”

And once Phillips rehabs that Twitter account, he’ll be fully functional and ready to roll into whatever the future holds.